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It's Profit That Dictates Media Pandering to the Arab World

October 5, 2006 By:
Calev Ben-David
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Actors Peter Finch (left) and William Holden in the 1976 film "Network"

"You listen to me, and listen carefully, because this is your goddamn life I'm talking about today! When one company wants to take over another company, they buy a controlling share of the stock, but first they have to tell the government. That's how CCA took over the company that owns this network.

"But now somebody is buying up CCA. Somebody called the Western World Funding Corporation. ... Who is the Western World Funding Corporation? It is a consortium ... who are not buying CCA for themselves, but as agents for somebody else.

"Who is the somebody else? ... They're buying it for the Saudi Arabian Investment Corporation. They are buying it for the Arabs!"

If you don't recognize that monologue, it's one of the classic rants written by Paddy Chayefsky and delivered by deranged television news anchor Howard Beale (played by the late Peter Finch) in the prophetic 1976 movie "Network."

Although much of it seemed outrageous at the time, this scathing satire presciently predicted the rise of "reality television," the popularity of populist, pontificating news pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs, and the whole general dumbing-down of broadcast pop culture in the United States.

And what of its cautionary warning of the media being bought out by oil-rich Arab governments and corporations? It was certainly a timely message in the mid-1970s, during the height of the Arab oil embargo, OPEC's rise as a global power and an influx of petro-dollar investments flooding into the Western world.

The cries of Beale that "the Arabs are simply trying to buy us" actually seemed far more plausible and imminent back then than many of the film's other predictive plotlines.

Of course, it didn't work out quite that way, as oil prices stabilized in the following decades, and Arab petro-dollars flowed into far lower-profile and less politically sensitive investments in the West than media buys. In recent years, though -- as fuel prices have steadily climbed, and the pace of investment by oil-rich states and the companies and individuals associated with them has quickened -- there are signs that this is no longer the case.

But before we work ourselves up into one of Beale's "I'm as mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore" frenzies, let's try to take a more rational and dispassionate view of the situation.

Even though billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns 5.46 percent of Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate News Corp., that company's right-leaning newspapers and stations, especially the FOX News Channel, are hardly seen as supportive of Arab or Islamic interests. It's also worth pointing out that the non-Jewish Murdoch's empire is far more supportive of Israel than many competing outlets owned in whole or part by Jews.

Yet if Beale's nightmare of oil-fueled Islamic investment buying out the Western media still seems improbable at this stage, that may well be beside the point. In fact, the Arab world has taken meaningful strides in heightening its global media profile in recent years in a way that suggests far more than just a profit motive involved in its calculations.

The most important development in this regard is the plan to start up a globally broadcast English-language version of the Al Jazeera news channel. There's no question that the government of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, sees this as a vital step in expanding the station's influence beyond the Arab-speaking world.

Perhaps, though, the impact of oil-fueled Arab economies on global media does not lie with anything they themselves do, but simply the laws of the marketplace. More than 300 million Arabic speakers exist worldwide -- a tremendous market that no media corporation with global aspirations can ignore.

Thus, it is the decision by such major Western media companies, such as the BBC and CNN, to start up Arabic news channels -- and not Al Jazeera's to broadcast in English -- that will prove more significant in affecting policies. And that is unlikely to benefit Israel and its allies.

If you think otherwise, you're as crazy as Howard Beale. As the character is later told by the formidable CCA board chair: "The world is a business, Mr. Beale."

Calev Ben-David is the director of the Jerusalem office of the Israel Project.

 

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