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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bob WebbNews from Arab-US policymakers’ conference illustrates how media misses the positive

by Bob Webb, Washington DC

The evidence piles up—the mass media misses lots of positive news that could reshape communities, nations and the modern world. 

Case in point: revolutionary changes underway in Saudi Arabia. Thus the new private Alfaisal University in Riyadh is open to women as well as men. Thus the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opening in Jeddah also for women as well as men. Thus, too, the two new cities being built in Kuwait—each expects to have around 300,000 population and increase the small nation's international trade.  

But how many people outside Saudi Arabia and Kuwait know about these developments?  

Saudis at the recent annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference (AUSPC) in Washington emphasized the new chords struck in their country as King Abdullah reaches out to the world in a new way. Adel Ayman Thiab, the young admissions officer for Alfaisal University, was beaming as he told me about the new school, his country's first for women as well as men. Other Saudis were equally upbeat. They and non-Saudis with whom I spoke stressed how the country was changing. Media, for example, find it easier to discuss and take positions on public issues.   

Small wonder that in his address to the two-day event Dr. Abdulrahman H. Al-Saeed, Advisor to the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Director of the Office of Special Projects and Custodian of the Two Holy Places for the King, expressed grief over what he called the negative (non-Saudi) media portrait of his country. (In Washington a few years ago, Jordanian Prince El-Hassan bin Talaal called for a kind of "media Peace Corps" for the Middle East. Then told about the ICF, he pledged his support for it). 

The all-star cast of speakers for the conference included Adm. William J. Fallon (USN. Ret.), commander in 2007-8 of the U.S. Central Command in the Middle East. He said the vast majority of the world's people want the same things (peace, suitable jobs, education for their children, etc.) and that "things are on the way up in the Middle East" despite media's negative portrait.   

As I listened, I thought of the young Afghan women's leader, Orazala Ashraf Nermat, who bore down recently on media as heavily negative and reporting "only one side but not the other side" of issues. "The situation on the ground is different from media impressions," she told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She said a hundred women were among the 500 drafters of the Afghan constitution, adding that "women can run for president. Youth and young people are participating (along with) more women at the provincial level."  

At the conference I met Rafic A. Bizri, president of the Hariri Foundation with its mission to support Lebanese students and with an office in suburban Washington. He stressed the need for interaction among peoples of different faith, ethnic and other backgrounds.(Rafic Hariri, the much-loved former Lebanese prime minister assassinated in 2005, was his boss).  

The event panel on "Education and Development," chaired by Harriet Fulbright, president of the J. William and Harriet Fulbright Center, emphasized student exchanges in the quest for a more peaceful world. She harked back to the conviction of her late husband, U.S. Senator Fulbright, that such exchanges were fundamental to the pursuit of world peace.  In that regard, 21,000 Saudi students are in the United States. I spoke with one, Zakariya Alanwah, who is at the University of North Carolina with a scholarship from Saudi Aramco. He was thrilled to be at UNC while upbeat about his country's increasing outreach to the world.   

So what can media do to highlight such positive developments for a more equitable balance of what's going right in the world with what's going wrong? That's a question for journalists everywhere.

A German diplomat once blamed much of the depression among youth in his country on what they saw on nightly television news. Positive stories can be found anywhere, no matter how grim the circumstances. But they must be sought. I know. As a journalist, for example, I traveled through South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe in 1980 and found such stories in all three.  

I'd heard apartheid in Namibia was worse than in South Africa, which then held it in trust. Instead, I found black-and-white civic leaders working together. One night I dined in the main hotel in Windhoek, the capital, with Andreas Shipanga, who'd been a founder of SWAPO, the rebel group seeking Namibia's independence which it eventually won. As he entered the dining room, he paused at several tables to speak to white friends. He was an expansive, outgoing fellow who appeared to have many friends there. He marveled at the positive changes that had occurred in Namibia. 

It not only had racially-open dining but also open housing. Shipanga and his wife had found their home in a previously all-white neighborhood. I also observed a class of black students a white woman taught. In South Africa, I interviewed university students in an organization striving for black members as a racially just and healing measure. In Zimbabwe, I stayed with a white family which had rescued and adopted a 14-year-old black boy and was urging whites not to flee the country after its shift to black majority rule. 

While most journalists aim for accuracy, they miss much by focusing on the negative. Media consumers such as Admiral Fallon, Orazala Ashraf Nermat, Dr. Abdulrahman and Prince El-Hassan know that. A greater news balance would almost certainly lead to a more just and peaceful world—the mission of the International Communications Forum.