Review of Al Jazeera
After more than anyone’s fair share of technical problems (stolen computer, problems with logging into the blog), here it is – my belated “review” of Al Jazeera.
I watched a combination of Al Jazeera live broadcasts and clips on its YouTube site, with an eye for comparison with American broadcast news. The first things I noticed about Al Jazeera were mainly aesthetic: There are no omnipresent corner graphics to remind you what channel you are watching, or to designate whether you are observing “local,” “nation-wide,” or “international” news. The swirling clouds of color that indicate a change in topic are kept to a minimum. There’s little thunderous music, and few attention-grabbing declaratory headlines of the kind that resemble Microsoft WordArt on patriotic steroids. One of few similarities: the English language anchor delivers the news against the backdrop of the US Capital Building.
American officials have accused Al Jazeera of being “sensationalist” because the network is less squeamish than its American counterparts about showing scenes of violence and carnage, particularly in Iraq and Palestine. Yet stylistically, Al Jazeera is cleaner, more minimalist, less bombastic, less spectacular than mainstream American news, and for the most part, its style of reportage follows suit. If American broadcast news is held captive by the society of the spectacle, perhaps the news itself is spectacle enough for Al Jazeera’s English language viewers.
In his book Voices of the New Arab Public, Marc Lynch credits Al Jazeera with permanently changing Arab political discourse, and with creating a “new Arab public” that prefers frank discussion, opposing viewpoints, global focus and the occasional human interest story to the unadulterated Arabist rhetoric and the anti-critical state-sponsored Arab news outlets of the 1990’s. Al Jazeera’s outward-focused English-language segments display all of these things, and provide ample historical, political, and economic context to each story reported. Footage of pro-China rallies in Paris and pro-independence Tibetan demonstrations in India are shown side by side as Al Jazeera traces the global progress of the Olympic flame. A report on murdered and missing women in a US-Mexican border town features interviews with their mothers, and an investigation into labor conditions in the large factories where the women once worked. A report on air pollution in Daka, the capital of Bangladesh, plants blame on industry leaders, lax environmental laws, and ineffectual environmentalists alike. (Al Gore would be proud.) These broadcasts clearly aim to attract, and perhaps to form, a well-informed, critically thinking public with minimal idealistic bent.
I’m more interested, though, in Al Jazeera’s coverage of, and relationship with, its home base, the vaguely defined and hardly cohesive Arab world. According to Marc Lynch, the Arab response to Al Jazeera has been overwhelmingly positive, as evidenced by high confidence measured by public opinion polls and a host of alternate “pan-Arab” news outlets that have sprung up in the past five years to lend Al Jazeera the ultimate form of flattery. This trend of regionally-focused rather than state-based media, though, inevitably confronts problems of identity, in defining itself, and in defining its audience. We might ask: what kind of coverage allows Al Jazeera to self- identify as a – perhaps as the – Arab news outlet?
Al Jazeera attracts and maintains its audience by covering issues pertinent to Arab life in a way that at once shapes and challenges the Arab mindset(s). News coverage, panel discussions, and call-in talk shows are all part of this equation. Al Jazeera also builds credibility with its listenership through extensive coverage of stories that are sure to resonate with the majority of the network’s intended audience; these are issues that most of the Arab world can get behind, and feel good about getting behind, and feel a certain solidarity with other Arabs, and other viewers, who also get behind. So on a broader level, Al Jazeera very much caters to its target audience, much like al-Minar speaks to the Shia Islamists of Lebanon and state-run Syrian media panders to the Alawite elite allied with the Assad family. But it does so, I’ve found, without losing its critical eye, and this is what sets Al Jazeera apart from its more unabashedly slanted counterparts.
