In the limelight
In an otherwise fast-paced world, satellite television remains a great medium for dialogue, writes James Zogby*
As some of you may know, I appear weekly on "Viewpoint", a live call-in television programme on Abu Dhabi TV. I have been doing Viewpoint since 2001, and before that hosted "A Capital View" on MBC. Because this week I will host my 600th show marking 15 years of weekly television, I hope you will indulge me a moment of reflection, both on the shows I've hosted and the remarkable opportunities satellite television has created for us all.
From the beginning, we were made aware of the possibilities and power of a live call-in programme. First and foremost was the immediacy that it provided. I recall, for example, that we were on the air the night of the horrible bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Throughout that day, US networks had featured "experts" suggesting that Arabs had been responsible for the attack. That night on "A Capital View" we received calls from a number of Arab Americans who were experiencing the beginnings of the inevitable backlash, including powerful testimonial from Oklahoma City itself, from a frightened family in their home calling us while an angry mob of demonstrators were outside.
A somewhat similar incident occurred several years later during reports of aerial bombardments in Falluja. My guest was a senior State Department official who flat-out denied that these attacks were occurring. Then came a call from Falluja, from a frightened and angry woman, who told of the destruction in her neighbourhood from bombs that had fallen from US planes.
There are also the opportunities for cross- cultural communication offered by satellite television. The best examples here were the three live conversations we hosted between students in the United States and those on campus at the University of Baghdad. One took place the week before the war began, the next came two months later, and the last on the fourth anniversary of the war. No shows were as emotionally wrenching or as meaningful as these. Said one US student present at all three: "As hard as it was in 2003 to talk to them, knowing we were going to make war on them, it was harder to talk to them after what we've done to their country and say 'We're just going to walk away from you.'"
There was also a remarkable show with Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. At one point in her discussion of services provided by her department she mentioned the problem of spousal abuse. A caller from Jordan phoned in and, inexplicably, attempted to defend that behaviour. He was followed by a caller in Egypt who had, herself, been a victim of abuse. Before long, the show turned into a thorough discussion of this horrible problem.
And, finally, there was a memorable dialogue on the causes of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, live from "Ground Zero", the site of the horror with New York Times journalist Tom Friedman and a group of thoughtful students from Sheikh Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates.
Satellite television also has provided us with opportunity to reach out and gather information and organise. During the 1996 presidential election, we devoted a series of shows to the issues in the campaign and the importance of voting. At that time we were carried on a basic cable channel in Michigan. After the election, one of the state's daily newspapers conducted a survey of over 100 first-time voters in that state's large Arab American community. When asked why they voted, 75 per cent said that they were inspired to do so by what they learned on my show.
Again during the mid-1990s, Arab Americans were plagued with a crude and intrusive practice of airport profiling that resulted in many being singled out in airports and literally denied the right to fly. At the same time, a White House commission was reviewing air safety and security practices in order to make recommendations to the vice-president. We invited the chief of staff of the commission and a Washington representative of the American Civil Liberties Union to appear on two special shows devoted to airport profiling. Over the span of two weeks, 24 extraordinary callers told my guests of their harrowing experiences. The testimonies they provided were shocking and contributed to the commission's recommendation that subjective profiling be terminated.
Over the past 15 years we've hosted the famous (Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, vice-president Al Gore and Senator John McCain), and the not so famous (experts from Washington-based think tanks, authors, and journalists from a variety of backgrounds). We have discussed a wide range of topics that affect US-Arab relations and explored a host of other policy issues. All the while, we provided our viewers with the opportunity to weigh in with comments and questions. We have attempted, through all of this, to demonstrate that no matter how difficult or controversial the topic, civil discourse is not only possible but also necessary if we are to learn and create understanding.
We began as a show that had a largely Arab American audience. We are now the only English-language programme on an Arabic network. Because of that we do not appear on prime time in the Middle East. Yet, from the reactions I get when I travel across the region, I know that we are watched by those who appreciate the quiet and thoughtful discussion of critical issues.
What pleases me to no end is that we are now carried in the US on a number of networks (Link TV, MHz, and some public broadcasting stations). This enables us to do something that only satellite television can do; that is to reach an Arab audience and an American audience at the same time.
And so, on this anniversary, my thanks go to my faithful viewers. From the hundreds of guests I've hosted and thousands who've called in, I have learned so much. It continues to be an honour and a privilege to be a part of this continuing conversation.
* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute, Washington.