Tuesday, July 10, 2007

EPIC Guest Blogger: Jessica Guiney on "Mission Al Jazeera"

Mission Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World, the title of a new book by U.S. Marine Cpt. (ret.) Josh Rushing, definitely captured my attention right off. As I read through his experience working in the U.S. Central Command media office in Iraq, Josh's story opened my eyes to a new “front” in the Iraq war that isn’t debated nearly as much as soldiers, tanks, and weapons: the media.

Josh’s perspective is particularly insightful because he was there. As a military spokesman to media outlets around the world, he was the officer in charge of engaging the largest Arab media outlet:
Al Jazeera Arabic. He believes this channel is not meant to undermine or attack anyone, but is instead an important voice in the Arab world.

Unfortunately, military and political leaders have taken a very hands-off and at times even hostile approach towards Al Jazeera. That’s why Josh –- an officer with no expertise in Arab culture or language -– became the face of the West to the 35-55 million viewers across the Arab world during the current Iraq war. Based on the cultural experience he gained from working with Al Jazeera reporters, he considers the U.S. failure to truly work with the Arab media a huge strategic mistake. It is also a failure in a larger war of information, ideas, and explanations about the U.S. role in the Arab world.

That’s part of the reason why Josh works for Al-Jazeera English today. He truly believes that misunderstandings, and particularly cultural misunderstandings, fuel ongoing conflict.

Al Jazeera English launched in November of 2006, and is viewed in 100 million homes worldwide. Yet only Ohio and Vermont have picked up the channel in the United States. Thus most of America is missing out on a new model for international news that is building a bridge between cultures by having local people report on their issues to an international audience. Viewers in America wouldn’t get an American perspective on Iraq; they’d hear from Iraqi journalists.

Sometimes this might be difficult. As Josh noticed, Al Jazeera videos can be disturbing to watch because they provide a more accurate portrayal of war realities than what we’re used to seeing in the United States.

This is part of what Josh describes as getting to the “Ground Truth.” That's where, by listening to those closest to the issues, you can start to reach a truly substantive debate. Even solutions.

While Josh writes honestly about mistakes in Iraq, he also has hope for the future. A lot of people in the military and political realm want to better utilize, understand, and work with the media. And, he points out, Americans want to become better informed about the world around them. Modern technology makes building these bridges of information possible, so people can see, hear, and try to understand the Ground Truth.

And, as we get closer to the Ground Truth and push the debate deeper, we may even be able to change the world.


Anonymous said...

I think a big part of the problem is that the American media itself has given the American public a very negative impression of Al Jazeera. There is a travesty that many people only know Al Jazeera as the outlet Osama used to broadcast his various threats to the Western world, some even think that Al Queda owns the station!

Anonymous said...

It is not just Al Jazeera, the US is always reluctant to embrace foreign media outlets, even those like the BBC. At least partly I think this is because foreign TV programs are less polished than the American networks.
In reality the standard for news should be substance and accuracy, unfortunately our modern media leans more towards entertainment and flash guided by advertising dollars.
I think we're looking at a much deeper problem.

Geoff Schaefer said...

Anonymous - both of you!

I think the points are spot on. It's definitely a much bigger issue than is currently being framed. But then again, who usually frames these issues for us? The media. Talk about conflict of interest.

Although I'm not too worried about it. Online news sources are becoming a more and more credible outpost for reliable, accurate, frill-free news. So, if the televised news isn't doing it for you anymore, AL Gore's internets may be able to help out.

And although we have some issues to work out with our current media format, I would be careful not to use BBC (I know this wasn't your argument) as an example. After 20 minutes of the BBC, I feel my mind becoming numb while all my senses systematically shut down.

Point is - we need a balance. Al Jazeera has a mountain of stereotypes to circumvent but hopefully it will eventually become a great and accepted perspective on the "ground truth."

Best of luck Rushing.

Jessica Guiney said...

I was actually lucky enough to hear Josh speak on his book just last week, and according to him the reasoning behind US media outlets not carrying more international news is a lack of demand for it. However – and I tend to agree with him on this – I think most people do want to know what’s going on in the world, but want more than spinning headlines, depressing news, and surface level banter. I know when I look through news, what I’m really searching for is ways to help me understand what is “really going on.” Yet, those who own media outlets and are in charge of marketing might not always see, hear, or believe this demand will bring them an audience.

