East, West clash at IAA as media debate erupts

Dubai attendees probe role of reporting and U.S. portrayal of Arabs

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[dubai] Sparks flew at the 40th annual International Advertising Association World Congress as participants debated the changing media world.

Delivering a lot more than the usual "welcome to Dubai" speech to the record 2,000 delegates from 70 nations, Obaid Humaid Al Taver, head of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, startled some Western delegates (and even some from the Middle East) when he tossed aside niceties to declare that the U.S. has one of the "least free" media environments. "It's closed to others but they keep lecturing about freedom of speech. It's a double standard," said Mr. Al Tayer, who is also managing director of the Al-Nisr publishing group, publisher of the English-language Gulf News. Why, he asked is Al-Jazeera not allowed in Iraq? Because, he said, they "won't report what American generals want to report."

Arabs, Mr. Al Tayer said, "don't want to see democracy on the back of tanks and F-16's." He said he was not in favor of media censorship "but we must find ways to finance independent media so they can confront Western media to tell the truth without bias."

What the West wants of the Arab world, Mr. Al Tayer contended, is to "stop what you're doing and start afresh. This is nonsense and ironic," because Arab countries were molded into their present form by the same European countries that want them to change, he said.

Mr. Al Tayer drew applause when he said the Western media have created an image of an Arab as "womanizer, greedy, corrupt, lazy, illiterate, rich, anti-Semitic and male chauvinist." He asked whether the West "has something against Arab people."

One prominent local adman said he was surprised by Mr. Al Tayer's remarks. He noted that Mr. Al Tayer is a businessman who is involved in luxury brands and automobiles as well as media. "It's not appropriate for a businessperson to talk politics at a forum like this," the adman said. Another non-Western delegate said he walked out halfway through Mr. Al Tayer's talk because he didn't want to listen to a "history lesson."

But some found the speech thought-provoking. "I try not to take sides," said Joseph Ghoussoub, the new chairman and world president of IAA. "He made some interesting points and it was interesting to think about." One U.S. media person said he liked hearing a different point of view, and an adman from Eastern Europe thought Mr. Al Tayer was "very open." One advertising executive with close ties to IAA said he thought Mr. Al Tayer "had gotten as close to the edge as anyone can get without falling off and taking everyone with him."

Norman Pearlstine, the former editor in chief of Time Inc. and now a senior adviser to Time Warner, gave a U.S. media perspective when he said media's major job is to "remain credible in an incredible world"-one that has been thoroughly disrupted by the advances online. Mr. Pearlstine said media had "lost sight of what audiences are reacting to" at the same time the new technology has unsettled many media models.

Many traditional media have treated their Web sites as a line extension, he said, not a powerful new medium in itself. The war in Iraq has added to the threat to serious journalism, he said, causing the media to be "demeaned and denigrated," treated as the enemy that can't be trusted to tell the story objectively. But he added that the media had also lost its own credibility, and is consequently to blame for some of the problems. After Sept. 11, 2001, media's response was too often "jingoism and an absence of hard questions" about what was really going on. And in the age of the Internet, "everyone's version of the truth changed. People can now find their version of the world anywhere."

Without naming him, Mr. Pearlstine criticized Lou Dobbs of Time Warner's CNN for pursuing a "narrow national interest" in coming out against the Dubai ports deal. He said later that CNN, in response to declining ratings against Fox, turned over its most important news hour to Mr. Dobbs, encouraging advocacy at the expense of objectivity. Mr. Pearlstine said media must renew their commitment to credibility. "As long as we're not credible ourselves we don't have the right to expect it in others," he said.

coffee talk

Steve Forbes, president-CEO of Forbes, had a more upbeat position on the impact of the new media. He said media outlets are entering a "golden age" with "enormous opportunities for expansion." As broadband takes hold, Mr. Forbes said, there'll be room for a multiplicity of media and advertising possibilities, and branding will become more important than ever. Internet ads on Forbes.com increased 60% in the last 12 months, he said.

Michael Heseltine, chairman of Haymarket Publishing, echoed Mr. Forbes' sentiments. "There's never been a time of such opportunity," he said. The key is excellent editorial content and "we will use any outlet we can to disseminate our content."

Media discussions aside, it was the tale of how a young woman and her brother introduced coffee bars to a tea-drinking nation that captured the most attention.

Sahar Hashemi, co-founder of Coffee Republic, a string of U.K. coffeehouses, brought the house down recounting how she became an entrepreneur. She said creativity comes when you're most clueless. "That's the beauty of being an entrepreneur-you have an empty mind, uncontaminated by 'this is the way it's always been done."'

Being creative is "everything you do in business," Ms. Hashemi, a former lawyer, said. "The whole world conspires against you when you try to change. It's an act of creative destruction." When she and her brother started Coffee Republic, Ms. Hashemi didn't understand what marketing was all about. But then she realized "it was just getting people to buy things." When Starbucks entered the U.K. market she wasn't worried because she realized her brand had "soul, heart, it had a dialogue with the consumer."

On the closing day, Mr. Ghoussoub, also CEO of the parent company of Team/ Young & Rubicam, presented Maurice Levy, CEO of the Paris-based Publicis Groupe, with IAA's distinguished-services award. Mr. Levy said that he wished "some government I know quite well" had achieved what has been done in Dubai.
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