Port of Entry On the Air, Visions and Reality
A Newsman Breaks the Mold in Arab World
Monday, May 1, 2006
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates
From the clusters of plasma screens that adorn the red-tinted walls of al-Arabiya, one of the Arab world's most influential news channels, the battles of the Middle East aired on an hourly bulletin: more carnage in Iraq and a standoff over Iran's nuclear program. At the small, cluttered desk of Nabil Khatib, another struggle, perhaps no less important, was underway.
Khatib leaned toward the story of a reporter, who was standing next to him. He stared blankly at the computer screen, then fell back. He paused, then reached for his keyboard, quickly deleting a sentence. The line in question: "Iraqis are still paying the price with their souls" for the U.S.-led invasion and its avowed democratic aim.
He shook his head -- a rare departure from a funereal bearing that seems intended to discourage argument.
"You're speaking as a citizen," Khatib admonished the reporter, "not as a journalist."
The reporter nodded, a gesture that suggested acquiescence and disapproval.
A 15-year veteran of reporting in the Middle East, Khatib is the executive editor of al-Arabiya, a position that thrusts him into a maelstrom of the most powerful forces in the Arab world today: crusading media and their editorial perspectives, the power of Persian Gulf money and the political loyalties it demands, thin-skinned potentates and the religious currents that buffet them, decades-long traditions in submissive Arab journalism and vociferous critics who dismiss his station as a lackey of the Americans and Saudi Arabia.
From his isolated perch, cluttered with two dozen videotapes, he has plunged into the fray in an attempt to change his station's coverage of the Arab world by breaking the traditions that long defined it. The battle is not simply over a station's identity; the goal, he insists, is to transform the Middle East.
"Who can do this?" Khatib said. "Only media. Give me the information and give me a chance to make conclusions myself. Let me decide." His cellphone rang, and his desk phone. Staff passed by with questions. Behind him was a window on Dubai, the oil boom equivalent of a gold rush town. "We are trying to redefine the news," he said.
His vision is to connect with his viewers in a different way than his colleagues have in the past, wedded as they were to a government-dictated agenda and an aversion to probing society's ills. He seeks to create the television equivalent of a front page that would forgo banner headlines on Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the more pressing issues he believes face Arab viewers -- their health, education, livelihoods, the questions any citizen might ask of leaders held accountable. First, though, he wants coverage that, in his view, is balanced, a word that itself gives way to endless interpretations.
On its billboards across the Arab world, al-Arabiya boasts: "With us, you are closer to the truth." But truth can be relative, shaped by perspective. In few other places do the rules of journalism feel so fluid, so competitive, with the stakes so high. And never in the history of Arab media have two channels -- al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera, based in Qatar -- had so much influence and leeway in determining the very definition of news and, by default, the priorities of their viewers.
These channels "are more dangerous than nuclear bombs, and they radiate on a large scale," said Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, the station's general manager. "It could push them to go into a war, or it could make the people believe in peace and change their lives. It is exactly what we're in charge of today."