Western media fade, new media rise in AsiaKUALA LUMPUR - The non-Western world routinely alleges that the global media represented by the likes of CNN and the Wall Street Journal are tainted with a Western, often pro-US bias. But the ever-growing reach of new media entities providing non-Western perspectives to breaking global news, ranging from powerful new television networks to itty-bitty weblogs, has in effect reduced the claim to myth.
Several commercial and technological factors are driving the shift. Previously prominent English-language news weeklies, such as Dow Jones-owned Far Eastern Economic Review and Time Warner-run Asiaweek, have dramatically fallen from the print news scene they dominated in the 1980s and into the 1990s. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch sold much of his controlling stake in Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV last year, marking yet another blow to advance his media empire into China.
Many Western media outlets have seen their circulation figures stagnate, and under growing financial pressure at home have severely cut their reporting staffs across Asia. Newsweek recently closed its Asia bureau and Time has closed down all but two of its regional bureaus.
Meanwhile, the financial-loss-making Asian Wall Street Journal's regional subscription base has stagnated at around 80,000 for well over a decade, and former Dow Jones employees allege those figures are probably overblown through the dubious use of bulk-rate subscriptions and other promotional activities. Signaling a possible further consolidation in big Western media, Murdoch's News Corp on Wednesday launched a US$5 billion takeover bid for Dow Jones.
On the other side, there is a growing demand for non-Western news perspectives. Al-Jazeera is the most prominent example to fill the void, with a host of television and Internet-based imitators quickly springing in its wake. In November, Al-Jazeera launched an English-language channel that is more sanitized than its Arabic version and aims at competing head to head with the likes of Cable News Network (CNN) and the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC). It recently set up a news hub in Kuala Lumpur and currently reaches 80 million households globally by cable and satellite.
Sensing the shift in sentiment, not to mention the commercial opportunities, Western media companies are, somewhat ironically, rushing to peddle their own non-Western perspectives. The BBC World Service plans to start an Arabic television service this fall, and the International Herald Tribune recently noted: "If the BBC's Arabic TV programs resemble its radio programs, then they will be just as anti-Western as anything that comes out of the [Persian] Gulf, if not more so."
Those who have felt slighted by Western bias are now fighting back with low-cost tools of mass persuasion, ranging from satellite television to individual-run websites and blogs. And they are reacting to a growing demand, particularly since September 11, 2001, for non-Western perspectives to the news.
Western media previously represented perhaps the only outlets for independent views for people living under authoritarian regimes in Asia. The Bangkok-based Asia Times newspaper of Sondhi Limthongkul's Manager Media Group was one of the first news publications to take this contrarian tack, first as a print publication in 1995, and currently in its Internet incarnation as Asia Times Online, which on average has 100,000 visitors per day.
Many people outside the West are still living under non-democratic conditions where state media have aggressively resisted presenting Western perspectives on everything from political history to civil liberties to the "war on terror". Here in Muslim-majority Malaysia, for instance, there was little if any mention in the state press of the Holocaust on its 60th anniversary two years ago.
Granted, in many of these same countries the Internet has become a powerful tool to voice and obtain alternative views. In Malaysia, a handful of courageous bloggers have become so effective in drawing attention to government abuses that authorities are considering censoring them. And while ideals including transparency, official accountability, and freedom of speech are frequently endorsed on independent blogs and websites, they can hardly be said to represent Western bias, as most of the bloggers are local.
Most news consumers are inclined to take what they are fed, or at least what they are accustomed to. And what they are accustomed to in restricted societies is generally what governments perpetuate through their strictly controlled mouthpiece media outlets. I have noticed among Malaysians, for instance, that when given a choice - say on a flight or at multinational coffee houses - between international newspapers such as the International Herald Tribune and Financial Times and local government-controlled propaganda, they almost invariably choose the latter.
Further, if the world media are "sullied by Western political bias and colored by Western ideological bias", in the words of Felix Soh, deputy editor of online media for Singapore's state-controlled Straits Times newspaper, then how to explain the highly distorted, caricatured summations of Western culture and its governments so prevalent in the non-Western world today?
One explanation is that media are feeding pre-existing prejudices. In an essay in the timely book Understanding Anti-Americanism: Its Origins and Impact at Home and Abroad, Patrick Clawson and Barry Rubin point out that local and satellite stations in the Middle East are "competing with one another as to which can be more stridently anti-American".
Media in the US may have their share of voices that misrepresent Muslims, but most mainstream media there can hardly be accused of competing to see which can be the most stridently anti-Muslim. It is not uncommon to find, even in what many in Malaysia and across the Middle East consider the "Zionist" New York Times, op-eds sympathetic to Palestinian plight.
Under fire from all sides, the US government has funded everything from television commercials to broadcast stations to correct what it perceives as distorted news about the US. But as evinced by Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes' "listening tours" across the Muslim world, the efforts have usually focused more on justifying the administration's policies than on putting the US into its global context.
The growing presence of non-Western viewpoints in the world media might seem to be a mere matter of leveling the playing field, and we are witnessing an overshooting of anti-Western views in the adjustment. Writing back in 1986, Ahmad Shafaat of the Molson School of Business of Concordia University, Montreal, urged Muslims to combat the "anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim chorus" in media with "pro-Islamic and pro-Muslim material".
This reasoning is all-pervasive today; the post-September 11, 2001, media landscape has, like the world the media reflect and simultaneously inform, become increasingly ideological. This explains why purportedly objective media companies today so often provide strikingly different coverage of the same events. The problem is compounded when the media gatekeepers of one ideology feel those of another have misrepresented the facts, leading to a tendency to overcompensate in their own reporting.
Unfortunately, what we are often left with is not a mass movement to inform the news-consuming public better, but rather attempts to distort the news, leading to a great irony of the so-called new information age - that with more and more information at our disposal, we are no closer to bridging seismic gaps in global understanding. That is something Western and non-Western media are unfortunately equally responsible for.
Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, is a Kuala Lumpur-based writer.