Annenberg looks at media impact in the Middle East

The Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Dean’s Third Space Initiative held a discussion on the media’s influence over Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and the United States on Wednesday evening in Wallis Annenberg Hall. The panel consisted of Amit Schejter, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Pennsylvania State University College of Communications, and Salam Al-Marayati, executive director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The panel was moderated by USC Annenberg Knight Chair in Religion and Media Diane Winston.

Winston began the conversation by focusing on how digital and social media led to media disparities in the Middle East that are not seen in the U.S. Schejter responded by explaining his belief that this derives from the different effects of a wealth gap in the U.S. and a media divide in the Middle East.

“There has been a growing income gap between Jews and Palestinians in the last decade,” Schejter said. “But more interesting … is the issue of the digital divide. In the U.S. [digital divides] run mostly on economic lines, while in the Middle East there are [disparities] between Arabs and Jews. Arabs spend more time online than Jews because there is more information for them online.”

Schejter said that there needs to be equality in media availability.

“The middle class is out there demonstrating and it has a smartphone and it has the applications and it has everything in their hands,” Schejter said. “They are not thinking about closing gaps and providing media to the people. In a new media era it’s not enough to talk about freedom of expression — we need to talk about equality of expression.”

Al-Marayati spoke mostly on the faulty focus of modern media and how poor connections and improper favoritism can create a disservice for consumers of  journalism. Al-Marayati discussed an inappropriately intertwined relationship between media and governmental services which can be applied equally in the U.S. and abroad.

“Today most of the press is representing what the government is saying,” Al-Marayati said. “Most people commenting are Pentagon officials or a former national security advisor or a state department advisor — there is no wall of separation between press and government. The wall of separation between the press and the government is equally important for us to live in a true democracy.”

Al-Marayati also covered the dangers of the status quo in Middle Eastern media. He juxtaposed the U.S., which he said has more healthy and varied dialogue, with the Middle East.

“Muslim-Jewish dialogue is actually thriving in the United States,” Al-Marayati said. “You find more Muslim-Jewish dialogue in Los Angeles in New York … I think by and large because Muslims and Jews are pretty much identical in their outlook [here in the U.S.].”

Jamie Cohen, a graduate student in Annenberg’s Master of Communication Management program, asked the speakers about the decline of Al Jazeera America, which recently announced that it would be closing its operation in the U.S. Schejter responded by saying that Al Jazeera is more of an ideological news outlet than a journalistic one, a distinction that may have put off American viewers who were looking for a different form of media.

“Al Jazeera is a very interesting news outlet … however, I was never a fan of Al Jazeera,” Schejter said. “I look at Al Jazeera and Fox News as opposite sides of the same coin. It is more ideological than it is, to me, true journalism.”