Arabs seize the ‘permission to narrate’

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The Egyptian revolution as covered by Al Jazeera (left) and Fox News (right).
Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them. . . . as Hayden White has noted in a seminal article, “narrative in general, from the folk tale to the novel, from annals to the fully realized ‘history,’ has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority.”
 
- Edward Said, Permission to Narrate (1984)

The Egyptian revolution is bringing with it countless stories about how it happened and what it means for Egypt and the Middle East. Having spent a good number of hours the past two weeks watching and marveling at Al Jazeera’s coverage, I sense that one of the stories taking shape amounts to a meta narrative about a shifting balance of media influence between the region and the United States. Just as the Egyptian revolution has liberated the Egyptian people from the grasp of a US-backed authoritarian leader and seems likely to wrench Egypt out of its nearly total reliance on US support and largesse, the Egyptian people–as covered by AlJazeera–may be bringing about a new international media order.

In a presentation before a room of about 50 people at DC’s Busboys and Poets last week, an AlJazeera reporter and anchor discussed with the audience the effect the ongoing revolution is having on the station’s reach in the US. Despite the fact that AlJazeera English is available by cable in only a small handful of US locales, its reputation and visibility have skyrocketed since January 25, mostly because Americans have been watching the live stream of the AJE broadcast on the station’s web site. As someone from the audience pointed out, the Egyptian uprising is doing for AJE what the first US Gulf war did for CNN.

So, as we watch the unfolding drama of Egyptians reclaiming their voice and destiny, we watch and are enlightened by young and extremely well-informed Arab, and in many cases Egyptian, reporters and analysts. There is no western filter of former government officials, DC think tankers, former military officers, and other US policy wonks. No, what we are now witnessing is Arabs and Egyptians, not only making their own history, but having the international stature and reach to narrate it as well.

Dan Sisken maintains the website Mideast Brief.

Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 22 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. lohdennis says:

    Far more than Mubarak departure in itself, the changing narrative is the essence of this revolution. One of these narratives is referred here by Dan. The second change in the narratives is the inability of the neocon experts, Zionist financed think tank experts and newspaper journalists to give coherent analysis. Events moved too quickly and in unexpected direction. Very few, if any , know Arabic so they couldn’t decipher what was said by the protesters and the Arab media fast enough. As Juan Cole and Rashid Khalidi poignantly pointed out at the discussion last night at Columbia, simply understanding what the protesters were chanting should have given enough clues as to the nature of the protesters’ demands. American-Jewish establishment dominated commentators had no way of spinning the story other than derogatory comments about Muslim Brotherhood etc.
    The increased need to understand Arabic firsthand is mandatory as we proceed. The Israel-dominated narrative that is fed into the Western media outlets no longer suffice. This more than anything else will tip the balance of the narrative. Al Jazeera had the Arabic-fluency advantage. Fox probably has no one who knows Arabic and certainly had no one on the ground. This is just the beginning of the change in the dominant medium.

  2. Avi says:

    Those are very good points. The problem I noticed tonight with American mainstream media, especially with local TV stations, has been their simplistic coverage. Al-Jazeera is never mentioned in those reports and talking heads are quick to praise Google, Facebook and Twitter (All American brands) for the revolution’s success.

    Still, given that younger generations get their news online, perhaps Al-Jazeera will now gain wide acceptance among North American viewers.

    As someone from the audience pointed out, the Egyptian uprising is doing for AJE what the first US Gulf war did for CNN.

    I hope that audience member realizes that there is also a significant difference between the two events and the coverage.

    During the Gulf War in 1991, CNN’s coverage relied mostly on press conferences from make-shift US military briefing rooms in tents across the region. General Schwarzkopf was a dominant figure in CNN’s coverage. And when reporters did venture out into the field, if you will, they usually stayed at one hotel as they would broadcast from the balcony. Although, on few occasions, I recall Peter Arnett having the professional integrity and intellectual curiosity to step out into the street and speak with locals.

    By contrast, Al-Jazeera entrusted the airwaves into the hands of the average protester on the street or at the square. Al-Jazeera reporters mingled with protesters, heard their stories, their dreams, their views. None of that was to be found in 1991 in CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War.

    In short, CNN functioned as a mouthpiece of the US government, while Al-Jazeera functions as the voice of the people, if you will.

