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Al-Ahram Weekly
18 - 24 February 1999
Issue No. 417
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Public spectacle, public history

By Edward Said


The recent death of Jordan's King Hussein offered the world media -- and CNN in particular -- a unique opportunity to do what it seems to do best so far as its consumers and sponsors are concerned: give spectators the sense that they are present at an important Historical Occasion where something of Great Significance unfolds before one's very eyes. CNN has now shot to an enviable position of almost total global hegemony. Its format (which I shall describe in a moment) is now the dominant one, which dictates to all other broadcasting outlets how they should do things. The formula is a superficially simple one. A prominent reporter sits behind a desk at a news centre like Atlanta or London; then the cameras are kept focused on the event, which is usually a procession, ceremony, or an unfolding series of happenings (like the bombings of Iraq). Then you cut from the public event to reporters who are at the scene itself, often with a local, native accredited expert. And so on for hours and days if necessary (as in the case of the Clinton trial). Thus television outlets like CNN come to be considered the voice and eyes of authenticity and truth: if one wants to get the best perspective on news of major importance, there is now the prevailing assumption that CNN will be the first to deliver that perspective, since what CNN relays is what is the most important news.

The tautology is important. News is what CNN broadcasts, and what CNN broadcasts is therefore news. Therefore the subjects on which CNN spends the most time (for example, the Gulf War, Princess Diana's funeral, the Clinton impeachment) are immediately elevated to the position of preeminence. A generation ago the major global authority was Time magazine, like CNN an American pioneer in the diffusion of news. In both cases it is sheer coverage that matters, the sense encouraged in the consumer that what is served up before his eyes has been put there by an all-knowing, wisely experienced, and tremendously influential authority of some sort. Most important is the feeling that what isn't there to be seen or commented on either does not exist or does not matter if it does. In short, this is a literal instance of contemporary history in the making. A trenchant American media critic, George W S Trow, has described this process succinctly as follows: "The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it."

Let me try to explain what I think he means. Reality is a confusing, complex dynamic of events, processes, personalities. Consider as an example King Hussein's death, the final chapter in one man's life. The king of Jordan was of course a real person, but he is also the conjuncture of a particular family history (that of the Hashemites), a series of processes that involved several great powers including Britain, the US, the Arab states, and Israel, and events that included (I mention only a few at random) the West Bank elections of 1956-7, the civil war of l970, the relationship between Jordan and Iraq, between Jordan and Israel, the cleavages and problems within Jordanian society, including army, Prince Hassan, the political class, Palestinian refugees and a tiny, but prosperous bourgeoisie.

So far as the presentation of Jordan in the media prior to Hussein's death is concerned, it is safe to say that none of these facts was given much prominence, although some may have been mentioned in passing in accounts of the Middle East peace process. But certainly, to return now to the king's funeral, the perspective provided by CNN and the others is that this was an event that had mostly to do with the passing of "a man of peace", as if a rich, often tragic and contradictory human life, a story of power, struggle, historical collisions and conjunctures, achievement and error, could be reduced simply and neatly to that of someone who served the US peace process as a wise and gifted partner. In other words, the local context was totally removed. Very little, if anything, of Jordan's history as a country was referred to. Occasional "experts" were summoned to aid star reporter Christiane Amanpour -- who has now become almost a parody of the star or celebrity journalist who flies in and out of places to give them some momentary credibility and interest, then flies out, leaving each place to a perhaps deserved subsequent obscurity, until the next crisis may warrant her re-appearance. These local experts were never allowed to say very much -- they were used just to identify somebody, or to give a tiny bit of background, none of it distracting the star reporter or her audience from the story and spectacle at hand. It was striking that a steady dose of misinformation was routinely delivered, e.g., that it is an Islamic tradition that women do not attend funerals, or that the crowd's grief was "authentic" and was unlike the scenes "of sham or manufactured grief so often the case in Arab crowds", which was a comment made by a prominent journalist during the proceedings. According to the coverage, what seemed most important in the end about Hussein was that he served others (i.e. the United States and Israel) more than he thought about himself. This ultimately Zionist perspective on what constitutes a "good Arab" had the dual function of maintaining a general attitude of hostility to all other Arabs and Muslims, and at the same time transforming Hussein -- rescuing him in effect from his own Arab history and thereby placing him into a new, universal one: that of being approved by the US.

