March 21, 2011

Winning the Information War With Al Jazeera

Hillary Clinton recently found herself providing a credibility boost to Al Jazeera, and not in a general sense.

Trying to leverage their unique coverage of revolution in the Muslim world, officials from the news organization’s fledgling English channel spent the last month pitching themselves to U.S. cable providers, including Comcast, Time Warner, and Cablevision. The 24-hour channel is only available in roughly three million households, with partial airings on Link TV (provided by Direct TV). And despite Al Jazeera’s accelerated online growth, cable companies remain on the fence as to whether the channel is viable in the long-term. Clinton’s words should help change their minds if they want to flourish in the new media age.

But the debate over Al Jazeera extends far beyond its quality versus the quality of U.S. news, as supporters of both sides tend to gravitate around. Only twenty years ago “the CNN effect” of America’s vast media apparatus was considered critical to shaping domestic and global perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. Now, as more Americans tune to international news out of necessity - not just for a wider opinion - at one point does America’s media become a strategic liability?

What about right now?

Clinton’s statements obviously didn’t play well with U.S. media officials; representatives from CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC declined comment for days after she addressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 2nd. And their point of view is partially understandable from a business angle. In their eyes Clinton hit below the belt when she deemed them “fake news,” true or not.

“In fact viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news,” she told Senators. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”

The media’s collective reaction, however, reveals the exact illness plaguing U.S. news organizations and cable providers. Somewhat surprising is how quickly Clinton’s venue became an afterthought in the ensuing controversy. She hadn't sidetracked a random function or condemned America’s media before a group of journalists, but outlined national priorities to Congress. And a diamond of truth lies concealed in her remarks. “We are engaged in an information war and we are losing that war,” she warns, and information warfare is a vital component of fourth-generation warfare (4GW).

4GW, which splices the political and military, government and civilian beyond separation, also happens to be the type of warfare America faces in its current wars, proxy wars, and near-term threats. And media executives tend to make poor 4GW analysts.

Fox News Channel's Michael Clemente, senior vice president for news, provided an example of ignorance by breaking silence: "We've got leadership issues there, the safety of people, the safety of our own people. Some big issues. All of a sudden there are headlines about Al Jazeera versus the news in this country? It's just surprising. Curious more than surprising."

Spoken like someone not just on the defensive, but holding a weak grasp of 4GW and the significance of perceptions. U.S. news is consumed globally, not nationally, and should be produced as such. Like Al Jazeera.

The state of U.S. media during a historic period like the 2010s is a big issue, and finding an answer is Washington’s problem. America's mainstream media has stumbled into a business environment that it doesn’t fully understand - bad business as it is. Now executives are forced to make political decisions on the Middle East’s long-term trajectory, despite their own news organizations' struggles to keep up with events. Believing Al Jazeera English may be perceived as a “niche” channel and concerned that Americans will eventually lose interest, they ask whether the revolutionary spirit will subside over the year or surge across the decade.

“This is strictly a business decision,” says a Comcast source.

But Al Jazeera isn’t just business if the White House has to get its news overseas. Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, argues with good reason, “we’re watched by the president, by the White House; why are we not being seen by people across the United States of America that want to watch us?”

At a time when the global information war assumes a national priority, the U.S. media has become a disadvantage in projecting America’s foreign policy at home and abroad. Al Jazeera English is no temporary fad, and the Muslim world’s monumental shift towards democracy and expression will produce far reaching effects in space and time. After spiking near CNN levels (the highest ranked U.S. news source online), Al Jazeera's website traffic in America returned to a stable level below major sites like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Time. However America still supplies 17% of Al Jazeera's online views, roughly equivalent to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria combined, placing the site within the U.S. mainstream. It has also pulled near Fox News.

If worst comes to worst, what’s so wrong with a “niche” channel that provides educational benefits? And why are capitalists suddenly afraid of a little competition? Diversity and outside opinion aren’t supposed to be negative influences in a free society.

On the up side, the Middle East and North Africa could be resetting after hundreds of years of colonial intervention, a process that might span a number of decades. And Al Jazeera is poised to capitalize on this historic period, having generated a mutual network by bridging the West and Muslim world. The U.S.'s media lag is becoming more pronounced because, even as it learns another language, it cannot surpass Al Jazeera’s inherent multilingualism and cultural awareness. This disadvantage also leaves no time for the U.S. media to delay expanding their operations, programming, and understanding of the Muslim world.

Clinton doesn’t sound any happier about the current state of U.S. media than Fox News. She isn't catering to the left; on the contrary, she believes Al Jazeera’s rise has forced America’s hand in states that conservatives wish to leave alone (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen). Grim in delivering her assessment and repeating the phrase “love or hate it,” Clinton simplified the information war as “us or them.” America is “losing that war” - and “Al Jazeera is winning.”

This is the wrong way of thinking.

She then speaks correctly when arguing of the Muslim world, “I mean we think they know us and reject us, I would argue the really don’t know very much about who we are.” While Al Jazeera isn't free of viewing the information war as a polarity, and its parent network’s programming often targets U.S. policy, its core philosophy also aims to share information with America and Europe. This is key to why Western populaces increasingly perceive Al Jazeera English as friendly, whereas the Muslim world perceives the U.S. media as hostile.

In contrast to America's current media blanket, a diverse media and educated populace favors U.S. national interests, and Al Jazeera can assist in this regard. More informed voters elect more qualified officials, then hold them accountable, a process that theoretically translates to sounder policy at home and abroad (maybe that’s part of the push-back against Al Jazeera).

Furthermore, the U.S. media must represent a deeper portrait of American society, and encourage information and cultural exchange with the Muslim world. Although wars cannot be prevented simply by “winning” the information battle, familiarization can help reduce political and social friction that enables conflict between two cultures. The objective should be to humanize instead of dehumanize. To illuminate the unknown.

“We cannot live in a world where a story like Egypt - which has consequences for the whole world - is unfolding and your audience doesn't know anything about it or enough about it,” says Abderrahim Foukara, Al Jazeera's Washington bureau chief.

Can U.S. foreign policy survive in this world? And most importantly, do Americans want to live in it?

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