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Al-Jazeera: Press or Propaganda?

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Al-Jazeera. Two words guaranteed to set hackles rising among right-wing media pundits. If you dangled them two, like raw meat, in front of someone like Bill O’Reilly, he’d be rearing up like a tiger on its hind legs, jaws drooling, trying to rend them limb from limb with his teeth.

Reviled by the West as being in cahoots with terrorists because they broadcast their messages, accused of having an Arab and even perhaps a Muslim bias, the White House has gone so far as to perhaps have targeted them during the bombing of Baghdad. Even if they didn’t attempt to blast them apart, any reports of civilian casualties issued by them were dismissed as propaganda or exaggerations, and obviously not to be believed, because they had an Arab bias.

Now, I know this asking a lot of some people out there, but let’s try and examine some of those accusations in a calm and rational manner. First off, their willingness to broadcast demands and videos offered to them by terrorist organizations. You tell me, would any of the big American networks, A.B.C., N.B.C., C.B.S., or Fox turn down videotape from an organization holding American hostages?

Would any of them think twice about airing such an obvious ratings coup? If they are so appalled by them showing that video, and if showing that video would make you in cahoots with the terrorists, why do all of the media outlets here always pick up the Al-Jazeera feeds for re-broadcast? It’s news, nothing more, nothing less.

Al-Jazeera is an Arab-language news station with international connections. They are also located in the Middle East, so they are the local station for most of these groups. What, you want them to mail the tapes to New York City? Have them held up in customs as a potential bomb scare? By that time they might have well as released the hostages for all the good it will do them.

Picture the scene. A small brown paper-wrapped package with Arabic writing scrawled all over it, return address somewhere in Iraq. What do you think would happen if that showed up in the American postal system? Mail delivery would stop for as long as it took them to test it for every potential hazard known to man and sniffer dog.

Is Al-Jazeera sympathetic to the insurgents in Iraq? I don’t know; maybe they have sympathy for their cause, probably a lot of the Arab world does. Who likes to exchange a dictatorship for what’s seen as another form of imposed rule? Don’t forget that a good many of the countries in the Middle East still remember being under the thumb of either the British or the French. They have a much shorter history of independence than we do here in North American.

Foreign intervention is not something they are thrilled with no matter how noble the intent. Holding a gun to someone’s head at the same time you’re telling them, “we’re doing this for your own good”, is not guaranteed to win too many hearts and minds. This a very proud and ancient culture, with parts of it predating Mohammad, and they don’t take well to what they view as insults to their pride.

Obviously it would be a different story if it were proven that Al-Jazeera were acting as some sort of adjutant to the terrorists and actively aiding and abetting people behind the murder of civilians. But they are an Arab-language broadcaster in the Arab world, so they report verbatim what is said around them.

How is that so different from what happens over here? The president or the prime minister speaks, the cameras whir, tape machines record, and the broadcasts are at six. Does that make our radio and television stations dispensers of propaganda? How much analysis do you ever see of video clips from a press conference or sound bite given by a politician on the six o-clock news?

If I don’t agree with whatever President Bush says in a speech, and N.B.C. allows him to broadcast it verbatim, only offering up the usual mush-mouthed, talking head, which manages to repeat what the speech was about without offering an opinion, as analysis, can I call that propaganda? It amounts to the same thing as Al-Jazeera reporting on the latest dung dripping from the mouth of Assad in Syria or the President of Iran and me not agreeing with him.

All networks reflect the interests of their audience or they would soon be out of business. People in the Arab world want to know what the leaders of the countries in that region are saying. You and I want to know what our political bosses have to say on a particular issue. Why shouldn’t the people of Jordan have the same right?

In fact, Al-Jazeera has an image problem in the Arab world; they are seen as being too Western by a lot of the more radical elements. They don’t just play it safe and broadcast opinions that are going to appeal to the most vocal segment of their audience.

Russel Smith in his media column in the Globe and Mail talks about one show that recently aired on Al-Jazeera that would be guaranteed to raise the hackles of fanatical clerics everywhere. It was a discussion between an Arab-American female psychologist and a Muslim cleric.

Wafa Sultan, the psychologist, had some incredibly strong and disparaging things to say about the Muslim faith. She freely admited to being a secular Muslim, but she’s still a member of that community and probably has family who are far more devoted than she. Her commentary boiled down a very simple statement; the current struggle between Islam and the West is akin to a struggle between civilization and backwardness.

The thing she made perfectly clear was that she wasn’t just talking about fanatics or extremists, but the religion as a whole. That’s not the sort of thing I’d expect to hear beyond the confines of The 700 Club myself, let along an Arab-language television news station.

