Q&A with Lawrence Pintak: New Media Provoking String of Middle East Uprisings

Former Daily Evergreen Editor-in-Chief Gavin Mathis sat down with Lawrence Pintak, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication founding dean, Wednesday to discuss the uprising in Egypt, the role of new media in the Middle East and President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. Here is an excerpt from their conversation:

Gavin Mathis: Why is this string of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and more recently Jordan and Syria happening now?

Lawrence Pintak: It’s media. It’s absolutely media. You can draw a direct line from the birth of (Arab news network) Al Jazeera in 1996 to the birth of these upheavals. People have been angry for a very long time. They have been humiliated. They have been fed up. In Tunisia, it was the product of a very smart use of digital media to initially organize the protesters and get the word out, but then the fact that television was there helped it spread across the region and that’s what helped the Egyptians. They saw what was happening in Tunisia and said, ‘Hey, if they can do it there, we can do it here.’

GM: You recently wrote that Al Jazeera is replacing many of the region’s autocrats as the dominant information source. How big of a role is Al Jazeera playing in spreading information and provoking these uprisings?

LP: Well, it’s the dominant news and current affairs channel, but it is not the only one. There are now 500 Arab satellite channels. … Al Jazeera has the largest audience and remains the channel that the majority or a plurality of people turns to. But just like in the U.S., if you’re conservative, you watch FOX. If I’m liberal, I watch MSNBC. People line up behind particular channels in the Arab world based on their politics. … So Al Jazeera will continue to play an important role, but as journalism evolves in the Arab world, there will be more and more voices. Just like 20 years ago here, everyone watched the three main evening news broadcasts. Now, nobody does.

GM: You seem to be OK with Al Jazeera openly advocating for regime change in Egypt. Do you feel that is the proper role of a news outlet? You compared it to Thomas Paine during the American revolution in your Foreign Policy piece.

Cover of Pintak's latest book "The New Arab Journalist"

LP: It’s not for me to say what journalism should be in the Arab world. … We can expose them to Western mores, approaches and standards, but they need to decide what they want journalism to be. Al Jazeera is emphatically looking for social change and political change and Arab journalists in general are, but that doesn’t mean all of them are. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will skew their coverage because they believe in change. I sent (one of my former students) a note saying, ‘What are you doing? Are you covering (the protests) for someone?’ She said: ‘No. … I’ve decided that I can’t even begin to be objective on this story so I’ve laid down my pen and I’m joining the protesters.’

GM: What do you think this transition of power from (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak to the next regime will look like? Is he going to be gone tomorrow? Next week? In September when the elections are? Is this going to be a drawn-out affair?

LP: If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said he wouldn’t last another week when he unleashed the thugs on the streets. But you know, he has settled in now. The momentum keeps shifting. Two days ago, I would have said that it looks like Tahrir (Square) is going to settle in to a sit in …

GM: Like Tiananmen Square?

LP: … Well, not Tiananmen Square because that went bad, but an encampment and an ongoing protest and life would go on for the rest of Egypt. But now … there are a lot more people down at the square.

GM: How well do you feel the Obama administration has handled the situation? If you were in the State Department right now, what would you be advising him to do?

LP: I think they’ve kind of taken two steps forward and one step backward – repeatedly. This is a tightrope for them to walk. … I argued in a Seattle Times piece over the weekend that the U.S. really has an opportunity here to seize the momentum of the forces of reform.

GM: So this is more of a momentum shift than Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech?

LP: Yeah. … Obama went to Cairo and said all the right things and said all the right things leading up to it. Then, the Arabs said, ‘Words are cheap. Show me the beef.’ And they never saw the beef, and they never saw the policy changes so Arabs have been very disillusioned with the Obama administration. This is an opportunity to win over public sentiment, but again it is a narrow line for them to walk.

GM: Both President Bush and President Obama have promoted the idea that democracy could flourish in the Middle East with just a little help. And now some academics are saying these recent events are justifying the Bush Doctrine? I imagine you disagree, especially Bush’s use of force?

LP: This is the antithesis of Bush Doctrine. Bush Doctrine – for a large part of the Bush administration – was: We will go in and we will recreate the Middle East through invasion and then that will cause this toppling of dominoes and creating of democracy. But what happened the first time there were free elections in Palestine? Hamas won. From the U.S. perspective, the wrong guy won.

GM: When the dust settles, do you think Egypt is going to look more like Turkey or more like Iran?

LP: I hope it ends up looking like Turkey or Indonesia. … They are democratic governments. … In Turkey, the Islamists run the country, but they’re running it from a very moderate approach. It is not going to be Iran. There are no two ways about it. It is not Iran. Every variable is different between Egypt and Iran.

For the full interview visit www.dailyevergreen.com

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