The term yellow press appeared in the late 19th century when a media war was waged between two American press tycoons: Joseph Pulitzer, owner of New York World, and William Randolf Hurst, owner of New York Journal.
Both papers were criticized for carrying lurid headlines and sensational news in order to boost circulation. By coincidence, they both published a comic strip the hero of which was called The Yellow Boy . That s why the term yellow press was associated with the Pulitzer and Hurst conglomerates and later with all newspapers which carry unconfirmed news and false wrangling under unscrupulously lurid headlines in an unprofessional and at times immoral manner.
As that yellow press conflict reached its peak in 1898, our media in the third millennium should be called the yellow (tabloid) media. In addition to the yellow press we today have yellow TV, yellow radio, yellow websites and yellow media figures who compromised professional principles for some immediate gains. As a result, high culture all but disappeared from the Arab media.
A few days ago, we found in our email a video clip of a large cross section of the general Arab public who were asked some general knowledge questions about geography, history, language, biography, art and literature. The group was representative in terms of age group, especially the youth. All answers were wrong, except for the songs of a young female or a famous singer. Their single source of information is the Arab media whose channels, papers and radio waves popularise this type of song and produce a kind of generation who know nothing important about their country and lack valuable knowledge.
Too many Arab TV channels are racing to attractr as many viewers as possible. Two years ago, the number of free Arab satellite channels was about five hundred, 80% in Arabic. Private sector channels account for the majority of satellite channels, followed by state-run channels offering general programmes (13.3%). According to Arab States Broadcasting Union, the number of channels rose to 696 last year, broadcast by 26 state and 372 private organizations on 17 satellites, including Arabsat, Nilesat, Noorsat and Eurosat, in addition to the Arab unified group. There are 49 general and 48 specialized state channels a 28% increase over the 2007-2008 report. Private channels include 161 general and 438 specialized ones a 40% increase.
Out of this plethora of Arab satellite channels, song and variety account for 23.4% of the 15 channels; drama (movies and serials) 13.8%. The number of sports channels is 56 (11.4% of specialized channels); news channels 34 (7%); religious channels 39 (8%). Arab satellite channels are broadcast in a variety of languages: Arabic, 515 channels (74%); English, 142 (20%); French 2%; Hindi 14 channels; Tamazight 14 channels; Spanish, 3 channels; Persian, 2 channels and one channel in each of the following languages: Urdu, Malaysian, Kurdish, Turkmen and Hebrew!
Among this multitude of Arab channels, the channels specialized in culture can be counted on the fingers of one hand, most of which replicate programmes on international channels about cities landmarks, the animal world, natural disasters and biographies of prominent Western figures, etc., and rarely present locally produced programmes in line with the standards of serious national culture. Furthermore, these channels are gradually racing against the general ones to attract more viewers, and cultural programmes on most general channels are nothing but interviews with silly questions, ignorant interviewers and poor preparation.
All in all, this host of channels supposed to be a medium of enlightenment have in fact become a symbol of ignorance and darkness, which discourages the younger generation from watching, thus widening the gap between serious national culture and the kind of culture they promote.
Even the religious channels, which are wide open to ignorant persons who falsely claim to be muftis, have become a venue for superstition, narrow-mindedness and sorcery, in addition to wrangling and sectarian strife, rather than dialogue.
Even music channels have corrupted our musical heritage in favour of loud Western music, which destroys the bridges between old and modern Arab music, one of the main pivots of artistic continuity from one generation to the next. This is demonstrated in the decline in the number of patriotic songs, as, according to the Third Arab Cultural Development Report published by Arab Thought Foundation in Beirut last year, only nine patriotic songs out of 415 songs were produced in 2009. This reveals the damage done to nationalist sentiments and how the art, particularly music and sound, market has been dominated by advertising companies, resulting in producing a public cut off from their treasures of classical Arab music, which are part of their culture and patriotic sentiments.
