CAIRO - As an American who has been living in Cairo for five years, I think a lot about how to bridge the information gap between the West and the Middle East. Palestinians and Israelis began direct negotiations in Washington DC on September 2 for the first time in almost two years and hope for a lasting peace is in short supply, whether you ask Americans or Arabs.
The media reaches more people than ever and there is a glut of information, from established facts to the most far-fetched rumor and innuendo imaginable. The sheer volume and scope of content raises the question of how to decide what is credible, disinterested reporting and credible commentary from both experts and laypersons.
A recent informal poll reveals that most Americans continue to get their information about the Middle East from mainstream American media, tapping into the usual print, broadcast and internet outlets like network news, CNN, USA Today, Washington Post, New York Times, Time Magazine and Newsweek. To learn how professionals across different sectors with a specific interest in the Middle East obtain their information, I interviewed several experts from academia and business, along with a former government spokesperson. Not unexpectedly, those people might use the mainstream American media, but they also go beyond the ordinary and seek out knowledge from sources in other countries and in some cases, in the Arabic vernacular.
Michael Skube, a Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator, and Associate Professor in the School of Communications at North Carolina’s Elon University, teaches a course called Media & The Middle East. Having studied the Middle East for more than 20 years and “reading everything [he] can get [his] hands on”, Skube incorporates history, culture and religion into the curriculum, with the perspective that if students don’t understand the region’s past, they will never have the knowledge base they need to comprehend current affairs.
When speaking of how Americans learn about the Middle East, he believes that we “don’t care to know what we don’t know” and generally, rather than trying to expand our views to include facts and opinions that differ from the filtered and funneled “snatches of information we receive here and there”, we allow our “presuppositions and prejudices to simplify the world”.
Most students in his Middle East course tend to have a natural curiosity and are assigned several texts as well as news and commentary from the US, Europe, Asia, Israel and the Arab world, offering a variety of angles and contexts. Instead of positing his own views, Skube encourages his students to question both the content and themselves, absorb as much as they can, and then form their own opinions.
Approaching Middle East information from the business perspective are four company owners with completely different backgrounds and completely different strategies to gathering news and opinion.
Jacob Arback is President of Business Middle East, a California-based firm offering workshops and customized consulting for companies already operating or hoping to launch in the region. He holds a master’s degree in Middle East Studies and International Business, has lived and worked in Egypt and Kuwait and speaks, reads and writes fluent Arabic. [the author admits that she is sufficiently awed, especially with his language skills as she struggles to bring her Arabic vocabulary above an elementary level]
For Arback, the content is more than just a passing interest – he uses it in his business every day: “In my nearly 25 years of conducting business in the Middle East, I continue to be amazed at how easily US companies can further their business interests by understanding some of the key signatures of Arab business cultures. Conversely, I have witnessed how business can unravel for those companies that try to impose US business culture and practices on their Arab counterparts and customers, whether in negotiations, new business development or presentations. Business Middle East was created to help US companies and their executives successfully navigate Arab business cultures with knowledge, understanding and bottom-line results.”
While Arback consults a number of English and Arabic media sources for his Middle East information, he has the added benefit of a carefully cultivated network of trusted colleagues still in the region, as well as accompanying clients on frequent trips abroad. He is constantly amazed at the “dimensional chasm” many Americans adopt in their view of the Middle East, often reducing everything into the two dimensions of religion and terrorism.
“We learn through our policy prison of Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan,” he notes, “ingesting everything through politic/diplomatic speak and failing to learn how people are really living their lives. One example is the barriers that Al-Jazeera International is facing in its quest to be broadcast in the US; Americans seem afraid of the political backlash, even of a potentially mainstream Arab response.” “Al-Jazeera,” Arback says, “would be a good revelation for a lot of thoughtful Americans. It would be good for them to see how events are reported differently. We must have opportunities to search for our own truths.”
Arback is also the co-founder and Vice Chairman of The Africa Channel, an information and entertainment satellite station created to “change the image” in the minds of Americans about Africa as an underdeveloped, impoverished, AIDS-ridden continent. By offering Africans a forum to showcase their music, literature, culture and daily lives, The Africa Channel seeks to shatter those stereotypes and promote greater understanding. Egypt is sometimes featured, as it is the gateway between North Africa and the Middle East.
