Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The 'Information War’ and how to fight it

Earlier this morning it was reported that Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi may be ready to step down. While the official Libyan state TV apparatus denied that any deal is in the works, it was confirmed reported that Gaddafi has approached leaders of the opposition proposing a deal in which his family would be protected, and the dictator would resign and hand over power to a transitional body in a meeting of the Libyan parliament.

Gaddafi reportedly wants immunity from domestic prosecution and a sizeable amount of cash, presumably some of the billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues Gaddafi is thought to have secreted over the last 42 years in power.

“He has too much blood on his hands,” said Mohammed Ali of the Misurata Opposition Council. “This is a mad dictator.” Later in the morning, it was reported that the Libyan National Council had generally agreed to Gaddafi’s demands if he steps down in the next 72 hours.

Clearly, a major news story — one you'll hear about everywhere later today. But what’s also unusual is the source of this news. The story didn’t break on the small screen by way of any of the American alphabet networks. It originated on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic television network that makes news by simply being what it is.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got the American media in an uproar on March 2 in her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“We are in an information war, and we are losing that war,” Clinton said. “I’ll be very blunt in that assessment. ...

“Al Jazeera is winning, the Chinese have opened a global English-language and multi-language television network, the Russians have opened up an English-language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it’s quite instructive.”

“During the Cold War, we did a great job in getting America’s message out,” she claimed. “After the Berlin Wall fell we said ‘OK, fine, enough of that — you know, we’ve done it, we’re done.’ And unfortunately we are paying a big price for it. ...

"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," she said. "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners."

Clinton said Al Jazeera’s influence in the United States has been growing “because it’s real news.” And no matter what one thinks, she said, “it is really effective.” 

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As you might expect Fox News political provocateur Glenn Beck reacted a few days later. “You have the Secretary of State of the United States of America saying you cannot get real news here in America,” Beck said his radio program on March 4. “This is insanity."

Beck, who knows a few things about insanity, called Al Jazeera the “propaganda arm” of Islamic extremism. But his reactionary reaction to Clinton’s perception of the Al Jazeera news model was strictly from patriotism, a reflex of the American water’s edge.

And for media critic Jeff Jarvis, that’s precisely the problem.

Jarvis wrote this in January: “What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV.

“Cable companies: Add Al Jazeera English NOW!

“It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it. Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one — not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media — can bring the perspective, insight and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.

“Yes, we can watch AJE on the internet. But as much of an internet triumphalist as I am, internet streaming is not going to have the same impact — political and education impact — that putting AJE on the cable dial would have,” Jarvis wrote Jan. 30 on his blog BuzzMachine.

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Jarvis’ point is well taken. In a 24/7 digital global media environment, it no longer works to continue marketing news with the comfortable, analog-era branding conventions that still persist among the legacy carriers from television’s golden age (and their offspring). Some of the American networks get that already. They’ve done tie-ups with SkyNews and ITN. CBS has flirted with a formal news alliance with CNN on and off for years.

Why, then, is the line apparently drawn at doing a hookup with Al Jazeera? Watching Al Jazeera English — the network has an Arabic-language counterpart as well — it’s clear the network has the look, style and conversational rhythms of a U.S. network down cold.

With its powerful brand presence in north Africa and the Middle East, Al Jazeera certainly has entrée to areas Western journalists can’t get into as easily. Al Jazeera is now basic to the Arabic culture, fundamental in a way that means Al Jazeera news reports will bear the stamp of the region even as they reach beyond the region with news that’s important to everyone.

Secretary of State Clinton put the issue in the context of warfare, which probably makes sense, given what’s at stake, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Today — six months and three days from the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States — we’re no less provincial, no less willfully isolated from parts of the world we don’t understand than we were in 2001. Our media certainly isn’t.

“We are in an information war, and we are losing that war,” Clinton said. But it’s not a matter of losing or winning it. In many ways we’re not even fully invested in  fighting that war. Bringing Al Jazeera into the mix of mainstream newsgathering partners would be a solid way to start.

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