    • annie says:

      the thing i remember most about the coverage of the gulf war were these animated grafts like powerpoints in motion, of the bombs dropping. it wasn’t even live filming, it was a moving graphic. like adult war cartoons.

      • Citizen says:

        It also reminded me of the young Ronald Reagan, pointing to still photos and drawings of enemy aircraft for the benefit of the US fighter and bomber pilots, his audience at the time. He was always an actor who took directions well. No wonder so many manipulative Americans think he was the greatest president in modern times.

        • MRW says:

          Actually, Citizen, he was smarter than that. Way smarter, as his letters to his wife, which served as his presidential diary (in some way), show. Reagan’s problem was getting shot; it allowed some of the mandarins who took over for him temporarily to wield their power, one of those being his VP. I found out from someone who was an intimate friend of Reagan and a WH personal adviser that when Reagan waved to the cameras from his hospital window (famous shot) he collapsed and was near death for two years. Nancy kept it all under wraps for him with Michael Deaver.

        • Citizen says:

          I see I don’t really know much about Reagan’s personal view of foreign power. I never read his letters to his wife. Did those letters reveal anything about what he thought regarding the Bittenberg Cemetary incident? Do they reveal anything about his take on the I-P situation?

        • Citizen says:

          Can we assume Reagan would have made his own Cairo speech a la Obama’s? And if he did, is it likely he would have not put it away in a closet, or ignored OP Cast Lead, or Goldstone’s report, or the plight of the Palestinians today? We know what he thought of Communism, and Fascism. What did he think of Zionism? Did even recognize it? Here’s a few clues:
          link to deseretnews.com

    • mig says:

      Avi : “During the Gulf War in 1991, CNN’s coverage relied mostly on press conferences from make-shift US military briefing rooms in tents across the region. General Schwarzkopf was a dominant figure in CNN’s coverage. And when reporters did venture out into the field, if you will, they usually stayed at one hotel as they would broadcast from the balcony.”

      ++++ I watched some time ago interview with Robert Fisk about Iraq ( there was mentioned this also ), and while he and his american news anchor dodged bullets in balcony. His fellow US news person called to his media house in US with satellite phone, and asked whats the situation here in Iraq. Obviously he would have known if he would dared to lift his head and look around a bit. But sure, making interview with some locals and asking them was out of bounds too.

    • MRW says:

      Peter Arnett got fired for going off script in that war, unfortunately. Not unlike what happened to Ashleigh Banfield.

    • RoHa says:

      If I remember rightly, CNN lied that it had the only Western jounralists in Baghdad during the 1991 war, when in fact the Guardian was printing regular stories from an Italian journalist in Baghdad.

  3. yourstruly says:

    a people writing and making their own history

    hmm,

    if it looks like, moves like and feels like a revolution

    must be one

  4. Sumud says:

    There is no western filter of former government officials, DC think tankers, former military officers, and other US policy wonks.

    Music to my ears. The US needs saving from itself every bit as much as Israel, and Al Jazeera is exactly the sort of truth-telling that can contribute to that.

    • Citizen says:

      Everybody needs to go to AJ web site and do the simple request to their cable company for AJ. Takes less than a minute. The local of the Toldeo Mudhens shouldn’t be the only area where AJ is accessible locally.

  5. Citizen says:

    “Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them…”

    Or as the wonderful expressionist artist, George Grosz said so often: “A fact is a cork.”

  6. lobewyper says:

    Dan,

    I hope you’re right about a new media order. (AJE has non-Arab reporters as well, including some Americans). The point I think you’re making is that AJ has earned a well-deserved reputation for speaking truth to power, and truth is unfortunately in short supply in the US MSM. Let’s echo your call for AJE’s full access to the US market!

  7. dbroncos says:

    Rupert Murdoch grunts and snuffles after money. If the ratings money moves towards the ‘Arab narrative’ he’ll put it on TV.

  8. There are still too many people left who have preconceived notions about Arabs and Islam, and therefore they will dismiss Al Jazeera. They do not see the networks fantastic coverage and professional standard. They don’t want to see it.

    When me and a friend talked about how Al Jazeera beat all the western networks during Egypt, another friend only replied: “Yes, but what about their position on religion?”

    It seemed from the ongoing conversation that just because the network leans on Islamic culture, it should somehow not be trusted. Sad.