Carla Stone has both private sector and NGO experience. She is the Principal of International Development and Technical Assistance, LLC, a consulting firm working on projects to improve people’s lives. A prolific reader, she regularly consults more than 30 sources from several countries for her Middle East information, comparing information from country websites, the US government and international NGOs. She is also an author (more than 40 technical books, articles and papers about the environment, engineering and water/wastewater sectors); active LinkedIn networker (member of 20 groups, including two from Jordan); past board member of World Trade Center, Delaware; and board member and charter member of People to People International’s Delaware Chapter.
People to People International was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, specifically to foster contact, communication, and the exchange of ideas between citizens of the United States and other lands; to improve individual understanding, to bridge international barriers; and to establish a force for friendship to assist mankind in his quest for peace. The organization’s chapters often invite prominent speakers from the Middle East to present to their members and open a dialogue.
While Stone delves into multiple sources to explore Middle East issues, she intentionally avoids most US-based cable channels as well as overseas media with obvious biases. Like Michael Skube, she reads numerous books to garner historical, cultural and religious information about the Middle East to provide more context for present-day events.
Bringing further unique insight into the mix is Richard Grenell, a Partner with Capitol Media Partners in Los Angeles, and former George W. Bush appointee who spent 8 years, beginning in 2001, as the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy for the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations. As the spokesperson, he was also liaison to the White House and State Department and – given the years of his service – was deeply involved in learning about Middle East affairs and the Arab media. During the many hours he spent with Arab journalists both at the UN and on a State Department-sponsored trip with Arab Bureau Chiefs to see more of America than just New York, Grenell had the opportunity to learn a lot about the Arab world and, simultaneously, teach people about everyday America.
Grenell also educated members of the Bush administration about the importance of letting the Arab world hear about us in our own words. He knew how important it was for the President to sit down with respected Arab media. Over the years, Grenell has been a regular commentator on Al-Jazeera and a frequent contributor to American print and broadcast media. As a Conservative Republican, he continues to believe that the Arab world needs to hear about Conservative Republicans from Conservative Republicans.
Grenell doesn’t accept the idea that Americans aren’t interested in learning about the rest of the world because they are self-consumed. “The US is really large,” he said. “In California, we get news about Florida and Michigan and Canada and Mexico and many other places. America is a very diverse place and we’re busy with our day-to-day lives, making a living and trying to create a better world economically for our children. At the end of the day, we only have a certain capacity to deal with the news; and international news is limited due to our lack of time.”
And does Washington need to change its approach to the Arab media? Grenell doesn’t think there needs to be a different message. Rather, “We need to change the frequency of communications. And by communicating, I mean both talking and listening. Right now, we are having formal communications. We need to get to the point where we are having familiar conversations.”
When asked how he finds his news about the Middle East, Grenell noted, “My big theme is that we must get multiple news sources in order to understand the real story. Anyone who relies on a single media outlet for their information is in danger of being spun.” In seeking his own information, he gravitates toward finding out what a variety of people are saying about the very important issues.
Taking a more social media approach to gathering information about the Middle East is Adrienne Graham, founder and CEO of two Atlanta, Georgia companies: Hues Consulting & Management and Empower Me! Corporation. Graham is focused – through recruiting (Hues), training, professional development, networking and her own magazine, radio and TV shows – on empowering professional women globally.
While researching opportunities to expand her business into the Middle East, Graham found that the mainstream media was not very useful for her so she reached out through social media and went directly to the source – women in the Middle East.
By talking to both women from the region and expats living and working there, she is able to learn more about the business environment and the challenges women face in professional careers or entrepreneurship. When she started writing for the Forbes blog Work in Progress: Career Talk for Women in April 2010, Arab women began reaching out to her. One woman who had dreamed of starting her own business wrote, “I didn’t think my business could be possible for me. Your words gave me courage.”
Through Empower Me’s network, Graham plans to create a forum where women around the world can learn from each other, making an impact and offering inspiration. Social media has made that possible.
So, how do Americans learn about the Middle East? In general, no surprise: mainstream American media. But there are those who take the time to go beyond the normal, everyday reporting and commentary to seek their own truths by reading and watching a variety of sources from around the world, finding out how things are reported differently and then starting those “familiar conversations” through personal connections, whether it’s over a cup of qahawa or a video chat on Skype.
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This article was originally published September 1, 2010 on moheet.com, Arabia Inform’s Arabic language news website. See translation . Part 2 of this series – How do Arabs Learn About America? – will be published in mid-October.
Jan Diggs, the author, is AI’s Global Business Development Manager and is based in Cairo, Egypt.