“Tense Scenes in Arab Newsrooms Right Now”

About those leaked cables that point to, as the New York Times puts it, “a largely silent front of Arab states whose positions on sanctions and a potential attack [on Iran] looked much like Israel’s”? (Cut off the head of the snake and all that)? They “certainly support the argument we have heard over and over again that the leaders of Gulf Arab countries want the United States to take a tougher line in dealing with Iran,” noted the Council on Foreign Relations’s James Lindsay during an online Q&A with Washington Post readers earlier today. Lindsay continued: “The politically relevant point is that these leaders are not saying the same thing to their publics. One interesting thing to follow is how the news media in these countries report the WikiLeaks story.”

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy is doing just that. Writes Lynch:

[T]hus far, most of the mainstream Arab media seems to be either ignoring the Wikileaks revelations or else reporting it in generalities, i.e. reporting that it’s happening but not the details in the cables. I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints. Al-Jazeera may feel the heat the most, since not covering it (presumably to protect the Qatari royal family) could shatter its reputation for being independent and in tune with the “Arab street”. So far, the only real story I’ve seen in the mainstream Arab media is in the populist Arab nationalist paper al-Quds al-Arabi, which covers the front page with a detailed expose focused on its bete noir Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the details are all over Arabic social media like Facebook and Twitter, blogs, forums, and online-only news sites like Jordan’s Ammon News. This may be a critical test of the real impact of Arabic social media and the internet: can it break through a wall of silence and reach mass publics if the mass media doesn’t pick up the story?

The LA Times’s Meris Lutz, too, is watching Al Jazeera, among others, and writes:

Headlines in the heavily state-controlled Saudi media were dominated by news of King Abdullah’s ongoing physiotherapy, while the top story in the Emirati newspaper, Al Bayan, centered on Prince Mohamad bin Rashid’s praise for the country’s progress toward “transparency.” Most mentions of the WikiLeaks documents in official Arabic news outlets were scrubbed of any reference to the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, focusing instead on U.S. attempts to control the damage to its diplomatic relations.

Even the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, considered one of the most credible pan-Arab news outlets, tread lightly in its coverage and generally refrained from repeating the most incendiary quotes from the heads of neighboring states.

(I see that this report from Al Jazeera English includes a few of these “incendiary quotes” along with the general observation that, per the cables, “Arab countries seem prone to criticise Iran when meeting with US.”)

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.