Without knowing it, the American spectator was given a false context about Hussein and Jordan, Arabs, Muslims, and others, and in the process encouraged to regard the history of Jordan and its king as essentially unravelled, simplified, reduced from and cleansed of all its density and gravity to the status of a dignified funeral attended by a lot of world leaders, especially Americans and Israelis. Such considerable facts and forces as, for instance, power interests, the structure of Jordanian society influenced by the Palestinian conflict, the composition of the state, its army, bureaucracy, failing economy, difficult political future -- all these were dissolved, and spun away as so many useless threads whose existence no longer mattered to the powerful story constructed before our very eyes. As Trow remarks, a new "no-context" emerged during the transmission: that this man whose funeral was being shown belonged to legend, idealised history, acceptable heroism, and approved-of reality (in the manner of Princess Di), all of them controlled not by his people, for example, but by the camera, the commentators, and in the end CNN itself.

The troubling thing is that CNN's broadcast represents all that one needs to know about the world, reduced, packaged, and delivered without a trace of conflict or contradiction. Its thought, its sensation, what it sees are insidiously substituted for what the spectator might himself see, feel, think about. This gradual replacement of a private and personal process with a ready-made, manufactured and processed system is nothing less than a hijacking of the mind by a sophisticated apparatus whose purpose is, I believe, deeply ideological. The kernel of this ideology is that "we" define the world, state its purposes and meaning, control its unfolding history. In effect then, the funeral became the occasion for re-asserting control over a distant country, its people, history and departed monarch. And this seizure or hijacking permitted a whole series of further distortions which were later amplified by print journalism.

To give one example: The Nation magazine, a prominent left-liberal weekly journal of opinion for which I write regularly both as music critic and as political commentator (it has a circulation of about 100,000) sought the services of one Milton Viorst, a free-lance journalist who has made the Middle East his speciality over the past 10 years or so. It is clear from what he writes that he is attracted to the Arab and Muslim world (without knowing their languages, by now a common qualification for "experts" on the Middle East!) mainly because he is fascinated as to why Arabs and Muslims are in a state of prolonged decline and degeneration. In his article for The Nation he described Hussein as a good and unusual leader in that, unlike most Arab leaders in history, he tried to get close to his people. The vast generalisation is astonishing. What does Viorst know about "Arab history?" Where is his research and writing on the subject? Second, according to the sage Viorst, Hussein single-handedly tried to pull Jordan out of the "second-rateness" of the Arab world, its fate for many centuries. I doubt first of all whether any liberal and respectable journal would allow so enormous and hateful a descriptive phrase for any other culture, but it's considered appropriate for the Arabs. The point, though, is that, given the context provided for Hussein by CNN, this vision of him as something outside the ordinary framework of the other Arabs is now the acceptable one. Interestingly, Viorst further compliments the late king on his achievement in providing his people with "clean water", no doubt forgetting the recent water scandal that plagued Jordan just a few months ago. Never mind: facts are less important than the new context adopted unreflectingly by Viorst, whose lack of knowledge, originality, and insight are irrelevant to the "spin" he has taken over from television and the State Department.

This is not a trivial matter. CNN is now watched by Arabs as an authority on the Arabs. With its new position of dominance goes an uncritical, almost unconscious belief indeed in the spectator that public events are being recorded faithfully as they happen. What we urgently require is a conscious resistance to the framework and its elaboration, a spirit of criticism and sceptical awareness that challenges the new hegemony. Yet unfortunately, this awareness is neither taught in schools nor compensated for by the Arab media, still chained undemocratically to state and corporate interests whose mode is to forbid criticism and disallow open debate. One can take heart, however, that a new generation of intellectuals and young people is not likely to tolerate this state of affairs for long: there are signs everywhere that censorship is under considerable attack. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that a critical response to what can be called the CNN world view will not arise out of simple rejection of it as "imperialist" or as an unwelcome symptom of "globalisation". What is required is the emergence of critical approaches to the media as exemplified in the work of Trow, Pierre Bourdieu, Chomsky and many others. As their work is better known (and a sophisticated Arab critique arises), one hopes that a new interplay will develop between consumers and suppliers of public spectacle. In the meantime, CNN's distortions and misrepresentations will continue, like Britannia in the 19th century, to rule the waves.

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