The world watched people rise up this year against dictators and authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and northern Africa, their protests aired by satellite television and the Internet. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and other countries, journalists televised, twittered, and spread the “electronic virus,” as Lawrence Pintak calls the media revolution, around the Arab world.
Pintak, founding dean of the Murrow College of Communication and a former Middle East correspondent for CBS, says satellite TV plays the critical role in the protests. Eighty percent of the Arab world gets its news from television, and international news in Arabic, produced by Arabs, displays the backlash against oppressive governments in living color.
“You would not have this revolution if you had not had the media revolution before it,” says Pintak. “What happened in Tunisia was first fed by local dissent and the use of social media, but was quickly picked up by Al Jazeera and ultimately the other satellite channels.
“Everyone else in the Arab world looked at what they did and said, ‘Well, if they can do it, we can do it.’”
The role of journalists and bloggers in the recent uprisings did not surprise Pintak. His book The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil (I.B. Tauris, 2010) presented a survey that showed 75 percent of Arab journalists feel their primary mission is political and social reform.
The book examines the upheaval of Arab journalism and how those journalists define themselves and the goals for their profession. Pintak is quick to note that the Arab world is not a monolith, but many Arab journalists share a pan-Arab identity and a desire to pursue democratic reforms.
As the revolutions spread this year, Pintak was tapped by U.S. media—CNN, The New York Times, MSNBC, PBS, and others—to help interpret the vital role of social media and satellite television journalists.
Pintak knows many of those journalists personally. Before coming to Washington State University, he was director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo, where they trained over a thousand journalists from Egypt and across the Arab world.
The center also brought some of the most influential bloggers in the Arab world to the United States to learn about elections and online media. Several of them reported on human rights violations and played a major role in the recent protests, such as blogger Wael Abbas, who posted video on YouTube of Egyptian police torturing a taxi driver in 2007. That set into motion a backlash against Egyptian police brutality and led to conviction of the police officers involved.
A year and a half ago in Cairo, Pintak sensed change was coming for Egypt as bread riots and unemployment swept the country. “It came down to less these 20-something, educated activists than just the fact that the poor who were surviving on less than a couple bucks a day really had had it. It was a powder keg waiting to explode,” he says.
Looking at the future of the Middle East, Pintak sees autocratic rulers and governments changing the way they do business because of increased scrutiny and the power of social media.
“Things they could get away with before, they will not get away with now. They can’t buy off the people. The old way of thinking, that they can silence the messenger and push their fictitious picture of the world through state-run media, I don’t think that’s going to be happening,” he says.
Arab journalists and journalism are also changing rapidly, in “a state of evolution on steroids,” says Pintak. Like activist American journalists in the 1700s and 1800s, Arab journalists see their logical role as advocates for social change. As oppressive regimes change, the journalists will likely adapt.
“I think Arab journalism will move into a more independent mode, and more confrontational potentially,” he says. “But how they evolve will be up to them.”
The opinion of Arab journalism in the West and elsewhere could also shift. As American media have less presence outside the United States, international perspectives play a larger part. Pintak points out how CBS went from 20 to 25 full-time correspondents outside the country when he worked there to two overseas correspondents now.
There’s a push to have Arab satellite television on U.S. cable, particularly Al Jazeera English, which has run ads featuring people like Sam Donaldson praising the channel, a reversal from U.S. criticism of Arab satellite news channels up to and during the Iraq war.
“That begins to chip away at the perception that Al Jazeera is the devil incarnate. I think that the more people see what’s on the air on Jazeera English, they’re going to realize it’s not all that different from BBC World or CNN,” he says.
Pintak has been working to educate American journalists about Islam and the Middle East as well. He helped develop an online course available this fall through the Poynter Institute called “Islam on Main Street.” It aims to help reporters and editors in the United States better understand Muslim communities in their own neighborhoods.
He also recently published results of surveys of journalists in Indonesia and Pakistan, with plans for others to replicate the survey in Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Turkey to compare journalistic perceptions across the Muslim world.
On the web
Breathing Room: Toward a new Arab media (by Lawrence Pintak, Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2011)
Egypt’s Revolution through My Students’ Eyes (Lawrence Pintak article in the Columbia Journalism Review)
WSU Expert: Satellite TV Most Responsible for Middle East Upheaval – Not Social Media (WSU News, Feb. 7, 2011)
New York Times Op-Chart: Inside the Muslim (Journalist’s) Mind (by Lawrence Pintak and Syed Javed Nazir)
Former Dean Lawrence Pintak’s blog
For students, news is life and death (The Spokesman-Review, July 8, 2011)