What to expect from Al Jazeera International.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Nov. 15 2006 12:22 AM

Fair and Balanced?

What to expect from Al Jazeera's new English-language channel.

The English-language version of Al Jazeera, the Qatari satellite-TV news network, launches today. No U.S. cable or satellite providers distribute the channel yet, but you can tune in to a live webcast on the Al Jazeera home page. The channel promises a Middle Eastern perspective on world news, but should Americans trust Al Jazeerabest known to many for airing Bin Laden's videotapes—to be unbiased in its reporting? According to Chris Suellentrop's 2003 "Assessment" of the network, which is reprinted below, it's about as fair as the U.S. competition. He wrote: "Al Jazeera, with its Fox-like slogan 'The opinion and the other opinion,' is the closest thing the Arab world has to an independent press. Particularly in wartime, the best a network can hope for is … 'to reflect all sides of any story while retaining the values, beliefs and sentiments of the target audience.' Based on the recent wave of positive coverage in the American media, Al Jazeera is at least approaching that standard. It's telling the American side of the story, even as its sympathies clearly lie with the plight of the Iraqi people, whom the network, fairly or unfairly, sees as suffering under both Saddam Hussein and the American-led invasion to remove him." 

If you doubt that Al Jazeera is the clear winner of the Iraq war so far (other than U.S. forces), check out the most recent Lycos 50, a tally of the most-searched-for words and phrases on the Lycos search engine. The 24-hour Arabic-language TV news network rocketed to the top of the list for last week, outpacing Web standbys such as KaZaA and Pamela Anderson, not to mention hot topics of the moment such as POWs and the Dixie Chicks. Perhaps the wave of Web surfers was to be expected, given the network's attempted launch of an English-language Web site and the recent controversies it has provoked by airing grisly footage of Iraqi civilian casualties and American POWs. More surprising, however, has been the sympathetic coverage Al Jazeera has been receiving in the American press, from the New York Times editorial page to regional sources including the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Buffalo News. The network once deemed the inflammatory fuel of Islamic radicalism has now been pronounced by the paper of record as "the kind of television station we should encourage."

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What changed? Certainly not Al Jazeera. The network still presents a pro-Arab slant on the news of the day, including the war in Iraq. A visit to the Al Jazeera Web site Wednesday morning turned up images that portray Iraqi civilians as invaded rather than liberated: rotating photos of wounded children with patches over their eyes and blood on their faces next to a separate image of a mournful woman standing in front of rubble. This emphasis on Iraqi civilian casualties is consistent with the approach the TV network has taken to covering the war, according to those who have watched Al Jazeera's TV coverage in Arabic. "They focus on the casualties. They show very gruesome images of civilian casualties that we don't see on America media," says Mohammed El-Nawawy, co-author of the admiring book Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East.

So, it's not as if Al Jazeera has morphed into the news as told by Lee Greenwood. Or even that Al Jazeera has morphed into CNN. Rather, it's fairer to say that since the war began, CNN—and American TV news in general—has become more like Al Jazeera. To those who have tarred him as pro-war and pro-administration, CNN's Aaron Brown replied: "I think there is some truth in it." Fox's Neil Cavuto was blunter: "You say I wear my biases on my sleeve? Better that than pretend you have none, but show them clearly in your work." Cavuto's comments echo a statement made by Al Jazeera's Ramallah correspondent to 60 Minutes in May 2001 about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "To be objective in this area is not easy because we live here. We are part of the people here. And this situation belongs to us also, and we have our opinions."

American TV news has always presented an American perspective, just as Al Jazeera presents an Arab perspective. But in wartime, the American slant has become more obvious, and as a result Al Jazeera's Arab slant has become less objectionable. Less than 18 months ago, Fouad Ajami declared in a long New York Times Magazine article that Al Jazeera was "a dangerous force." But in the wake of this war's coverage by the American media, his fears and criticisms sound quaint. Ajami blasted the channel's "shameless" promos, including a montage of scenes that portrayed a clear sympathy for the Palestinians. But how different are MSNBC's or CNN's montages of heroic American soldiers set to patriotic, martial music? Or the recurring shots of Americans saving babies and handing out candy to children? Ajami also criticized Al Jazeera for focusing too much on the tragedy of a single individual, 12-year-old Muhamed al-Durra, a Palestinian shot and killed in Gaza. But American networks pull similar heartstring-tugging tricks, the latest being the mediathon over the rescue of Jessica Lynch, a single American POW. (American television ignores, for the most part, the lives and the deaths of Brits and Iraqis.)

This is not to say that Al Jazeera and American TV news are equivalents. For one thing, Al Jazeera still receives funding from the monarchical government of Qatar, and even fans like El-Nawawy rap Al Jazeera for refraining from tough coverage—or any coverage—of Qatari politics. But Al Jazeera, with its Fox-like slogan "The opinion and the other opinion," is the closest thing the Arab world has to an independent press.

Particularly in wartime, the best a network can hope for is what El-Nawawy and his co-author, Adel Iskandar, call "contextual objectivity"—an attempt "to reflect all sides of any story while retaining the values, beliefs and sentiments of the target audience." Based on the recent wave of positive coverage in the American media, Al Jazeera is at least approaching that standard. It's telling the American side of the story, even as its sympathies clearly lie with the plight of the Iraqi people, whom the network, fairly or unfairly, sees as suffering under both Saddam Hussein and the American-led invasion to remove him.

From the opposite perspective, the U.S. networks are doing the same: giving lip service to the Arab view of the war, while endorsing the American view that the conflict is just and necessary. The war has given lie to the idea that American journalists don't have opinions. One question: Why must we return to the lie when it's time for peace?

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