MEDIA: News flash
William Fisher «View Bio

New television channels are popping up all over the Middle East, fast establishing the air waves as the region’s dominant news medium – second, of course, to gossiping around a narghile.

The Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, a Saudi dissident group based in London, announced this week that after almost a year off air – the result, it says, of political pressure on the satellite provider – its TV channel has resumed broadcasts, including news, cultural programing, and live phone-ins.

Once the preserve of government, the Middle East has seen a proliferation of such channels, including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Al Hurra, providing the region with 24-hour news.

While the comparison may not leap to mind, similar trends are perceptible in the United States, where television is also the prime source of news, seeing off competition from 1,500 daily newspapers, along with countless weeklies and radio stations.

But there the similarities end.

First, and in stark contrast to the Middle East, the US has not a single government-controlled TV station – although a US government agency, the Federal Communications Commission, regulates the airwaves.

Second, the US has myriad local stations – institutions unknown in most of the Middle East.

Local stations broadcast content specific to a city or town – the Middle East equivalent of a station dedicated to covering, say, Cairo, Beirut, or Jeddah. Most are affiliated with one of the big US networks – CBS, NBC, or ABC – drawing on their larger partner for national and international content.

Local news becomes particularly important in election years, when the role of a local station is to present the issues and the candidates, in the context of their function to inform the public. But for all America’s pride in its broadcasting – and political freedoms – there is mounting evidence that local stations are failing to live up to their responsibility to inform, and are thus undermining the political process.

With US presidential elections fast approaching, considerable attention – in the written media – is focused on how poorly informed the US electorate is. If that’s true, one reason is local TV news.

The Norman Lear Center, a research and public policy center at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, recently released its analysis of local TV news during the last major election campaign, in 2002. Some lowlights include:

• Almost six out of 10 top-rated local news broadcasts contained no campaign coverage whatsoever.

• The average local campaign story lasted less than 90 seconds.

• Fewer than three out of 10 local campaign stories included candidates speaking – and when they did, the average candidate sound bite was 12 seconds long.

• Campaign ads outnumbered campaign stories by nearly four to one.

In 1998, according to Lear Center director Martin Kaplan, the Gore Commission proposed voluntary standards for local TV news. “After years of deliberation, it urged stations to air at least five minutes of candidate-centered discourse a night on each night in the month before an election. How well did it work? In the 2000 election, we studied 74 stations in 58 markets. Rather than five minutes of candidate discourse a night, the average station ran 74 seconds.”

Kaplan has called for “explicit standards of performance” to be imposed on local news stations. After all, he points out, stations “promise to fulfill a public interest obligation in order to get their license” – and such standards would be “a way to link stations’ performance on the public interest obligation with the renewal of their licenses.”

News accounts for a disproportionate amount of local stations’ income – 40 percent of revenue for 16 percent of airtime. But perhaps not for long: audiences are plummeting, as American viewers turn to other sources of entertainment – most still less informative than local TV.

In an article entitled “Do Television and Politics Mix?” broadcasting analyst John McManus writes: “Despite the hoopla of a presidential election, roughly half of eligible Americans don’t bother to vote and presumably aren’t interested in political stories.”

In short, ‘democracy’ is so entrenched in America that politics has become a bore – a trend that could eventually be mirrored in Middle East audiences, should much-lauded reforms in the region ever come to pass.

As McManus says, “The role of news… is to help as many as possible understand the world around them.

“Just before an election the public need is greatest for intense, independent reporting on how billions of dollars of our money shall be spent and who shall lead our nation, our state, county, city, even police departments, and schools. Political coverage is a litmus test of the civic responsibility of our news media,” McManus says.

He might add that in America, local television stations operate on airwaves given to them by the US taxpayer. With that gift goes a responsibility to inform the public.

There are television-viewing publics around the world – not least in the Middle East – crying out for such luxuries.

William Fisher is a regular contributor to the Middle East Times