Anonymous said...

The average person only reads the headlines and maybe the first paragraph. Sorry, that's my opinion.

Geoff Schaefer said...

I could definitely see there not being too much of a demand for it. Or not enough to justify it.

Think about it though, how many Fox news loyalists are going to rely on "foreign" media outlets to give them their news? And CNN watchers may be more apt to take a good look at an international news outlet, but they're already loyal to CNN.

Meanwhile, MSNBC plays clean up in the back, satisfying the rest of the news junkies, leaving only a small minority stridently holding out for something else.

I think with time, a more international approach to news will be more common place in the US. But loyalty issues, and comfort with a consistent aesthetic format, definitely hinder that progress.

Jessica Guiney said...

About only reading a headline/first paragraph...

Why do you think it is that people only skim through it?

Sometimes I wonder if it isn't just a vicious circle, where people skim the surface - and so it's just the surface that's provided.

I think there are a lot of good places and organizations that give people information in a number of formats, and that allow them to explore issues more deeply. Like EPIC's Ground Truth interviews, which actually give the reader a sense of a) what is actually going on at the ground level, b) what these ground level workers think about it, and c)what might be done better or how the debate can be moved forward.

I attend a pretty average state college, and - to the comment about the "average person" only reading headlines, I sort of agree. I don't notice people demanding news...but I do notice people demanding answers and information.

And, to clarify Josh Rushing's stance - he tends to think people do want more information about the world, and that whatever tendency towards looking away dissolved on 9/11.

Perhaps, it's not a question of what people demand, either, but a responsibility to our country. Leads us to a larger question of whether the media is responsible for giving people what they "demand" or if it's the media's job to demand that people pay attention to important issues they might otherwise ignore.

Geoff Schaefer said...

I think the vicious cycle may be more hypocritical in nature. Let me explain.

I attend a fairly average (at best) state school as well and I don't see people demanding news either. I see a majority, who are supposed to be entrenched in debate at an academic institution, at this most wonderful time in their lives, waning in their concern for solutions to our world's problems.

While news is definitely not demanded, solutions and answers barely register either. Cynicism has an increasingly stronger foothold on my campus, allowing for a yearning for answers, but dismissing any effort to provide them.

For whatever reasons that may be, I think the media is taking too much of the blame. How many people voted in the last American Idol contest? More than the last Presidential election right? And while I definitely agree with Jessica in that the media should have more of a responsibility to guide us towards more important and intellectually demanding programming, it seems to be America's interests just aren't there.

In today's programming, most of the truly smart and insightful shows, whether they be news-based programs, or fictional drama, tend to have a shortened shelf-life.

The media may hold a responsibility, but when they do come through, we don't back them up too well. So who is to blame? Where do we go from here?

Hard questions that the newly emerging electronic and self-produced journalism potentially could hold answers for. But then again, this emergent media is being guided and comprised of the average Joe - the same Joe that just voted for Jordin Sparks.

Anonymous said...

Most people don't even have the attention span to read through the comments on this blog. I think it's unrealistic to expect U.S. stations to pick up Al Jazeera English because there would only be a small number of intellectual elites and students who would pay any attention to it. A lot of people watch the news as much for celebrity anchors - like Katie Couric - as for the news itself.

However, there might be a way to meet halfway. I think the U.S. media could do a better job drawing its facts from Al Jazeera and Arab reporters in general, but still package the information in the pretty little TV box Americans like. It wouldn't be perfect, but it might be an improvement.

Geoff Schaefer said...

I think the problem is more of the news outlets recognizing what an important story is. A lot of the more informed and intelligent views sit on the sidelines. The people who work in Iraq and are getting first-hand experience are not always reporters, thus often rendering their story unheard.

And with their stories not coming into the limelight, the current debate, with only slight modifications, persists and continues to add only irrelevant side-care banter.

I think it's an issue of the news outlets not striving for a different kind of story. They are merely seeking a different angle on the current batch of news. I really don't have an explanation or a hypothesis as to why they are not seeing the other possibilities for reporting out there, but they are definitely missing the mark.

But then again this is why EPIC exists - to bring you the news and the stories that truly enlighten, giving a much better perspective on the situation.

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