Watching U.S. Television From the Palestinian Street: The Media, the State and Representational Interventions

Peer Reviewed


This article tracks contests of representation among the Palestinian Authority (PA), the U.S. news media, and the Palestinian public regarding the funeral of PA President Yasser Arafat and subsequent presidential elections. It is popularly assumed that governments primarily represent by gathering people and implementing actions in their names, whereas media represent by depicting the world. Latour has called for "object-oriented democracies" that reintegrate gathering and depiction in ways that eschew formal structures of political legitimation, which have so often been abused. This enables recognition of emergently democratic forms. However, even in these provisional assemblies, established institutions of legitimating representation, like states and elite media institutions, continue to exert authority. This demands an ethnographic examination of connections among the state, the press, and the public. Palestinian officials and the public alike identify the U.S. media as influential conduits to powerful outsiders. Thus, Palestinian officials may use the Western press as an executive force, to encourage Palestinians to perform nationhood in an orderly manner. Palestinians may determine that neither the U.S. media nor the PA adequately represent them, and thus carry out political actions according to local political traditions. U.S. media depicted popular forms of gathering in the street at Arafat's funeral as chaotic, whereas they depicted voting, about which some Palestinians had important reservations, as a progressive form of gathering. As officials and journalists do their representational work, the ostensible subjects of representation, the public, often undertake their own projects of gathering and depicting, but these are reincorporated into—and transformed by—authorized representational institutions.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a range of essays on media and politics. See for example, Charles Briggs’ “Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence” (2007), Liisa Malkki’s “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees” (1992) and George Lipsitz’s “The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class and Ethnicity in Early Network Television" (1986).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on voting, elections and other practices of democracy. See for example, Clare Ignatowski’s “Multipartyism and Nostalgia for the Unified Past: Discourses of Democracy in a Dance Association in Cameroon” (2004), Julia Paley’s “Making Democracy Count: Opinion Polls and Market Surveys in the Chilean Political Transition” (2001), and Renato Rosaldo’s "Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy" (1994).

About the Author

As of 2008, Amahl Bishara is Mellon Postdoctoral Instructor in Anthropology and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago’s Department of Anthropology.

Links from the Essay

U.S. Secretary of State Address the UN Security Council (02/08/03)
Transcripts and slides of Colin Powell's 2003 speech

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
An excellent site regarding closure & maps in the West Bank

Organization Links

PLO Negotiations Affairs Department
Organization established in 1994 to assist with implementation of the Interim Agreement between Israel and the PLO.

Central Elections Commission-Palestine
An independent body that administers presidential, legislative and local elections in Palestine

Badil Palestinian Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugees' Rights

Media Links

The Palestine Media Center
Official media center for the Palestinian National Authority

The Electronic Intifada
Non-profit, independent electronic publication covering information on Palestine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The Palestinian Central Elections Committee
Site contains elections posters, elections results, and basic rules about elections

Related Reading

Ackerman, Seth. "Al-Aqsa Intifada and the U.S. Media." Journal of Palestine Studies 30.2(2001):61–74.

Allen, Lori. "The Polyvalent Politics of Martyr Commemorations in the Palestinian Intifada." History and Memory 18.2(2006):107–138.

Bishara, Amahl. "Local Hands, International News: Palestinian Journalists and the International Media." Ethnography 7.1(2006):19–46.

Feldman, Ilana. "Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza." Cultural Anthropology 22.1(2007):129–169.

Khalili, Laleh. Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Musa, Imad. "Palestinian Journalism: New Era or More of the Same?" In Attacks on the Press 1995: A Worldwide Survey. J. Sahadi, ed. Pp. 211–213. New York: Committee to Protect Journalists, 1996.

Editorial Overview

How might we frame our thinking about media and governing institutions so that we see them as implicated in overlapping projects rather than as autonomous? In the August 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Amahl Bishara broaches this questions through analysis of two events in the Palestine-Israel conflict: the funeral of Palestinian Authority President Yassar Arafat in November 2004, and the subsequent presidential elections of January 2005. A naïve perspective might assume that the Palestinian Authority took actions in these events that the international press covered and governing authorities elsewhere responded to. Bishara demonstrates a much more complex chain of interconnections whereby media coverage, anticipation of media coverage, and astute understanding of how actions would be interpreted abroad shaped how events unfolded on the ground in Palestine.

This essay makes a vital theoretical contribution by critically questioning widespread assumptions that the media and government are engaging in two separate kinds of representation, where government’s goal is to represent by acting on behalf of its constituencies while the media represents by depicting the world in a transparent and objective manner. Building on Latour’s concept of ‘object oriented democracy’ and Nancy Fraser’s notion of the ‘transnational public sphere’, Bishara argues that ‘representation-as-gathering’ and ‘representation-as-depicting’ need to be interwoven in theory, just as they have always been intermeshed in practice.

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