Perhaps the best example of this is Al Jazeera’s coverage of Palestine. Al Jazeera covers Palestine-related issues – the “peace process,” the economic collapse of Gaza – extensively and sympathetically. An article on the prospects for the right of return for Palestinian refugees declares “there are at least four-and-a-half million reasons why peace continues to elude the Middle East.” A broadcast on an Israeli incursion into Gaza begins “it was, quite literally, a bloodbath.” Yet a panel discussion on the Oslo Accords mainly places blame for their failure on Yassir Arafat, and a discussion with two (American) “specialists” speculates on whether or not Jimmy Carter’s efforts to involve Hamas in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with be successful, or helpful to the process. Perhaps most strikingly, Al Jazeera also recently aired a short form documentary on the lives of IDF foot soldiers called “One Shot” which shows the young conscripts (though not their political bosses) in a sympathetic light. This kind of coverage suggests a nuanced, if not quite “objective,” approach to such a deeply resonant cause, and defies the American conception of Al Jazeera as a radical and one-sided news outlet.
Through constant and connected coverage of events in the Arab world, Marc Lynch tells us, Al Jazeera works towards building a “common Arab narrative,” or a collective understanding of which trends and issues affect today’s Arab populations. This narrative, in turn, informs a certain Arab political identity, which goes beyond the common ties of language, religion, and culture. Yet the very concept of an “Arab political identity” is rife with contradiction, and often detached from actual policy and leadership. And it has a troubled past. The Arab Nationalist movement of the mid twentieth century, which sought to translate the common cultural and historical heritage of the Arab world into political unity, culminated in the creation of the Arab League, the brief unification of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic, and several other attempts to federate multiple states under political or religious pretense. But lasting Arab unity, the way leaders like Nasser had envisioned it, failed due to fundamental problems in the framework within which it was meant to develop. For one thing, the policies meant to bring about this unity were conceived and carried out by a small minority of Arab leaders and cooperative intellectuals; this was a unity of elites, not an identity available to Arab publics in general. Moreover, there existed no structure for dealing with internal dissension among these “united” entities, and disagreement over contentious issues such as policy towards Israel, the role of political Islam, and relationships with external powers were ultimately insurmountable. Nearly half a century later, and in light of this year’s ill-conceived Arab League Summit in Damascus (belittled by several major states and boycotted completely by Lebanon), Al Jazeera itself (barometer of Arab mood) has inaugurated a 9-part series on the future of Arab unity, the title piece of which begins with the question, “Has the dream of Arab unity run out of steam?”
In addition, a major criticism of Arab identity, then and now, is that it has largely negative origins - that is to say, the “Arab world” is united only in opposition to the hostile forces of imperialism, globalization, Israel, America, what have you. The Arab world, as well as the media that represents it, is often painted in this way by American sources, and in its more radical moments, it defines itself as such (think of Sayid Qutb’s denouncements of the ignorant unIslamic world (jahiliyya), or more obviously, everything Bin Laden). Marc Lynch tells us that Al Jazeera’s precursors, the “old” Arab media, found it easy to garner support by rallying against the “enemies” of the Arab world, rather than pursuing the more difficult task of turning its critical eye inward.
Against such precedent, the task of fomenting a critical yet cohesive collective Arab psyche – positively, no less – is no small feat. Yet the idea that such a “New Arab Public” may be based, this time, on a supranational structure (a multimedia outlet) rather than any coalition of states or political bosses is promising. What’s most striking about Al Jazeera, then, is not the type of reporting that it performs but rather the space that it has created, where officials, “intellectuals,” and members of the formerly loud-but-voiceless “Arab street” can meet and argue as never before. (Though whether this has, or will, usher in a new era of accountability of transparency remains to be seen.) Because it transcends the state system and (potentially) involves a large percentage of this new “public” in its dialogue, this network seems poised to succeed where the Arab Nationalists failed - namely, in fomenting a common identity and loose political solidarity that can define, through common discourse rather than common enemy, what it means to be Arab.
