For those of us who believe the American public deserves and needs to know much more about what goes on in the rest of the world, the arrival of a television network determined to focus on hard news, to “make news the star,” to quote my old boss Ted Turner, should be cause for celebration. But when that network is Al Jazeera, we all need to take a few steps back and prepare before we start watching.
The first fact to keep in mind when watching the just launched Al Jazeera America is that the new network is, like the other Al Jazeera channels, owned by the royal family of Qatar, which has used Al Jazeera to spread its influence, raise its global profile, shape public opinion and try to create its desired outcomes.
Al Jazeera is an arm of the Qatari government and an instrument of Qatari foreign policy.
Al Jazeera’s Arabic network has seen its popularity in the Arab world plummet recently as its coverage of uprisings in the Middle took a strong pro-Muslim Brotherhood tilt. The network was dubbed “the mouthpiece of the Brotherhood” by countless commentators writing about a phenomenon that was transparent to viewers. Nearly two dozen Al Jazeera staff members resigned to protest Qatar’s instructions to continue supporting the Brotherhood in their coverage. Anchor Fatma Nabil and others said the bosses in Doha provided guidelines to support the Brotherhood in their studio discussion and downplay anti-Brotherhood sentiment.
Qatar’s foreign policy was to promote the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the main devices to exert Doha’s power were Al Jazeera and billions of dollars in Qatari funding to Brotherhood groups in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.
Al Jazeera America, broadcasting from New York, promises to focus sharply on “fact-based, in-depth stories of U.S. and international news.” Sounds great, as long as the network refrains from some of the practices that have tainted its journalism on other Al Jazeera networks.
Full disclosure: I spent many years on staff at CNN, a major competitor of Al Jazeera. I am now a frequent — paid — contributor to CNN.com. But I am not employed by CNN. Like many people who worked for CNN when the news was, in fact, the star, I would like to see more hard news on CNN. I hope the new competition will create pressure to spend more time on news, particularly international news. Although I have no illusions.
Al Jazeera, owned by tiny Qatar’s fabulously wealthy ruling family, employs many friends and former colleagues of mine, whose individual integrity and talent I do not question. And much of what I have seen on Al Jazeera English (AJE) — a separate network from the new Al Jazeera America (AJAM) — is of excellent quality, with top production values and high journalistic standards. AJE has done excellent work.
That, however, is not enough to ignore the red flags that go up when you say the words Al Jazeera.
When Al Jazeera first came on the scene, back in 1996, it shook the Arab world, where the news had featured only state-owned, kiss-up-to-the ruler reporting. Qatar became a force to be reckoned with, sending AJ reporters to expose corruption and injustice. Nobody had seen anything like it. It even interviewed Israeli officials, a startling and often disturbing novelty.
But, as Fouad Ajami reported in 2001, Al Jazeera’s coverage was driven by “an aggressive mix of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism.” The network specialized in close-ups of dead bodies, crying and wounded children, with ominous sound tracks designed to heighten emotions.
The Arabic and English channels used two different approaches. In Arabic, coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as documented by, among others, Mohamed Elmenshawy, of the Middle East Institute in Washington, portrayed Israel as the enemy, “always on the wrong side.” Palestinians are often referred to as “resisters” and “martyrs,” while Israelis are frequently called the “occupiers.” The English channel’s wording is much more careful.
When the network first went on the air in 2006, its principal U.S. anchor, David Marash, went on a promotional tour guaranteeing potential viewers that journalists in the United States would have full editorial independence. He eventually resigned, charging that editorial control had gradually but steadily reverted to Qatar. Al Jazeera’s top executive in Doha is a member of the ruling family.
The long-time Emir of Qatar recently stepped down, handing power to his son. The emirate’s foreign policy of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, believing the group would sweep to power in the Middle East, now looks like a disastrous bet, so policy may change.
For Americans watching Al Jazeera America, it’s important to watch out for subtle biases in content. And it would be interesting to compare any deviation from objectivity and balance against Qatar’s interests.
It’s a challenge for American viewers, who urgently need access to strong, unbiased, responsible journalism.