The Media’s ‘Vicious Circle’

While the West is Saturated, Arabs Are Hungry for News

Webster IR Professor Karen Kneissl | Courtesy of Karen Kneissl

Communication is at the center of the conflict between the West and the East, explained political analyst Karin Kneissl at a presentation of her latest book “The Vicious Circle: Why Orient and the Occident Misunderstand Each Other,” at Webster University on March 28th.

The problem, said Kneissl, is that “there is an absence of curiosity to look at what the other does and is,” yet this is paradoxical, as we live in the era of mass communication and saturation of information 24 hours a day through news networks, newspapers and radio news casts.

“Why can’t we get along?” Kneissl continued, “[It is] because of cultivated misperceptions” rooted on one hand, on the lack of will by Western media to know “the Other,” and of Middle Eastern populations being unable to access media free from government pressure.

First hand reporting and investigative journalism are the two practices that seem to have left the newsroom of major newspapers and television stations across Europe. Instead of sending news correspondents and setting permanent offices, very few media do so. The end product readers and audiences get is a long line of re-written stories based probably on only one on-site source such as a feed from news agencies like Associated Press.

So, this one-way direction of communication turns into a “theater played out in the Occident in which the Orient is an observer,” according to Sandeep Chawla, Webster professor and panelist at the book presentation. Whenever reporters do get to step up onto the stage of hot-spot countries, they only get one side of the story, that is, the account given by press officers.

This has led the average critical reader to mistrust what they read on the news. “I read very few papers,” said Kneissl, aware of her role as a journalist for various publications such as The Lebanon Daily Star and Die Welt. 

Unwillingness is just one of the reasons that perpetuates the misunderstandings and conflicts between the Occident and the Orient, while the feeble state of independent media in the Middle East blocks communication channels from the Orient to the Occident.

Few countries in the Middle East are considered properly independent by international press organizations such as the Vienna-based International Press Institute, who has condemned the government censorship practices against journalists in countries like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

On top of that, there are great access imbalances to the global pool of information available on the Internet. In Europe, the Internet has penetrated into the lives of about 50 per cent of the population compared to 10 per cent in the Middle East, according to the audience research company Nielsen/Net ratings.

So, while people in Europe and America are media-saturated, the citizens in the Middle East are media-hungry.

Yet countries like Syria and Iran are catching up quickly, and Internet penetration is growing at an amazing speed. Its use increased by up to 3,566 per cent in Syria, and 2,900 per cent in Iran from 2000 to 2007.

“Iran is one of the most secular but they just haven’t been able to express themselves,” said Kneissl.

So, how can we know the face and feelings of the “Other” as mistrust towards both Western and Middle Eastern mass media seems to be blocking communication channels between one and another society? Kneissl has found one way to know about what’s going on through the increasing scene of Iranian bloggers.

Yet the fact that the media-gluttony in the Occident has not increased our knowledge of the Other might imply that, even if the Orient develops a more independent and a widespread access to media, the missing ingredient is will to analyze the information on both sides.

“People know bits and pieces of the Orient and the Occident, but the concept is no longer understood,” said Chawla.

Kneissl believes that, since Oriental cultures have been one step ahead of the Western cultures, she fears the Occident might fall into that spiral of chaos in the future. Arab cultures created the alphabet and gunpowder, which ironically, the Occident used to conquer them, Weeks said.

The communications technology revolution during the 20th Century opened up a gulf between Occident and the Orient. “Things have changed so much in the last 100 years,” said Dr. Gregory Weeks, historian and department head of the International Relations at Webster. “People have the feeling they are being engulfed by the wave.”

The panelists agreed that this wave also propelled the disfigurement of power and geographical lines after World War I and World War II.

There is a “colonial hangover” in Europe and the Middle East, according to Chawla. While Europe nowadays tries to increase its influence on Middle East diplomacy, few Middle Eastern governments have reached political stability since their independence. “We are back to square one but we are in more gruesome auspices because of all what has happened in between,” added Kneissl.

To untangle the knot, “we have to be curious and we have to be skeptical,” Kneissl said. Audiences and readers have to stop being passive spectators/receptors of information and, instead, go out there and meet the real “other.”

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