The Murky Window of Satellite Television

Essay by David Brancaccio

David Brancaccio photo

Photo by David Krogh. Courtesy of NOWThis essay is part of "24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio.

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I'll tell you who started all this: a smart guy named Arthur C. Clarke who would become the legendary science fiction author. It's October 1945, Clarke is still in Britain's Royal Air Force, and he publishes an outlandish idea in a magazine called Wireless World. It's the concept of the satellite. In space. Synchronized to the earth. For the purpose of television.

Clarke's article is but four pages long, but it includes this line: "A true broadcast service...at all times over the whole globe would be invaluable, not to say indispensable, in a world society."

Satellite TV's become indispensable, all right. But just how far we've made it toward the other part of Clarke's line, the part about "world society," remains a question. This, despite economic globalization. We now know that fancy communications technology does not lead in a straight line to shared values and a shared vision of the world.

Word of European political cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed flew across the earth via satellite, yet the technology didn't seem to help many deeply offended Muslims understand why the Danish newspaper printed them. Nor did satellites do enough to explain to many non-Muslims the world over why the cartoons were seen as such a big deal. Lives have now been lost over this.

Here is the irony: TV satellites are global in reach, but the messages on those satellites—as we've tried to show in this program—cater to regional tastes, regional bias, regional politics. This confounds and frustrates world leaders who can no longer use television to deliver the party line intact.

It also aggravates those of us who want the mass media to be a more consistent force for peace, tolerance, inclusiveness, democracy.

In the documentary "24/7: the Rise and Influence of Arab Media," we brought you some of the complexity being handed to us as Arabic language television catches fire. Some see this rich and unruly marketplace of ideas pumped onto TV screens as ultimately healthy for the region. Others will still choke on the fact that a portion of what gets onto those screens can breed intolerance and violence.

That very same Arthur C. Clarke was asked not long ago about the flood of information that his ideas helped unleash, including satellite TV. He readily acknowledged that so much on TV is awful, and as a window on the world, it is often a "murky window." Yet to Clarke, stopping the flow isn't the answer. Here's his quote: "Because we frequently suffer from the scourge of information pollution, we find it hard to imagine its even deadlier opposite—information starvation."

This may be something US officials are learning. Who was that visiting Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha this winter? Karen Hughes, close advisor on these matters to President Bush. In Doha that day, there were two hours of discussions and a televised interview. Hughes' title is under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, and she was doing what diplomats are supposed to do: finding a way to engage a global player too powerful to ignore.

"24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media" is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. The full program includes segments on Arab broadcast media, the regional perspectives on the rise of Arab media, Washington perspectives on the shifting Arab media landscape, and an essay by David Brancaccio on the influence of satellite television on Arab society. Exclusive interviews with Al Jazeera senior anchor Jamil Azar, US Central Command's Media Engagement Team, senior CNN correspondent Jane Arraf, and Professor Ramez Maluf of the Lebanese American University are also available.

David Brancaccio also reported and hosted for the foundation's award-winning radio programs "UNder Fire: The United Nations' Battle for Relevance" and "Security Check: Confronting Today's Global Threats."