Too Good to Be True?

Do local TV news viewers prefer Jim Lehrer to Kent Brockman?

Journalists, and for that matter academics, relish a good plot twist. So it’s no surprise that some commentators in the United States have latched onto a new picture of Arab journalists as friends, not foes, of western interests. Rather than being hard-core enemies of America, Arab media are “potential allies whose agenda broadly tracks the stated goals of the United States Middle East policy,” according to a new study published in this summer’s International Journal of Press/Politics and previewed in a New York Times op-ed in May. Arab journalists are “not overtly anti-American,” writes former CBS foreign correspondent Lawrence Pintak, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo and lead author of the study, who in his Times op-ed argues that they are “a valuable conduit for explaining American policy to their audiences.”

Tell that to President Bush, who in 2006 said that Arab TV is a font of “propaganda” that “isn’t fair” and “does not do our country justice.” To promote the U.S. line in the Middle East, the Bush administration tried an end run around the Arab media, establishing its own Arabic-language television network (Al Hurra—“The Free One”) broadcasting in the Middle East.

If Pintak is right, Bush’s efforts have been worse than a waste: they have “demonized” Arab journalists, would-be foot soldiers in what Pintak calls the “war of ideas against terrorism.” Most Arab journalists see themselves as responsible for driving social and political reform, according to Pintak and co-author Jeremy Ginges, a psychology professor at the New School for Social Research. They base their conclusions on a 2005–2006 survey of 601 journalists in fourteen Arab countries. Most of the respondents want their clergy out of politics, their governments clear of media control, and a change in the political status quo in their countries. Almost half describe their political philosophy as “democrat,” and a “sizeable bloc” shares America’s espoused values of political freedom, human rights, and at least some separation of church and state.

Sounds like America and the Arab world could be Facebook friends after all. Except that’s not all there is to Pintak and Ginges’s findings. For each surprising result, there’s another that qualifies their argument. Is it really good news, for example, that 62 percent of respondents have a “strongly favorable” view of Americans if 89 percent also have an unfavorable view of U.S. policies and government? And are we to believe that nearly half of Arab journalists are open to U.S. interference in the region (“if it leads to benefits” for the Arab people) when five out of six see the U.S. role as negative, and three-quarters can’t imagine that any benefit would justify American involvement in Iraq? And how likely is a fair hearing in the Middle East media, when most Arab journalists believe that the U.S. aid effort following the December 2004 Asian tsunami was insincere? Such mixed results are blurred further by the method of research. Pintak and Ginges’s survey uses terms, like “democrat,” “terrorism,” and “human rights,” too abstractly for us to be assured that they have been interpreted by respondents as they are by the authors. Nor is it clear, with repressive state control of most Arab media, that the personal opinions of the front-line journalists have much influence anyway.

The authors acknowledge that two omissions skewed their study: the exclusion of “avowedly Islamist media organizations”—many of which, such as Hezbollah’s Al Manar television, are widely popular—and the refusal of resolutely anti-American journalists to participate in the survey, fearing that Pintak and Ginges worked for American intelligence. “This survey is serving and funded by the American side, and we do not cooperate with such sides,” one Syrian journalist wrote in the margins of his uncompleted questionnaire.

Pintak and Ginges have carried out the largest survey of Arab journalists ever attempted, overcoming such obstacles as the confiscation of their surveys by Syrian guards at a security checkpoint and the public dismissal of their project in the Egyptian opposition newspaper, Al-Wafd, as a tool of Bush’s foreign policy. But it is representativeness, not size, that counts in a survey, and on this issue questions remain. While their work supports their conclusion that “the Arab media are not a monolith,” it’s still not quite a significant turn in the plot. 

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Michael Schudson & Danielle Haas write The Research Report for CJR. Schudson teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. Haas is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia.