The Arab world, it seems, is awash with public opinion polls. Where we used to get anecdotal reporting about the "Arab street," we increasingly have numbers to back those impressions up. A recent Zogby poll set out to learn not only what Arabs think about world news, but how those opinions are forged, and asked people what channels they turn to most for international news. Brooke discusses the results with Arab media scholar Marc Lynch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: When Iraqis went to the polls this week, they had just finished a season of being polled exhaustively themselves. The latest such poll was commissioned by ABC and the BBC and was released Monday. It found that Iraqis are mostly happy with their personal lives, although fewer than half think their country is better off now than it was before the war. Skepticism about the war seems to span the region. In October, Zogby International and University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami surveyed thousands of people in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. More than three-quarters of respondents thought that the Iraq invasion had brought more terrorism and less peace to the Middle East. But Zogby and Telhami were interested not only in what the public opinion was, but how it was formed, and so they also asked people what TV channels they relied on for international news. Joining me now for a little analysis is Williams college professor Marc Lynch, who also authors the blog "Abu Aardvark." Marc, welcome to the show.
MARC LYNCH:: Well, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Al-Jazeera dwarfed its competition as the first choice for international news, but that's not very surprising, is it?
MARC LYNCH:: No, that's not surprising. Al-Jazeera has always been the most popular station and the one that the most people watch. And what's the most interesting number there, actually, is that only 10 percent say that they never watch it. Now, if you asked how many people actually like Al-Jazeera the most, that number would be a lot lower. But the fact is that everybody has to watch Al-Jazeera to know what's going on, and that's not true of any other station.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Something that I found really interesting was that Al-Arabiya, which is the Saudi channel and which we've always regarded as an able competitor to Al-Jazeera, actually fell quite behind Al-Jazeera in terms of viewership.
MARC LYNCH:: I think there's two possible reasons for that. One is Al-Arabiya tends to do a lot better in, say, Iraq and Kuwait, which were left out of the survey. But the other reason is that over the last year, Al-Arabiya has been pushing a very pro-American agenda, which might be turning viewers off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: If you go down to the bottom of the list, to the American station Al-Hurra, five percent say they consider it the first or second choice for news. Fifty-three percent say they never watch it, ever.
MARC LYNCH:: I don't think Al-Hurra is really succeeding anywhere. Interestingly, the station with the profile that looks most like Al-Hurra's is the Hezbollah station, Al-Manar. This suggests to me that, like Al-Manar, it's reaching a very small niche of like-minded people but it's not breaking out into a wider audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So if you were going to Al-Hurra's sponsors in Washington, DC, what would you tell them to do? Admit defeat and just close up shop?
MARC LYNCH:: I think they need to radically rethink the mission and try and figure out what it is that they're trying to achieve. Right now they have a combination of NBA games and "Inside the Actors Studio," combined with - [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: [LAUGHS]
MARC LYNCH:: - news and talk shows, which, frankly, don't add very much to what's already out there. One of the things which has really bothered me about Al-Hurra and the way it's debated in Washington is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors seems to adopt a very boosterist position to it. They always want to flag the positive numbers and not really respond to the criticisms. And most independent observers look at it and say, "Something's not working." But when the response is, "Well, you're wrong, things are working," that's not very productive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: As far as media habits go, was there a widely different pattern of usage among the different nations?
MARC LYNCH:: There were some pretty significant differences. Al-Jazeera, for example, in some places it's almost a monopoly, whereas in other places it's relatively weak. If you had thrown Iraq into the survey, that would have become even more stark, where Al-Jazeera took sixth place in an Ipsostat survey of television in Iraq done a few months ago. One thing which has been important for a number of years is that Iraqis and Arabs are really seeing a very different reality, and they're getting different news and they see things really differently. And this gap in perceptions between the general Arab world and Iraq seems to be, if anything, getting worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: This poll is one of an increasing number of public opinion polls that are being conducted throughout the region. Do you think that the proliferation of these polls is changing the political landscape there or merely tracking it?
MARC LYNCH:: I think that for these big cross-regional polls, the impact is more over on this side of the ocean. I think it tells us what Arabs think about us. But what has been much more interesting to me has been the proliferation of polls at the local level. Like in Jordan, for example, there's one independent newspaper which regularly commissions public opinion polls on domestic issues. And that's actually had quite an impact because it, in a sense, helps to break the stranglehold that opinion leaders or the government have on the agenda when a newspaper can say, "Look, what the people really care about is corruption," which may be something which columnists or the state-controlled media don't have any interest in pursuing. I think the real impact is going to be when we have five to ten years of these under our belt and we can start tracking trends, and that, I think, is when we're going to start to see some real value in all of this public opinion polling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: All right. Marc, thank you very much.
MARC LYNCH:: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Marc Lynch is a political science professor at Williams College and the author of the new book, Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Middle East Politics Today. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Up next, the science projects you don't know you're eating, and tech experts who get gifts when they tell you what to buy for Christmas.