Tuesday, April 05, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Different

The following is an email conversation I've been having with Eric of Raven's Blog, a liberal website. We came into contact while I was researching a piece on Sandy Shanks, an American journalist who wrote an anti-US column for al-Jazeera. Eric and I thought it might be fun to write a column together and decided to shamelessly steal Slate's Breakfast Table format, which Slate stole shamelessly from Point-Counterpoint. As you can see, it is possible for right and left to disagree without shrieking and throwing the furniture around (though sometimes it's fun to shriek and throw furniture around).

Hi Bluto,
I once heard an interesting defense of bias in Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera just has the bias of it's audience, like Fox News Channel. That might not be so bad if we were to substitute "American media" for "Fox News Channel". American media had a definitive US bias, so it might be silly to expect Al Jazeera not to have an Arab bias. Of course, it bias leads American media to get things wrong, we call them on it. We expect professional journalists to try to be objective, get their facts straight, make corrections they get something wrong. If Al Jazeera wants to be taken seriously as a news organization, they have to meet those standards too, and expect to called criticized when they don't. If in fact they are a real news organization, then comparing them to FNC is an insult, though if FNC is the standard they meet, then they certainly deserve all the opprobrium hurled at them. However, the Arab countries have plenty of government propaganda already, their own versions of FNC. If all Al Jazeera accomplished was to be a multinational propaganda channel, it's hard to believe they could have built an audience, let alone inspired a competing independent news channel in Arabic. Whatever their faults, at least Al Jazeera offered viewers an independent channel, which right there was an improvement. As a news outlet outside their control, Al Jazeera constitutes a threat to Arab dictatorships, so even if Americans don't like their take on the war in Iraq, we should be glad they're there.


Hi Eric,
It's tempting for folks like me, when progressives complain about Fox News, to just say, "now you know how we've felt for the past forty years watching ABC, NBC, and CBS," but I'll just stick to your comparison of Fox to al-Jazeera. I monitor al-Jazeera's website regularly. For my money, al-Jazeera compares more closely to the old Soviet Union "news" organs TASS and Pravda. Al-Jazeera's journalistic fig leaf is about the same size as that of those former propaganda sources.

Al-Jazeera's story selection and slant is relentlessly anti-Western. You won't find a story on their site that portrays the US in a positive light. And, if they're forced to report a story about an American success, you can bet it will be updated in a few hours once they discover or invent a negative nuance to exploit. That's not journalism, it's propaganda. You can't honestly say the same about Fox. They're in competition with the other networks, and they can't simply ignore stories negative to the Bush administration - and they don't.

You call al-Jazeera's bias an "Arab" one, but is it? Look at their coverage of the Rafiq Hariri assassination and its "People Power" aftermath. Al-Jazeera's reporting was designed to downplay any connection to Syrian intelligence involvement, and under-report the spontaneous demonstrations that shook the pro-Syrian Lebanese government. For contrast, see the coverage of Dar al-Hayat - they fronted a cartoon depicting Hariri's "martyred" body for a week. Al-Jazeera was more concerned with trying to maintain the position of Hamas, which has aligned itself strongly with Syria. I thought that was quite telling. Al-jazeera is not the voice of the Arab street; it is the propaganda arm of terrorists.


I didn't see Aljazeera's coverage while the demonstrations were in progress. I did a search on their site for "Hariri" and found a bunch of articles. I looked at their article from March 14th about the demonstration that followed the pro-Syria demonstration, and it looked like the coverage in the western media. That's not to naysay your characterization of their coverage, but I just can't confirm it. In general, looking at the English version of their web site, I'm not seeing an apparent bias, except for a lot more stories about the Middle East than on an American news site, which is pretty much what I'd expect from a Middle Eastern news site. Tonight the top story was about the death of John Paul II. It was very brief compared to American media, but the facts were right and they emphasized the same things.

To get into that infamous liberal nuance, I naturally wonder if the Arabic site is the same as the English one, and I don't know what they broadcast beyond what I've heard second hand, which doesn't always sound good, but those sources might have had biases. There are couple things you mentioned that seem odd, like the idea they're an outlet for terrorists. Aljazeera is based in Qatar and got started with money form the emir of Qatar, which puts their independence from the Qatari government in doubt but also argues against their loyalty to terrorists. Qatar is one of those secular regimes Al Qaida wants to overthrow. I've also seen pictures of Aljazeera female staff dressed western with their heads uncovered. This doesn't seem like an Islamist news channel.

The other thing that jumps at me is your assertion they don't show the US in a positive light. From an Arab point of view, there isn't much positive about the US, especially not the most salient aspects like we invaded them and killed a lot of people. More to the point, a journalist isn't supposed be concerned with showing a subject positively or negatively. That's a propagandist's job. A journalist should just get the facts right. If the facts make the US, or anything else, look bad, that's not the journalist's fault. Now, I've heard enough about Aljazeera to be skeptical of the claim all their reporting is objective, but a lack of stories the Bush administration would like hardly makes them propaganda. In fact, according to Hannah Alma, Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder (scroll to "Reporting from a War Zone), Aljazeera had earned the respect of other foreign journalists in Iraq, and their expulsion was seen as just politics. I guess my question is just what is the form of their bias --- which stories they follow, facts they get wrong, corrections they refuse to make, etc.?


Hi again, Eric,
As you said, al-Jazeera never shows the US in a positive light. Liberals often accuse Fox of bias, yet Fox routinely reports stories that reflect badly on the US and/or the Bush administration. That's because they're bonafide journalists. The fact that al-Jazeera prints only negative stories means that they're either unbelievably bad journalists; or their motivation is not journalism, but pushing an agenda. Hell, Eric, even CBS has something positive to say about the US and the Bush administration occasionally.

You mention that the al-Jazeera coverage of the Hariri assassination looked like the Western media coverage. You're right. That's because the Western media completely missed the significance of the Hariri assassination until the sheer mass of anti-Syrian protesters shocked them into awareness (I wrote about this in February here). Al-Jazeera didn't miss the significance; they chose to downplay it, and to emphasize signs of support for Hezbollah and Syria.

"But we know for a fact that other times the terrorists have told journalists and I use the word inadvisedly, quote-unquote journalists, they've told journalists where they are going to be and what they are going to do.

"And the journalists have been there. And over and over and over again we've see that Middle Eastern television station Al-Jazeera that seems to have a wonderful way of being Johnny-on-the-spot a little too often for my taste," - Donald Rumsfeld

He's got a point. Al-Jazeera does know when terrorist events are going to take place, just as they are the outlet of choice for terrorist groups shopping videos around. You might also note that al-Jazeera chose to replay the Kevin Sites Fallujah Marine video, uncut. over and over and over again, while calling the video depicting the Islamist murder of Margaret Hassan "too graphic". And just by the way, the videotape was given to al-Jazeera by the murderers, or, as al-Jazeera calls them "fighters" or "captors". Iraqi suspicion of al-Jazeera was so strong that the interim government banned them from Iraq, an extraordinary step. Even Il Manifesto is still allowed in Iraq. That tells me that the Iraqis didn't expel al-Jazeera for what they wrote, Il Manifesto has written much worse, but because they believe al-Jazeera is actively aiding the insurgency.

Run the word "terrorist" through the al-Jazeera search engine. This word is always printed by al-Jazeera with quotation marks around it when referring to groups like Hezbollah, but, oddly, they don't feel the need for quotes when some lunatic accuses the US of being a "terrorist state". They also refer to the Iraqi insurgency as "the resistance" or "fighters", even when reporting on the targeting of civilians for murder.