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Global media war for airwaves

New state-funded international broadcasters challenge dominance of BBC and CNN.

Media international broadcast al jazeera 2011 5 3Enlarge
Graffiti praising Al-Jazeera on a wall in the eastern rebel-held Libyan city of Tobruk on February 24, 2011. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

This report on Global Media Wars is a project by 15 reporters from the Columbia University Journalism School’s International Newsroom. The reporters monitored five state-funded English-language news channels whose programs are available via satellite, cable or internet livestream.

NEW YORK — The United States is at war. Again.

The new battlefront, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is the increasingly crowded field of state-financed satellite television news.

The United States is “engaged in an information war,” Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March, citing the emergence of international broadcasters Al Jazeera, Russia Today and China Central Television’s global English-language broadcast.

And, Clinton added with dramatic effect, “We are losing that war.”

“We are in an information war and we are losing it.”
~US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Clinton was sounding the alarm about a fundamental change that is reshaping the global broadcast media arena. Where the BBC and CNN International once stood almost uncontested as the arbiters of global news, new 24-hour TV news channels have jostled their way into the market, shaking the longstanding primacy of Western media.

These new channels are aimed at viewers abroad and funded by various states. The governments paying their bills usually say they want to see their countries portrayed “fairly” to the world (as opposed to the way Western media may be portraying them). They also say their channels will show viewers the world as seen through their nation-centric lens. As they do so, they have begun to challenge some of the most basic tenets of American journalistic practice — among them, the concept of reporting objectivity.

“To be honest, I don’t know what objective journalism means,” Al Jazeera’s Washington Bureau Chief Abderrahim Foukara told TIME magazine in mid-February. “If you are an American network broadcasting from the U.S., you will be broadcasting with a sensibility that may not look necessarily objective to an audience in another part of the world. And the same is true if you’re a network like Al Jazeera Arabic, broadcasting out of the Middle East.”

Today, Al Jazeera’s English channel is the leading challenger to long-established global services like BBC and CNN International. But it is by no means alone in challenging the status quo. Since 2001, China’s Communist leadership has poured billions of dollars into the international broadcasting projects of its two state-funded media giants, Xinhua News and China Central Television.

The Kremlin’s Russia Today (now shortened to RT) has made impressive inroads using YouTube, as well as cable, to reach global audiences. Iran launched an international, English-language version of its own state-sponsored broadcasting station in 2007. From France, to Australia, to Venezuela, governments are funding media channels of various scales — all, it seems, intent on having their voices heard on the world stage.

Around the globe today, “everyone channel surfs,” said Enders Wimbush, a member of U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Wimbush was director of the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty in the closing years of the Cold War, when state-funded Western services like Radio Liberty and Voice of America provided vital shortwave radio broadcasts into the tightly controlled Soviet bloc.

Today, in his current role on the board of governors, he is tasked with overseeing the future of VOA and other American-financed broadcasters in a time of budget austerity. The competition from new global broadcasters is fierce, said Wimbush.

But, he adds, “My view is, let 100 flowers bloom.”

Secretary of State Clinton sounded less sanguine when she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March that America would have to step up its efforts if it wanted to maintain its position in the global media field.

“During the Cold War, we did a great job of getting America’s message out,” Clinton said, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall, programs like VOA were neglected, their mandates reduced. “Unfortunately, we are paying a big price for that,” said Clinton. “Our private media cannot fill that gap.”