In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is on the losing side of a global information war, pointing out the successes of state funded international news networks like Al Jazeera. A group of Columbia University students monitored five English language news networks aimed at an international audience in a project called Global Media Wars. Nathanael Massey worked on the project and he says it's not that the U.S. is losing the information war, it's just no longer in the lead.
BOB GARFIELD: With Osama bin Laden’s death, the United States has won a significant battle in the war on terror. But the U.S. is involved in another war, a global media war, a war that, according to a statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in March, we are losing.
HILLARY CLINTON: I'll be very blunt in my assessment. Al-Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English-language and multi-language television network. The Russians have opened up an English-language network. I've seen it in a few countries, and it’s quite instructive.
BOB GARFIELD: These English-language networks aren't aimed at audiences in their home countries. They're meant to directly challenge Western dominance over global news. Nathanael Massey is one of fifteen reporters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism who monitored five of these state-funded channels for a project called Global Media Wars. He says they looked at how the channels, Al-Jazeera English, Russia Today, Press TV from Iran, France 24 and CCTV from China, stacked up against one another.
NATHANAEL MASSEY: For example, we would assess for credibility and rank them one through five. If a channel was very credible, such as Al-Jazeera, it was a five. If it was much less credible, clearly slanted, such as Press TV out of Iran, it would get a one.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s an interesting selection of channels you've chosen. The Iranian channel is sort of like voice of Ahmadinejad. Al-Jazeera seems to me to stand pretty much head and shoulders above the rest, in terms of attempts at objectivity. And then there’s Russia Today. How would you describe this channel?
NATHANAEL MASSEY: Entertainment news. And the gist of that entertainment is making fun of the United States. Russia Today has an extremely confrontational stance when it comes to U.S., and their content doesn't try to take itself that seriously. They've been very innovative in airing their content through non-traditional means. For example, via YouTube they get a lot of views. And I think they tailor their approach to that audience, an audience that’s looking for a laugh or an alternate viewpoint.
BOB GARFIELD: The Iranian TV channel, the Chinese TV channel and Russia Today, though they have the look and the feel of maybe BBC or CNN International, just 'cause it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck doesn't make it a duck. Do their viewers think they're a duck?
NATHANAEL MASSEY: [LAUGHS] I would hesitate to say that their viewers think they're a duck. I think any viewer who is exposed to multiple media forms in this day and age, when there is such a plurality of information, has some certain degree of discernment. And if you watch Press TV or Russia Today, you know from the get-go that they have an agenda. At the same time, there are at moments segments of those broadcasts which can be taken credibly. For example, if China Central Television produces a segment on something that has nothing to do with Chinese policy, it can be quite objective.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you follow the coverage of the bin Laden killing on these channels this week?
NATHANAEL MASSEY: I did.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Please go down the list. On Al-Jazeera English, what happened?
NATHANAEL MASSEY: Al-Jazeera English came out right away, just like BBC and CNN, giving detailed information. They also had unique sources that CNN and BBC did not have. They had a Taliban chieftain saying, this isn't going to change anything; the insurgency will continue. They had a friend of bin Laden’s in Saudi Arabia talking about bin Laden’s earlier life and his transition. What came out of them was very interesting and very professional.
BOB GARFIELD: France 24?
NATHANAEL MASSEY: It doesn't concern France or the Francophone world directly, so what you got from France 24 was much more bullet points, no particular slant one way or the other.
BOB GARFIELD: China?
NATHANAEL MASSEY: China Central Television, same thing. What does bin Laden’s death have to do with China or its immediate policy goals? There were some questions about did the U.S. have the right to be there in Pakistan, maybe more than you would see in the U.S. media.
BOB GARFIELD: Russia Today.
NATHANAEL MASSEY: [LAUGHS] Russia Today. Russia Today first ignored the events for 12 to 24 hours, and then –
BOB GARFIELD: Well, maybe thinking the whole thing would just blow over. [LAUGHS]
NATHANAEL MASSEY: Perhaps, perhaps. And when it did not, what came out of Russia was first questioning the evidence that Osama was dead and then strongly condemning the U.S.’s action in Pakistan. And finally, as you can imagine, Press TV out of Iran, my favorite headline that they ran this week was “U.S. is Balkanizing the Middle East.” They brought on some “experts” – in quotation marks – saying, no, actually bin Laden died 10 years ago. This is all a setup, part of the ongoing effort by the West to impose its will on the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: So we began this conversation, Nathaniel, talking about the global media war that the Secretary of State believes that we're not faring all that well in. Based on these five channels, do you throw in with Secretary Clinton?
NATHANAEL MASSEY: No, I don't, because it’s not so much that we are losing the war at this moment. It’s just that we're no longer winning it hands down. The fact is that CNN International and the BBC had a complete monopoly over this arena for decades. What we're seeing is a new plurality of voices, and we're going to have to get used to that, and we're going to have to become more discerning because we can no longer count on there only being one or two voices that we can trust.
BOB GARFIELD: Nathanael, thank you very much.
NATHANAEL MASSEY: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, sir.
BOB GARFIELD: Nathanael Massey is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can learn more at Globalmediawars.com.