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The Worst of Both Worlds

Watching what the Arab media has learned from the mainstream media at the Al Jazeera Forum.

11:00 PM, Feb 12, 2006 • By MICHAEL C. BOYER
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Doha

AS MUSLIMS marched in the streets and burned embassies last week, elites from the Arab press gathered in Doha, Qatar. The occasion was the Second Al Jazeera Forum, a conference hosted by the Arab world's most powerful television station. Interestingly, little time was spent on the cartoon controversy. Instead, the Arab world's media leaders reveled in a truly Western media tradition: They spent the week patting each other on the back.

What did they have to congratulate themselves on? Well, apparently the Arab media is more free and fair than the American media. Arab media outlets believe that although they are funded by undemocratic, unelected governments, there is no difference between themselves and their Western counterparts, which receive funding from corporate advertisers. And as for fairness, when American journalists label terrorists who kill innocent Iraqis "insurgents," well--that's proof of media bias. Ditto the use of the term "suicide bomber." These heroes, the Forum members claimed, should more rightly be referred to as mujihadeen--freedom fighters.

The conference was convened under the auspicious title, "Defending Freedom, Defining Responsibility." Yet there was no meaningful discussion of how the Arab press can do a better job of covering the region's undemocratic governments or its repressed peoples. Instead, in panel discussions modeled on those held at the World Economic Forum in Davos, high-ranking Arab journalists and academics sat in leather chairs, sipping Perrier, and blasting the U.S. media for consumerism and bias as heads in the audience nodded along in universal agreement.

The conference wasn't big on geographic diversity, either. The Forum was invitation-only and Al Jazeera executives cobbled together the guest list. I met only one Asian journalist, for instance, one Latin American, and (surprise, surprise) no Israelis. Most of the attendees were Arab or, interestingly enough, American leftists.

No American was a bigger hit than Amy Goodman, the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, an independent radio and public access television news program. Goodman spoke on a panel entitled "The Media and Power," where she told the audience that the Arab media was doing a better job than their American counterparts. American journalists, she explained, are biased against Arabs because they have been overrun by corporations, particularly defense contractors.

Goodman went on to accuse Tom Brokaw of being a war monger, pointing to his line, as bombs began falling in Baghdad at the start of the war: "In a few days we're going to own that country," he had said on air. As Goodman dropped this bombshell, gasps of shock and horror were uttered around the room.

Afterwards, even the Americans in attendance were impressed with Goodman's performance. The chief foreign editor of a prominent U.S. wire service turned to me and said, admiringly, "She was great."

When Faisal Al Kasim, a popular Al Jazeera talk show host known as "the Middle East's Larry King," told conference attendees that Americans have historically been "reluctant to learn Arabic" because they are culturally predisposed to hate Arabs, he was telling his audience exactly what they wanted to hear.



He didn't seem much interested in the fact that for 50 years Americans studied Russian, not Arabic, because of the Cold War. It's distressing to think that in some ways, the worst traits of the Western mainstream media have already rubbed off on Arabia's media elites.



Michael C. Boyer is associate editor of Foreign Policy magazine.