White House Down

By Wadah Khanfar21.09.2014Global Policy, Media

The information war is raging and the U.S. is losing out to is enemies. Not even American bombardments can prevent this.

A war is raging across the globe. Not the usual type of war, but no less fierce. It is a war with blurry dividing lines and various conflicting interests, unnoticed by large parts of society. And it is a war the West is losing.

Last year, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared during a committee hearing that the U.S. is trapped in a global information war and losing it against networks like Al Jazeera and RT. Why? I think there’s a simple answer to it: A good number of U.S. news outlets take too American a perspective in their way of covering foreign affairs. In comparison to foreign news channels, American outlets use very little information from outside, choosing instead to tell the story from an American point of view.

Unless there is an international crisis where vital U.S. interests are at stake, U.S. media barely pay attention. When they do cover international crises, they only report until they think the American population is saturated and then move on to the next crisis, leaving the background stories to international or regional outlets. Audiences that want more background information, that seek deep and thoughtful reporting, increasingly turn toward alternative channels like RT or Al Jazeera.

More than just an analogy

In fact, the predominance of an American perspective in U.S. reporting is a threat to the balance of the media ecosystem. There is no diversity, no outside perspective in U.S. reporting – just a single point of view articulated across all channels, pages, and websites. Foreign outlets like RT and Al Jazeera, however, have managed to present news with a broader angle, adding a new point of view to a particular story. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the opinions voiced on these channels, you have to give them credit for their contribution to media diversity.

The American media landscape is losing its edge; it is cutting down on investigative journalism and is trading depth for simplicity. That’s the reason why U.S. channels see audience numbers fall, while non-Western networks are rising and are – to put it in Hillary Clinton’s words – “winning the information war”.

The term “war” is in fact more than just an analogy – it has become a bitter reality. In April 2003, one month before I became Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in Baghdad, U.S. troops bombed our bureau. It was a premeditated and planned attack on our infrastructure and staff that killed one journalist and left many more intimidated. In Washington, the awareness had grown that the U.S. was losing public support over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – not just internationally but also at home. Al Jazeera was offering an alternative narrative to the one propagated by Washington and was therefore perceived as a threat – and a rival that had to be silenced at all costs.

It is paradoxical – to put it mildly – that the country priding itself on defending freedom of speech would take such measures to silence an independent news network. When it comes to American interests, the U.S. is not a champion of free speech but puts a stranglehold on it – just like dictators and authoritarian regimes do. Media outlets are no innocent bystanders in this. More often than not, the American mainstream media become the mouthpiece of American foreign policy.

Because of this, it has become a pawn in the global struggle for influence. States and associated business circles instrumentalize the media to disseminate the narratives they have constructed. Most of the Western media outlets have given in to outside pressure and are now used by corporations as a means to keep the status quo in place. No state that owns media outlets will sit back and let them work without interference, and neither will big corporations. Dissent is no longer welcomed. Journalists that try to sell another side to the story are silenced. The only places that still shelter their opinions are the social media.

Domestic politics are the only battlefield where national media and the state are still in conflict with each other. But when it comes to international affairs, most outlets rally behind the official state position and advocate it wholeheartedly. I’ve seen this logic at work in Afghanistan, in Iraq, during the Arab Revolts – and now in Ukraine.

The primary goal of news is to criticize and discredit

All of this might sound hypocritical coming from a former director general of Al Jazeera – a network that has on numerous occasions been criticized for its close ties to the Qatari ruling family. But let me be frank: Just like any other news organization, Al Jazeera has its biases. But those biases are much more controlled and much more transparent than those of other comparable networks. Al Jazeera mostly reports from the Middle East, a region where news is a matter of life and death, and where various national interests are at play. It is hard to keep politics out of your reporting here, and there might always be some bias in the way you comment on a certain event. But my task at Al Jazeera was to keep this at bay, and I think I succeeded in doing just that. The goals of Qatari foreign policy were not the goals of Al Jazeera. It is true that the station put Qatar on the geopolitical map but never acted on behalf of it.

The Ukrainian crisis is once again proving that we are currently lacking news to put things in perspective, reporting that is free of political influence. The Western media support the government in Kiev and blame Putin for the escalation; the Russian media do the exact opposite. Whenever national interests are at stake, the primary goal of news is to criticize and discredit the opponent – objective reporting becomes of secondary importance.

In this media environment, audiences struggle to evade partisan and biased reports. The only thing we can do as consumers is to challenge the stories we are fed by listening to what the other outlets have to say. There’s more than one side to each story – you just have to pay close attention to it.



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