Al-Jazeera’s Islamist Conversion

In a fascinating piece in the Nation, Kristen Gillespie examines the complex nature of the ideological biases that shape the coverage at the Arab world’s most popular news channel. She reports on an Al-Jazeera that is sectarian — favoring a Sunni point of view in its coverage of Iraq, for example — increasingly Islamist, and also, perhaps paradoxically, a force for democracy in the region:

Al Jazeera’s programming breaks down into roughly four categories:newscasts, which tend to be fairly balanced; talk shows and relatedprograms, to which viewers call in; documentaries; and reports fromcorrespondents in the field. The last category is where the reportinghas frequently turned away from international standards of journalismand toward a sensationalistic and Islamist bias. The field reports areoverwhelmingly negative, with violent footage played over and over,highlighting Arab defeat and humiliation. And there’s a clearunderlying message: that the way out of this spiral is political Islam.

We would suggest reading the whole thing.

Meanwhile, in the New York Times yesterday, Roger Cohen looked at the failure of Al-Jazeera’s English channel to gain a foothold in U.S. cable markets:

A year after its launch, it reaches 100 million households worldwide. Its focus is on “reporting from the political south to the political north,” as Nigel Parsons, its managing director, put it. The world it presents, more from the impact than the launch point of U.S. missiles, is one that must be understood.

Yet, the network has been sidelined in the United States. Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, told me: “There’s definitely an attitude here that these guys are the enemy. But in the Mideast, Asia and Europe they have a credibility the U.S. desperately needs.”

Cohen’s basic point — that the United States needs to understand anti-American and non-Western (or “political south,” if you want to use that jargon) perspectives in order to influence them when it matters — is well taken.

But he inexplicably fails to make any distinction between Al-Jazeera’s English- and Arabic-language channels — a distinction which Gillespie and others make clear is critical. (Cohen takes Donald Rumsfeld to task, for example, for comments that he clearly made about Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language station, but refutes them with reference to the English-language fare.)

Cohen also frequently resorts to head-scratching hyperbole. (“America, and not just its front-line soldiers, needs to watch Al Jazeera to understand how the world has changed. Any other course amounts to self-destructive blindness.” Watching Al-Jazeera is the only way to gain this understanding? And this: “Comparative courses in how Al Jazeera, CNN, the BBC and U.S. networks portray the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be taught in all U.S. high schools and colleges.” Really?) All of which has us wondering if perhaps Jack Shafer is onto something.

Anyway, if you read one piece about Al-Jazeera this week, check out the Nation, not the New York Times. Unless, that is, you’ve never read our translation of an interview with Al-Jazeera Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Sheikh, in which case you’ll have to find time for more than one.

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