Snap Judgment: A smart media buy

Is oil-fueled Islamic investment buying out the Western media?

September 28, 2006 12:40
Snap Judgment: A smart media buy

calevbendavid88. (photo credit: )


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"You listen to me, and listen carefully, because this is your goddamn life I'm talking about today! When one company wants to take over another company, they buy a controlling share of the stock, but first they have to tell the government. That's how CCA took over the company that owns this network. "But now somebody is buying up CCA. Somebody called the Western World Funding Corporation. They filed the notice this morning. Who is the Western World Funding Corporation? It is a consortium of banks and insurance companies who are not buying CCA for themselves, but as agents for somebody else. "Who is the somebody else? They won't tell! They won't tell you, or the Senate, they won't tell the SEC, the FCC, they won't tell the Justice Department… I will tell you who they're buying CCA for. They're buying it for the Saudi-Arabian Investment Corporation. They are buying it for the Arabs!" If you don't recognize that monologue, it's one of the classic rants written by Paddy Chayefsky and delivered by deranged television news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in the prophetic 1976 movie Network. Although much of it seemed outrageous at the time, this scathing satire presciently predicted the rise of "reality television," the popularity of populist, pontificating news pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs, and the whole general dumbing-down of broadcast pop culture in the US. And what of its cautionary warning of the media being bought out by oil-rich Arab governments and corporations? It was certainly a timely message in the mid-1970s, during the height of the Arab oil embargo, OPEC's rise as a global power, and an influx of petro-dollar investments flooding into the Western World. The cries of Howard "The mad prophet of the airwaves" Beale that "the Arabs are simply trying to buy us… Hell, they already own half of England!" actually seemed far more plausible and imminent back then than many of Network's other predictive plotlines. Of course it didn't work out quite that way, as oil prices stabilized in the following decades, and Arab petro-dollars flowed into far lower-profile and less politically sensitive investments in the West than media buys. In recent years though, as fuel prices have steadily climbed and the pace of investment by oil-rich states and the companies and individuals associated with them has quickened, there are signs that this is no longer the case. TAKE, FOR example, this report from Reuters earlier this month: "Muslim tycoons should buy stakes in global media outlets to help change anti-Muslim attitudes around the world, ministers from Islamic countries heard at a conference in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. Information ministers and officials meeting under the auspices of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the world's largest Islamic body, said Islam faced vilification after the September 11 attacks, when 19 Arabs killed nearly 3,000 people in US cities in 2001. "'Muslim investors must invest in the large media institutions of the world, which generally make considerable profits, so that they have the ability to affect their policies via their administrative boards,' OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu told the gathering in the Saudi city of Jeddah. 'This would benefit in terms of correcting the image of Islam worldwide,' he said, calling on Muslim countries to set up more channels in widely-spoken foreign languages." Score another one, 30 years on, for Chayefsky. BUT BEFORE we work ourselves up into one of Beale's "I'm as mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore" frenzies, let's try to take a more rational and dispassionate view of the situation. As Reuters notes, "Muslim stakes in Western media are minimal," and while there is such investment, there are no signs yet of it exerting any undue influence on media content. Indeed, although billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns 5.46% of Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate News Corp., that company's right-leaning newspapers and stations, especially the FOX News Channel, are hardly seen as supportive of Arab or Islamic interests, to say the least. (It's also worth pointing out that contrary to the anti-Semitic notion of "Jewish control" of the media, the non-Jewish Murdoch's communications empire is far more supportive of Israel than many competing outlets which are owned in whole or part by Jews). Even in today's globalized economy, foreign ownership of local media in many countries is often subject to government regulation that places strict limits on it, as is the case in the US (a point Chayefsky conveniently ignored in Network). And where there have been attempts by Arab investors to buy out Western media outlets - such as the Saudi takeover of the fading UPI wire service during the 1990s - they have not been notably successful either financially or in terms of influence (UPI is now owned by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church). YET IF Howard Beale's nightmare - and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu's dream - of oil-fueled Islamic investment buying out the Western media still seems improbable at this stage, that may well be beside the point. In fact, the Arab world has taken meaningful strides in heightening its global media profile in recent years in a way that suggests there is far more than purely a profit motive involved in its calculations. The most important development in this regard is the plan to start up a globally broadcast English-language version of the Al-Jazeera news channel during the next few months. Although its debut has been delayed several times, there's no question that the government of Qatar, which owns Al-Jazeera, sees this as an important step in expanding the station's influence beyond the Arab-speaking world, no matter what the financial risk (although tiny, Qatar sits on the world's third-largest deposit of natural gas). Perhaps, though, the impact of oil-fueled Arab economies on global media does not lie with anything they themselves do, but simply the laws of the marketplace, as big media companies seek ever-larger audiences (and profits). There are more than 300 million Arabic speakers worldwide - a tremendous market that no media corporation with global aspirations can ignore. Thus it is the decision by such major Western media companies such as the BBC and CNN to start up Arabic news channels - and not Al-Jazeera's to broadcast in English, or any Islamic investment in Western media - that will ultimately prove to be a more significant factor in "affecting policies," to quote our friend from the OIC; and those are unlikely to benefit the State of Israel and its supporters. If you think otherwise, well, in this journalist's view you're being as naive, or nuts, as Howard Beale. As the character is later told in Network by the formidable chairman of the board of CCA: "The world is a business, Mr. Beale." Or, at the very least, that not insignificant part of it that we call the media certainly is. The writer is the director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project.

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