Matthew Sienkiewicz is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Boston College. In 2010, he produced Live from Bethlehem, a documentary about Palestinian media in the West Bank. TheVisionMachine is proud to feature selections from the documentary (have your library order a copy from the Media Education Foundation) as well as his thoughts six years later. Sienkiewicz’s fascinating new book on US media operations in the Middle East is The Other Air Force (Rutgers UP: 2016).
My interest in Bethlehem’s Ma’an Network was piqued when a friend of a friend, a Grizzled American Newsman, told me about his trip to the West Bank. He was sent by an NGO, which was sent by the US Government, to help the producers and journalists of this fledgling Palestinian network learn how to make ‘independent’ media. My initial reaction was probably a lot like yours in reading that last sentence. How can an agent of the US, a nation so far from a neutral arbiter in the Middle East, possibly be giving lectures on independence? Ten years later, this knot certainly hasn’t fully untangled itself for me. However, a lot of contextualization has helped. First and foremost, in researching Ma’an up close I came to understand that, like any media outlet, they are free from some external pressures, beholden to others. In the case of Ma’an, executives and journalists willingly take on American-authored restrictions in exchange for insulation from the factional and economic difficulties otherwise embedded the production of Palestinian television.
In the making of my (co-produced w/Joseph Sousa) documentary Live From Bethlehem, I also came to appreciate the danger in conceptualizing any media production, even in the most politically charged space, as primarily ideological. Certainly Ma’an’s creative freedom (or lack thereof) is a matter of political importance. The day-to-day experience of producers, however, is dominated by attempts to work within material circumstances, with the idea of structural change rather far off in the distance. As Live From Bethlehem details, Ma’an’s producers spend relatively little time considering the politics of word choice or the symbolic meanings of minor artistic adjustments. Instead, they spend their time trying to work out a production schedule that accounts for the uncertainty of movement imposed by Israeli occupation or attempting to jerry-rig substandard equipment so the final product looks good enough to suffice in the hyper-competitive world of Arab TV. Certainly, ideology frames these circumstances and provides a long-term sense of purpose, but the task at hand is generally a practical, not political, one.
The Media Education Foundation released Live From Bethlehem in 2010. It remains relevant and generally reflective of contemporary circumstances, in large part due to the lack of progress in the struggle for a peaceful, long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Ma’an Network has, however, grown in the intervening years, becoming an important regional satellite outlet while still remaining heavily intertwined with Western funders, including America. This progression is outlined and analyzed in my recently released book, The Other Air Force. In addition to serving as a sort of sequel to Live From Bethlehem, the book adds a deep consideration of America’s media projects in Afghanistan. Bringing these case studies together, The Other Air Force theorizes recent American communication intervention in the Middle East as “soft-psy media”—an attempt to blend the commercially oriented foreign policy strategy of “soft power” with the military control tactics of “psyops.” Put simply, America has been funding media outlets such as Ma’an and only loosely monitoring their content in the hopes that they will succeed financially and help bring “American-style” media into new spaces. Of course, there are always red lines not to be crossed, as detailed in the documentary. In media, as in most walks of life, freedoms are precious, partial, and always fragile things.