Interview with Lawrence Pintak

"We Must Be Capable of Dialogue"

What role does the media play in the relations between Europe and the Middle East, and how far can the virtual dialogue influence these relations? Bernhard Hillenkamp spoke with Lawrence Pintak, the Director of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University of Cairo

You spent quite a lot of time here in Beirut in the 1980s …

photo: &copy www.adhamonline.com
Lawrence Pintak: "Dialogue is listening as much as talking"

​​Lawrence Pintak: Yes, I was here in the 1980s as a CBS correspondent for the Middle East, and Beirut was my location. Like many other journalists I spent nearly five years here in Hotel Commodore. Because of the heavy fighting and bombardments we slept in this room, which is now a conference room.

Were people already talking about a dialogue back then?

Pintak: When I look at old reportages from that time, for example, on the hijacking of the TWA plane, I notice that we almost blindly accepted the prevalent terminology. Terrorists were Islamist terrorists. We didn't question such terms back then.

Whether they really represented Islam was not problematized. Today it's different. Journalists are more likely to challenge things. Back then the Western media was dominant. It defined the discourse. And the Arab media was not really independent.

During the conference we heard that Arab media is very heavily restricted because of state and political as well as economic conditions. This was even more pronounced in the 1980s. Also, the sensitivity necessary for dialogue did not exist back, neither on the Arab nor the Western side.

What does dialogue in the media mean for you today?

Pintak: Dialogue means listening as much as talking. The West back then set the tone, we didn't listen. As journalists we compiled information. We didn't analyze societies. We didn't ask about the reasons behind the developments. Especially in television we worked with stereotypes. How are we to address viewers who know nothing about the region?

How it is possible to bring a normal television consumer—and of course this is still true for today's news coverage—closer to the complexity of Lebanon? You use clichés: Christian, Muslim, Druze, as well as American. After my time in Lebanon I chose another path in order to do justice to the complexity of this country: I wrote a book.

So that means you don't believe in the virtual dialogue, as in the title of this conference?

Pintak: I am very critical about the dialogue taking place on the Internet. I believe you are preaching to the already converted. Surfers on the Internet are very selective. They know what they want and are often already interested in the topics.

On the other hand, the Islamists are also very active on the Internet and have adapted to the new forms of technology and the opportunities they offer. They, too, communicate with their selective groups. I often ask myself how the moderate voices can counter them. In other words, I don't believe the masses are being drawn into a dialogue through the Internet.

But it is also about access to information and the opportunities offered by the Internet.

Pintak: But it isn't for the broad public. Only the elites are being reached. Yes, of course, the Internet is fantastic way to collect information. It's almost possible to say that there is too much information; you can get lost in details, get lead astray. The Internet can devour you.

Still, the media, as well as the mass media and their representatives, have made dialogue possible.

Al-Jazeera, for example: this broadcast station gave new voices a mouthpiece. Just hearing these voices creates dialogue. Even the station's talk shows, the formats in which discussions are held, promote exchange and dialogue.

I've just come from Doha, where al-Jazeera is based. I said to the responsible parties in the local station that without al-Jazeera Bin Laden would not be what he is today. I don't mean this as a criticism, nor am I accusing the station of one-sidedness.

But Saudi or Egyptian television would never have given Bin Laden this media presence. He would have carried out the attacks in New York without al-Jazeera, but his ideological influence would certainly have been less without the electronic pulpit of al-Jazeera.

But technology has also made it possible that George Bush can no longer say something and then do something entirely different. When Bush verbally speaks out for a Palestinian state, but Israeli tanks kill Palestinians in the West Bank, the images speak for themselves. Viewers recognize the duplicity.

You have used the term "information ghettos". Can you explain this phenomenon to us?

Pintak: There used to be only one discourse, a dominant version of history. We all saw the same images. Today, through Arab satellite television and comparable developments in other parts of the world, there are a number of competing versions and images. Today viewers and readers choose where they receive their truth, their version of history, one that fits their worldview.

In the United States conservatives watch FOX News; a liberal American also has his special media. This is also true of the Arab world. The result is that we no longer have only one dominant discourse. Arab readers and viewers have good access to Western media, but Americans have very restricted access to Arab discourses. Thus we live in virtual ghettos with virtual walls.

What does this mean in terms of training young Arab journalists?

Pintak: In our program I try to get students to reflect on their roles as journalists. This is important for students in every country. They should more heavily analyze the language and images used. The media has contributed to the polarization existing today. Young journalists should not focus only on the extreme positions of each side.

At the conference it was said that one should not bridge the difference between both media worlds, but simply recognize it. What is your opinion?

Pintak: Journalism always has borders. A Western journalist will always report from his perspective. You should always include your own perspective as well as that of the other as a factor in your reports. We do not need to bridge the differences, but we must be capable of communication and dialogue.

Interview: Bernhard Hillenkamp

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

Lawrence Pintak, director of the Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC), participated in Beirut in the conference "Media and European-Middle Eastern Relations. A Virtual Dialogue?", organized together with the Orient Institute Beirut, the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, and the French research institute "Institut Français du Proche-Orient."

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