View of Arab press risks U.S. relations

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American politicians have misjudged Arab news organizations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, potentially compromising cordial relations between the U.S. and the Middle East and hurting U.S. foreign policy, say researchers who contend that the collective press in the region has received a bum rap.

“After 9/11, the Bush administration repeatedly charged that the Arab media are biased against the United States. A cross-border survey of 601 Arab journalists found that much of the conventional wisdom that has shaped U.S. public diplomacy policy toward the region lacks substance,” said Lawrence Pintak, a journalism professor at the American University at Cairo who led the study.

“The debate over the agenda of Arab journalists, carried out by Western policy-makers, journalists and academics, has largely been predicated on the assumption that Arab journalists should ascribe to Western journalistic values and mores,” Mr. Pintak said.

Respondents from print, broadcast and online news organizations in 14 Arab countries participated in the survey; 88 percent were Muslim. The methodology noted that “avowedly Islamist media organizations” were excluded.

“A sizable portion of Arab media gatekeepers believe the United States potentially has a constructive role to play in the Middle East. Their objection is that the U.S. does not live up to its own values. That spells opportunity for those tasked with making and explaining U.S. policy in the Arab world,” Mr. Pintak added.

President Bush perhaps seized some of that opportunity in May when he journeyed to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt “to demonstrate our nation’s support for and commitment to the region,” in the words of National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley at the time.

The researchers cited emerging commonalities between the Arab press and a promising increase in diplomacy between the U.S. and some Middle East countries, which some stateside pundits have attributed to Mr. Bush’s pursuit of a “legacy” as he prepares to leave office.

The Arab news media are undergoing dramatic change, the study found. More than 300 “free-to-air Arab” satellite channels, about 63,000 bloggers and an estimated 26,000 journalists are operating in the region, but many must function under sobering circumstances, according to the research.

“No Arab journalist is completely free,” wrote Mr. Pintak, who is a former CBS correspondent, and his research partner Jeremy Ginges, a psychologist with the New School for Social Research.

Still, the survey ultimately revealed that Arab journalists don’t uniformly despise the U.S.

“While protective of the Arab people, Arab culture and religion, they are not overtly anti-American,” the study said.

It revealed a cultural dichotomy, as have several other surveys of global attitudes. Respondents liked Americans but disliked American policy, a trend that has mystified and occasionally annoyed U.S. citizens in recent years.

While more than three-quarters had an unfavorable view of U.S. policies and government, 62 percent had a “strongly” favorable view of Americans, while almost half were receptive to the idea of Western influence in the Arab world.

When asked about the political philosophy to which they ascribed, 49 percent of the respondents said “democrat,” followed by “other” (18 percent), “Arab nationalist” (15 percent), “Islamist” (10 percent) and “nationalist” (8 percent).

Seventy-five percent said that “encouraging political reform” in Arab countries was their top priority; 60 percent said news should be used “for social good,” while almost an equal number hope they could aid civic engagement and “serve as a voice for the poor.” Forty percent aspired to be watchdogs for their governments.

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