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Television & Radio | TELEVISION / Howard Rosenberg

Snippets of the 'unique' Al Jazeera

April 04, 2003|Howard Rosenberg

Why does Al Jazeera spend so much time showing civilian casualties of war in Iraq that our TV usually finds too ghastly for tender U.S. eyes? Why can't this 24-hour-a-day Qatar-based news channel be more like us?

Al Jazeera -- the Arabic-language satellite TV superstation claiming to reach 30 million to 40 million people in the Middle East alone -- stands accused by the West of being too cozy with Saddamphiles in the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

It has critics nearer to home as well. Through the years, its news coverage has enraged such Arab countries as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. And just Wednesday, Saddam Hussein's dying regime shut down Al Jazeera's staff in Baghdad, obviously not agreeing that it's soft on Iraq.

Try telling that to America's teeming Yankee Doodles. So reviled is Al Jazeera in these circles that its reporters were banished by the U.S. Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, it's English-language Web site battles spam attacks and a U.S. general refused to take a question from one of its correspondents at a televised Central Command briefing.

Well, no wonder.

Click.

On the screen are news anchors and reporters freely delivering sharp opinions about the war and ridiculing opposing points of view.

Indeed, spin here is as loud as explosions rocking Baghdad.

The coverage is repellently one-sided, even nasty and vitriolic at times, as if Western journalism's traditional rules of objectivity don't apply.

But wait a minute. That's not Al Jazeera, it's the Fox News Channel.

When it comes to slanting news, in other words, much of what Al Jazeera delivers to its mostly Arab audience is no less fair and balanced than what U.S. viewers receive far too often from their own 24-hour news channels, Fox being the worst offender in embedding opinion (inevitably hawkish and ultra-conservative) in so-called straight coverage.

At least that applies to the chunk of Al Jazeera coverage I watched.

Underwritten largely by the emir of tiny, oil-rich Qatar, Al Jazeera is the Middle East's oldest, most watched regional news channel, thought by many to have great influence in the Arab world. The news its reporters beam from European and American capitals isn't filtered through the West.

Qatar is America's base of operations for this war.

Yet Al Jazeera hardly answers to the U.S., which has lambasted the channel for running taped Osama bin Laden messages since Sept. 11 and, most recently, an Iraqi TV video of dead and captured American POWs.

Although I don't speak or understand Arabic, I monitored three hours of Al Jazeera's war coverage Tuesday morning, assisted by a translation from American-born Nezar Andary, who has lived half of his 30 years in the Middle East.

It was a slender sampling of Al Jazeera, and my conclusions are drawn mostly from what was related by Andary, a UCLA graduate student who teaches Arabic, in addition to what I surmised for myself.

Although some of its war reporting has paralleled the perspective of Hussein's regime, notable exceptions include the voice it's given Iraq's victimized Kurdish minority in the north.

In fact, I found much of Al Jazeera to be quite straight.

That included sober live coverage and a summary of a Pentagon briefing (by reporter Wajd Waqfi in Washington) at which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was at his prickliest. Saying Rumsfeld was "defensive," for example, was not unfair or a play on words by Waqfi, it was accurate.

On this morning also, before his credentials were withdrawn, one of Al Jazeera's Baghdad correspondents reported that the U.S. advance toward the capital was playing into Iraqi hands, only to add: "In reality, while Iraqis have been very good at allowing us to see effects on civilians, on a military level they are not telling us everything."

Al Jazeera is patterned superficially after U.S. cable news channels. Beyond the familiar slick graphics and glossy promos ("Al Jazeera is singularly unique"), you get an infernal news crawl across the bottom of the screen that on this occasion, at least, Andary found to be free of commentary. In the U.S., news crawls sometimes are not.

Al Jazeera runs detailed, extended war pieces -- providing a greater sense of the war's impact throughout Iraq -- and appears less reliant on sound bites than are its U.S. counterparts.

Although Fox and MSNBC incorporate the U.S. flag in their war-coverage logos, by the way, both the U.S. and Iraqi flags wave in the background of some Al Jazeera war stories.

As for bias ...

* Al Jazeera does call its war coverage "War on Iraq" (the italics are mine). If CNN is neutral in its title ("War in Iraq"), however, Fox and CNBC are not, having adopted the lofty one given this war by the U.S.: "Operation Iraqi Freedom," in this case making them extensions of the Pentagon.

* The Qatar-based channel does dwell on the war's civilian casualties far more than do its U.S. counterparts, supported by pictures that stress an ache of suffering that is largely subdued when reported on TV here. That's the way the Pentagon wants it.

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