A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

EEK! It's an Al Jazeera Reporter!

I rarely deal with the wilder shores of American Islamophobia/Arabophobia because I assume anyone reading me is not reading them, and vice versa. Oh, sure, sometimes it's irresistible, as in spring 2010's Miss USA furor, when Rima Fakih, a Lebanese-American of mixed Shi‘ite-Christian background who posed in a leopard-skin bikini (photos at the link for historical and educational purposes only) and whose family in South Lebanon fly a huge American flag from their house, was accused of being a Hizbullah mole. When it was learned she'd posed topless, but with her back to the camera, that proved it. Somehow. And I also noted it when Switzerland, with a 5% Muslim population and a total of four minarets in the entire country, voted to ban minarets.  But Jon Stewart's take was so much funnier than mine that I gave up on that issue.

But I have not yet dealt with the issue of Al Jazeeraphobia. Al Jazeera was the pioneer of Arab satellite television, and being based in Doha, Qatar, they have long been pretty free to criticize other Arab countries and regimes. (Qatar is immune, but pretty much only Qatar. The Saudis, Mubarak's Egypt, and other Arab countries hate Al Jazeera, but they have by far provided the best coverage of the Arab revolutionary movements. Though Bahrain is a traditional rival of Qatar's, they've been a bit cautious there, but not elsewhere. As a result Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria have all accused them of seditious plotting. This is usually a good sign.)

Though Al Jazeera has been around for quite a while and Al Jazeera English has a growing reputation as one of the finest non-Western-based cable news channels in English, Al Jazeera's reputation in the US has always been somewhere between spotty and downright hostile. Many people know nothing of it other than it has received certain Usama bin Ladin tapes before anyone else. Most Americans cannot even see Al Jazeera English: in a few markets such as New York and Washington, it's available as an extra cable package or in some broadcast HD side-channels, but most can't get it even if they want it, which is why Al Jazeera English offers a Watch Live link on their website. 

I don't agree with everything Al Jazeera Arabic or Al Jazeera English broadcast, but they do broadcast multiple viewpoints. Instead of Voltaire's classic, "I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it," much of the criticism of Al Jazeera amounts to "I disagree with what (I imagine) you say (though I haven't actually read it or heard it) so I will not only fight against your right to say it but also against your saying anything at all." If much of their coverage of the Middle East is critical of US policy, that's simply a reflection of the  current opinion on the ground.

What provoked this rant are some recent incidents emphasizing the US attitude towards Al Jazeera.

First off, my former MEI colleague and now Al Jazeera English correspondent Clayton Swisher, who  broke the Palestine Papers story, big news in Israel, Palestine, and the Arab World, though mostly ignored in the US, recently had a post on the recent Wikileaks uncensored document dump in which he studied the attitudes toward Al Jazeera in some of the US Embassy Cables. From Clayton's blogpost:

And right now I'm thinking about how they made sources out of just about everyone they spoke with, in many instances without their permission. That was obvious as I waded through the trove of US Embassy Doha cables related to my employer, Al Jazeera.
We may have been hailed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for doing real news when she spoke to the Senate this year. But thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know that, not even five years ago, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was scaremongering to then-US Ambassador to Qatar that "Al Jazeera is killing Americans".

The result? Under the Bush Administration, numerous US diplomats began cycling in and out of Al Jazeera. Senior network staff became targets of "information warfare", and as they followed the Arab customs of offering tea and dates to visiting dignitaries, we now know the US ambassador was reading off a tightly prepared script of questions submitted by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

Even rank-and-file journalists were probed by the Americans' passive elicitation. Doha-based US diplomats seemed to want grist to feed their White House audience on the "we're-losing-Mideast-wars-because-of-Jazeera" narrative.
Yet Qatar, Al Jazeera's home, and the Royal Family of which is the patron, sustainer and at least partial owner of Al Jazeera, is a critical ally in the US position in the Gulf.

But Clayton's post was from several days ago. What prompted this really was this report from an Al Jazeera English correspondent, making a road trip across the US in preparation for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, who tried to interview people at a high school football game in Texas:  "Welcome to Texas! Unless You're Al Jazeera".

The journalist is Brazilian. But when he presents his business card:
She said she was out of business cards, so I reached into my back pocket, pulled out my wallet, grabbed by business card, and handed it to Mrs. Yauck.

I don't think anything can wipe that double-wide smile off Mrs Yauck’s face. But my Al Jazeera business card does the job pretty quick.“So you’re from Al Jazeera,” Mrs Yauck says in a sharp tone, still looking down at my card. Looking up at me, she adds quickly, “ So what’s your spin on this story?”

“I don’t have a spin,” I say, still smiling to try to ease any sudden tension. “What I told you is exactly what I want to do. Just talk to people, film a bit. That is it. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

“But you’re with Al Jazeera?”

“Yes,” I say proudly, still smiling.

But Mrs Yauck is again staring down at my business card.

“Our superintendent is here, let me just go talk to him and I’ll be right back.”

Ultimately, he is told he can neither film nor interview.

Now, admittedly, and it's important to note that Al Jazeera is noting this as well, the school official involved is insisting that he was preoccupied with other issues and disputing some details of the account.
But the mere fact that the first person to see the journalist kicked the matter upstairs, apparently because it was Al Jazeera, is where things went astray.

America: Al Jazeera was the first Arab news channel, other than official Egyptian and Jordanian channels, to interview Israeli leaders regularly. Before you proclaim them the enemy, watch them a bit. Online anyways, since your local cable probably doesn't offer them.


David Mack said...

Good stuff, Mike. I passed to some friends at Aljazeera's Arabic and International bureaus. May it lighten their day.

Perry Passu said...

When you think you've been selected by God to do His work on the planet, those who disagree with you are manifestly evil or stupid or some unwholesome combination of both.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Perry Passu? Brilliant pseudonym.

Of course if it's your real name I hope your friends don't know Latin.