In order to set itself apart from the “old” Arab unity, and the “old” Arab media that represented it, Al Jazeera’s approach to news media includes controversial coverage of contentious Arab issues. This approach works towards establishing, Marc Lynch argues, “the possibility of disagreement, the simple and essential lesson that policy disagreements need not necessarily mean excommunication from a community of identity.” In seeking out and sometimes shaping the Arab perspective of the 21st century, Al Jazeera understands that this perspective is rarely singular. And so the network seeks to represent, and to legitimize, viewpoints that are often in direct opposition. On Al Jazeera English, talk show hosts fire off tough questions about the responsibility of other Arab leaders for Saddam Hussein’s humanitarian crimes. An anchorman grills the Syrian ambassador to the United States about the possibility of a covert Syrian nuclear program. A report on 40-year prison sentences for Muslim brotherhood members complains bitterly that the Mubarak government referred the civilian defendants to military courts, and that family members and defense lawyers were banned from the trials; a member of Egypt’s National Democratic Party appears to defend the government, and a formerly imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood member calls in to protest not just the proceedings but the entire ethos of detaining opposition members.
These are the kinds of uncomfortable conversations that Al Jazeera goes out of its way to facilitate, proving by example that “Arabs can disagree and still be Arabs” (Lynch). Many of Al Jazeera’s programs have adopted the strategy of pitching polar extremes against each other in debate in hopes of opening and enhancing dialogue on particularly contentious issues. Yet this approach sometimes backfires when it leaves the “rational center” of an issue, and the subtleties therein, largely unrepresented. That is to say, when ideologues of opposite poles hammer away at the big questions, details and nuance seem lost.
This was evident in some of the programming I viewed about the current state of Iraq. In one panel moderated by Riza Khan, a Qatari news editor, who argues for continued American presence in Iraq because of Bush’s “responsibility” to “fix what he broke,” squares off with an American professor who counters that Americans will not support a drawn out war in Iraq because the escalating civil war is “your problem, and we did what we could.” (As a side note, the professor came off looking incredibly ignorant, to a point that embarrassed me as an American college student.) The details of these disparate grand designs for the future – time tables, regions, projected costs, neighborhood relations, et cetera – were not discussed, mostly because these panelists just could not break through their grand ideological differences to get to the nitty gritty of actual policy. Such debate is important (and no doubt entertaining), but it needs to be supplemented with the kind of discussions that leave room for subtlety and that address concrete issues, particularly when the subject matter is a current war.
And so the question remains: has Al Jazeera – can Al Jazeera – become a new platform for Arab unity? Certainly, Al Jazeera’s arrival has permanently changed landscape of Arab media and ripped legitimacy away from many complacent, state-based news outlets. And Al Jazeera has done more than almost any other institution to keep the Arab public involved in discussions about its future – this unity, if it succeeds, won’t just be one of statesmen and elites, of mutual enemies and border elisions. Of course, certain dangers remain: Al Jazeera could become another one of many pundit-like Arab news outlets, or alternately, it could become so dedicated to argument that actual reporting falls to the wayside. Yet Al jazeera runs a lot of introspective programming, examining its own role and its own performance in shaping and informing Arab opinion, and occasionally comparing its coverage to CNN, BBC, and the like. As long as Al Jazeera maintains this critical eye, on itself and on everything else, the chances of continued public service to the Arab world, and perhaps the rest of the world, are good. Here’s to hoping.
And a disclaimer: While the themes of this “review” (more of an essay, really) deal mainly with Al Jazeera’s relationship to its Arabic-speaking base, the examples that I’ve cited come from English language broadcasts and articles. I know from experience (having Arabic class assignments of reading AJ’s articles, and trying to move this process along by reading the English language versions of these “same” articles) that Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Original do not report the exact same news, in the exact same manner. They are, in fact, different services, and differences in their coverage range from (translated) vocabulary used and tone implied to sources cited and issues emphasized. I don’t think the disparities are drastic enough to discredit general ideas, formed from watching the English service, on what Al Jazeera broadcasts, and why, and to what end. But it’s something to think about.