The cult of the stars
The media may disagree on certain matters, but there is agreement on one thing: the cult of the stars. These are many movie and young pop stars, in addition to Arab and world footballers. They are the focus of media hype pictures, news, rumours and gossip, most of which are false or at least inaccurate.
An example of this is common talk about how much a player is worth and the price of transfer to another club and daily pay, with no focus on the number od daily training hours, the list of things not allowed to do to maintain physical fitness, severe social deprivation outside pitches and short sporting life. If covered, these aspects can give a balanced picture showing the physical and psychological price vis à vis the material value over sporting years, brokers commission and lifestyle costs.
Quiz shows are very common today. The quiz master asks silly questions, making some participants millionaires and stars on the spot. Similarly, Candid Camera programmes are patronized by such stars.
Arab prominent figures in the world of culture are absent from the list of stars. There is almost no mention in the media of Arab architects who designed impressive buildings worldwide, writers whose works have been translated into most world languages, scientists in prestigious positions in world organizations or physicians whose experiments have reached labs and hospitals across the world.
The Arabs do not take advantage of their enormous human resources who live abroad and give their knowledge and expertise to non-Arab countries. Most of them have immigrated because they didn t find a hospitable, encouraging environment. This brain drain has resulted in the loss of $ 11 bn in the 1970s, rising to $ 200 bn now, on the assumption that the education cost of each Arab scientist is $ 10,000 on average. We can make use of their scientific experiments in adopting their national projects to enhance science in the Arab world and shift the media focus from the movie/pop and football model to another model which appreciates effort, promotes knowledge, reason and development and criticism.
Lost in the Internet maze
The Internet is a glaring example of the misuse of websites and sources of knowledge in the media in the Arab world. Despite the large number of cooking websites, cooking books come in the first palce in terms of research rate. So do comedy works. Islamic studies books come before and are almost equal the number of books on scientific culture, education, nature, education and politics combined. These figures reveal one side of the truth alone, but the full truth will appear when all combine to ring warning bells in the media maze.
The audience are engaged in a conflict between value and popularity, content and quantity, submission to the media flood and individual search for self-assertion. All these aspects stress the need for a well-developed media system which presents and popularises high culture instead of this rubbish.
Undoubtedly, education can t start all of a sudden, nor can one body provide it alone or use a single tool. Accordingly, I call for rereading the hundreds of recommendations of Arab information conferences held in recent years. These recommendations, put forward by researchers who spent years considering them, have simply been shelved.
What have we done to eradicate illiteracy which has reached alarming rates in our rural and outlying communities? What have we done to fight superstition and sorcery? How have we acted in the face of the spread of the culture of defeatism and unelightenment? What s our attitude to the age of progress and dramatic scientific advances? What s our approach to tackle the frustration of the young and the failures of the old? All we have are conferences and recommendations on paper which the winds of change in the world have thrown away while we stand idly by!
Other media forms
We should not give in to the yellow media market. We have to test the feasibility of every cultural effort we plan and support. We have to draw a media map representing a broad spectrum of opinion rather than a single, narrow-minded opinion. Our democracy must start before that of others, and others freedom is part of ours.
The problem with our media is that it is moving towards being advertising rather than information advertisement for best-selling goods, even if not top quality; the most popular stars, even if not the best; the most powerful government, even if not the more democratic. Our media has become prey to empty rhetoric in talk show programmes which are void of rational or moral dialogue, or knowledge alike, and finding real figures which support this flood of information has become extremely difficult.
Arab news, scientific and technical media has become a follower of the West, so have all aspects of life amid the collapse of the mechanisms of the Arab yellow media. We have for years been fearful of the collapse of our Arab media into the quagmire of cheap culture in the hands of the culture of entertainment. Now that the media has actually fallen into the quagmire we fear that we are not able to emerge out of it. We are not going to put forward new recommendations but rather stress the need to reactivate old ones so that we can abandon the yellow media which hides the truth and contradicts reason and adopt such rainbow media that influences and shares in building a new structure for the Arab audience.