From the New York Times:
Sometime after the first insurgent attack in Iraq on Sunday morning, news directors at Arab satellite channels and newspaper editors found themselves facing an altogether new decision. Should they report on the violence, or continue to cover the elections themselves?
After nearly two years of providing up-to-the-minute images of explosions and mayhem, and despite months of predictions of a blood bath on election day, some news directors said they found the decision surprisingly easy to make. The violence simply was not the story on Sunday morning; the voting was.
Overwhelmingly, Arab channels and newspapers greeted the elections as a critical event with major implications for the region, and many put significant resources into reporting on the voting, providing blanket coverage throughout the country that started about a week ago. Newspapers kept wide swaths of their pages open, and the satellite channels dedicated most of the day to coverage of the polls.
Often criticized for glorifying Iraq's violence if not inciting it, Arab news channels appeared to take particular care in their election day reporting. For many channels, the elections were treated on a par with the invasion itself, on which the major channels helped build their names.
Far from the almost nightly barrage of blood and tears, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, the kings of Arab news, on Sunday barely showed the aftermath of insurgent attacks.
Instead, the channels opted to report on the attacks in news tickers, and as part of the hourly news broadcasts, keeping their focus on coverage and analysis of the elections.
"There was a fear that some broadcasters will overdo coverage of violence, but we chose not to play that game," said Nakhle el-Hage, director of news and current affairs at the satellite channel Al Arabiya, which is based in Dubai and is popular in Iraq. "We were expecting violence and when something happened, we put a news flash but then continued our coverage."
News directors at Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar and has been banned from operating in Iraq since last summer, were also aware of the risks of overplaying the violence.
Ayman Jaballah, deputy chief of news at Al Jazeera, said the channel would get news of the attacks from news agencies and put it in the ticker that scrolls across the screen, "but they will not take over the show."
"We will give them their fair share of coverage, but we won't just report violence for the sake of it."
For many Arabs, the strong turnout on election day proved a unique opening, one that made the debate on television screens more nuanced. On Al Jazeera, especially, many Iraqis lauded the process even as analysts from other Arab countries and Iraqis tied to the former government of Saddam Hussein denounced the elections for having occurred under occupation, and for having been centered on sectarian issues.
"Things used to be a negotiation between political parties where you scratch my back and I scratch your back," noted one commentator, Abas al-Bayati, on Al Jazeera. "Now, this new government will approach all the parties as having the backing of the people. It will have legitimacy." And that legitimacy should allow the government to face down the insurgents, he added.
With the relative lack of violence, many nerves appeared calmed. Iraqis, especially, may have been emboldened by the coverage.
"What was important is that the satellite channels were taking us throughout the region, and also showed everyone how Iraqis outside Iraq were adamant and focused on voting," said Imad Hmoud, editor in chief of the newspaper Al Ghad in Jordan. "That was very important for people, especially Iraqis, to see."
"In the end the coverage was a success - not perfect, but a success under the conditions," he added.
The daylong reporting of the election process, details on the personalities and almost step-by-step guides to the voting were a significant departure from what the Arab news media had produced for some time.
Perhaps the most ambitious effort came from Al Arabiya, which had eight satellite trucks broadcasting from across Iraq, as well as numerous video phone links from Mosul, Baquba, Ramadi and elsewhere, and live feeds from neighboring countries. To give emphasis to elections coverage, Al Arabiya also built a special studio at its headquarters in Dubai for the event. Al Arabiya executives did not disclose the cost for the effort but said it was significant.
"We think this is a very important event, not just in Iraq but in the Arab world," Mr. Hage said. "It's the first real democratic event in the whole region and it deserved the attention." Giving the event such special attention, Mr. Hage said, would help build Al Arabiya's brand as a critical news source, if not expand its viewership.
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