Remember this show was not recorded for a Western audience, but for the Arab world. Now I’m sure there are some who are paranoid enough to say it’s part of some really deep game they’re playing; look what the corrupt West has done to this nice Muslim girl, but I find it highly unlikely. Nobody who believes that the West is corrupt needs that much convincing, and there are more effective ways of proving that point than having someone call you a bunch of despotic misogynists.

I’d think that the extremists would be incredibly pissed to hear these sentiments expressed at all. The fact that a woman is expressing them would make it even worse. To them it would represent an indication of how great an influence western secularism has had on Al-Jazeera. People like Bin Laddin, and others of like mind, would see airing that type of show as a betrayal of the highest order.

Would one of our major networks air a segment with a Christian making the same sort of comparison between Christianity and barbarism? They might, but they would receive a lot of pressure before and after the fact concerning their actions. It would be a brave thing for them to air such controversial opinions, just as it was for Al-Jazeera to have aired this program.

The next time you hear somebody going on about the bias of the press in the Middle East, ask yourself what that means and remember, like the person reporting on that bias, they’re just repeating what they hear their politicians say. Under those circumstances, is there any such thing as an unbiased media?

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • troll

    good post G

    here’s a link to the interview with Wafa Sultan refered to above still active as of this am

    and here’s the transcript


  • Very well written. Not all “right wing” folks get in a dither over Al Jazeera. I’m considered right wing over here (even though I am truly a leftist), and they’re perfectly okay with me. They don’t replay Palestinian suicide propaganda, and they take a point of view that makes many Arabs think.

    I may not like what they say, or how they say it, but I’m sure listening to Israel National News would raise the hackles of any “Palestine” lover. It raised the hackles of the government so much here that they knocked them off the air altogether and now Israel National Radio is an internet station only.

  • tommyd

    There’s more truthful reporting on one Al-Jazeera show than 1000 Fox “News” broadcasts. If one calls Al-Jazeera “propaganda” without saying the same about Fox “News”, then I know that person is a liar, hypocrite and a dupe. It’s so easy, try it sometime!

  • There is an excellent documentary about Al-Jazeera available:

    Control Room

    You learn that though AJ is an Arab-language station in its broadcasts, many behind the scenes are from the BBC. And yes, they speak English in the Control Room.

    You also learn that AJ is not entirely about Iraq. They are renegades on many fronts, with respect to reporting.

    It’s a riveting documentary, whatever your persuasion.

  • Eric Olsen

    the answer to your title question, g-man, is “pressaganda”

  • Okay Eric I’ll bite, although I think I can guess, give me a definition of pressaganda. That’s a great word by the why, take a patent out on it now, and may I use at some point in time? Of course I’ll give full credit where credit is due.

    I’m serious, I can’t think of any better way of describing press outlets that have turned into shills for a government or political party or agenda. It can apply across the board in a completly non-partisan manner…

    Ruvy, I would never think to put any labal on you, from what I’ve read and heard from you in letters, you don’t tend to follow a political ism, just your heart.

    I’d heard about the doc. Control room, I believe it was telecast on the C.B.C. a while back and I cursed myself for missing it. But I read a really good interview with the people who made it. That’s what opened my eyes to the fact there was more to these people than was being portrayed in our media (I’m including Canada in that)

    Troll thanks for the links to the transcripts, that will make for interesting reading.


  • Eric Olsen

    propaganda in the form of journalism and vice versa

  • dave

    I love how the logic works for some of you assholes.. Fox News this and that.. Americans this and that.. Stop generalizing you stupid fucks. Al-jazeera is just as guilty of putting a false spin on their shit news, as everyone else.. Fox, BBC.. everyone. Stop trying to be non-conformist and start keeping it real. Al-Jazeera IS in cahoots with groups that the rest of the world regard as terrorists.. they make no secret of that.

    Journalism, my ass. You people are fucking sick.

  • John Bakelaar

    I live in the United States and am conservative regarding most of my political views. I watch Aljazeera via internet everyday and find the broadcasts to be very balanced. It is my favorite source of news. I only wish I could receive Aljazeera through my cable television.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    There goes ‘dave’ with the standard false equivalency shtick: “they’re just as bad as we are!”…

    …and I do so wish that A Certain Segment of the Population would demand factual broadcasting and hold their favorite commentators and newsies to account for their *ahem* ‘inaccuracies’ and oh-so-innocent mistakes that occur to the point where one major network broadcasts more inaccuracies than all other major networks combined….