Friday, March 28, 2003

Panoptical war
Criticism of Al-Jazeera is legitimate; the station is not objective--nor for that matter are any of the other stations covering the Iraqi conflict. The sky is thick with political agendas, conscious and unconscious. However, critics of the station should bear in mind that Al-Jazeera is the flip side to the emir of Qatar’s hosting of U.S. Central Command, and, therefore, serves as his protection in the Arab world. Even as he allows the station to play its pan-Arab line, the emir is a vital link in the American war effort.

This is the first genuine Panoptical war (from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon—“a model prison in which all inmates would be observable at all times by unseen guards,” as Reason’s Ron Bailey explained it) in the sense that this is the first crisis in which the conflict can be viewed from all sides by all categories viewers, as opposed to the 1991 Gulf war which was mainly a CNN extravaganza. Today, nobody in the West or the Arab world feels satisfied with listening to one or two media outlets or news sites. Thanks to the market, viewers have a plethora of news sources, showing all sides of the conflict, so that each viewer can autonomously develop his or her own views (even unintentionally integrating views of media outlets they despise) of the war.

This mishmash might not generate complete accuracy or objectivity (an impossibility anyway), but it could move us as close as possible under present conditions. (And how many people really care about accuracy when a war is so polarizing?) It’s also important to understand that while Al-Jazeera does indeed often act like a propaganda outlet, it has been a liberating experience for the Arab publics, providing them with higher expectations from their own media. For example, Syrian satellite, which is hardly at the cutting edge of regional television, has been forced to kick itself out of its slumber and host day-long programs on the war.

Already, Al-Jazeera has to look over its shoulder at Al-Arabiyya, a Dubai-based station, and at Al-Hayat-LBCI, a venture between Lebanese LBCI and the Saudi daily Al-Hayat. This could explain the station’s penchant for sensationalistic atrocity reporting. In time, however, Arab stations will understand that accuracy is a better magnet, and the standards by which Al-Jazeera (and others) are judged inside the Middle East will be raised.

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