BOOK REVIEW: Al Jazeera Effect provides useful terminology, leaves questions unanswered

In 1997, George Washington University professor Steven Livingston coined the phrase “The CNN Effect” to describe the effect 24-hour news media outlets had on foreign policy.  In his book “The Al Jazeera Effect: How the New Global Media are Reshaping World Politics,” Philip Seib explores the rise of non-Western and transnational media and how it affects the same arena.  By addressing the prevalence of the Internet, satellite news networks, and virtual communities, Seib evaluates the present state of these new media outlets, and poses questions about their potential for the future, whether positive or negative.

One of the more prevalent themes of the book was the public desire for media ownership.  Seib cites many cases, including Al Jazeera, as filling a need for globally marginalized groups to share their beliefs and worldviews through a kind of “mainstream” news outlet.  The Al Jazeera effect, ultimately, is the rise of media that people feel closer to and responsible for, such as blogs, text messages, and other ground-level sources of news information, as well as quasi-indigenous sources of news media and programming.  Seib discusses the nature of the Al Jazeera network and why it is so popular in the Middle East. “For the first time, many Arabs did not have to rely on the BBC, CNN, or other outside news sources when a big story broke.  They could instead find news presented from an Arab perspective.”

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The Al Jazeera Effect, by Philip Seib, was published in 2008. Seib is the Director of the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

These themes are pretty ambivalent in nature,  but when used in the wrong way, these new media outlets can be particularly dangerous.  Seib especially points out the opportunities available for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or Hezbollah to gain followers and create a virtual state online.  As previously mentioned, Seib spends some time discussing the new popularity of grassroots news such as blogs and text messages, but the Internet’s relentlessness and sheer size is too much for governments to effectively control, which can be good in that governments are less effective at censoring their own people, but it also allows for inaccurate, unverified, and radical information to be spread rapidly across large numbers of consumers.

I would argue that the book lacked an action plan for the public.  Even though the book thoroughly explores the themes of media globalization and consumption, I wish Seib had included more about how consumers can dictate what they want from the media.  Seib demonstrates repeatedly how media outlets such as Al Jazeera can affect foreign policy, and how it can change the way countries and groups of people interact, but he fails to acknowledge outside consumers.

When discussing Al Jazeera English, and the United States’ lack of support for the channel, Seib states that “common sense would dictate a reappraisal of Western governments’ relationships with Al Jazeera, with greater emphasis on cooperation…there is, however, little evidence that common sense will prevail.”  This statement precludes the public, especially the American public, from having any say in what they want from their programming.  Granted, not everyone has been open-minded toward Al Jazeera, but I hardly think that the US government would be able to ignore if half the country started watching and demanding AJE on their televisions, and it would force the government into more cooperative talks with the controversial station.  In this day and age, it seems like it should have been an integral part of his study to determine how his audience: educated, Western folks who might not be involved in foreign policy decisions, can influence the course of “the Al Jazeera effect.”

I also would have wanted to see some kind of description of the age demographics in the regions Seib discusses, and investigate the relationship between a growing adolescent age group and the shift to more liberal, egalitarian news sharing sources.

Seib also overlooks some of the complexities of people’s identities.  In his chapter regarding virtual states, he argues that globalizing media and making the Internet available across the globe can open the door for groups of people to unify in a way that transcends political boundaries.  Seib cites statistics that show Muslims in six countries – Pakistan, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, and Lebanon – often define themselves as a Muslim before defining themselves as a national citizen, which would suggest that, if presented the choice, most Muslims would identify with another Muslim before they identified with someone from the same country, but not the same religion .

However, Seib further explains that even within Islam, there are debates and conflicts.  This would lead me to say that in a group of people who identify themselves as Muslims, it’s possible that one Muslim wouldn’t necessarily closely identify with the “Muslim” next to him, which is a concept Seib never explores.  With these conflicts and differences in mind, I find it hard to swallow that we are on the verge of a global mobilization of Islam, just as it would be difficult to say that about any other major world religion.

In conclusion, while Seib paints a thorough picture of the media landscape in the Middle East specifically, and slightly less so across the world, he fails to bring it to a real world level, where ordinary citizens of Western countries can do something about it.  Weighing the pros and cons of this new media is helpful, but it would certainly be useful to know how the audience can use and consume these new media outlets in a productive way that would potentially promote peace and cooperation between Western and non-Western cultures.  With such an uncertain future ahead of us, it would be nice to at least see some suggestions regarding how to direct the future toward a more positive outcome.



Categories: Book Reviews

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