This was my final paper for great modern journalism last semester at Pitt. With all that is going on, including the revoking of Al Jazeera licenses in Egypt, I decided to post.
War on “The Island”
How Al Jazeera is improving the democratic landscape of the Middle East
by Jonas Moffat
A free press is essential for democracy. In a democracy, according to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart, the media must be able to “report the news, without ‘fear or fervor,’” (Moeller 173). Amy Goodman, executive producer of Democracy Now!, believes that democracy needs a media “that covers power, not covers for power” and that media are “the fourth estate, not for the state” (Boler 201). Free speech advocate and philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn believes that, for a democracy to work, citizens must be well informed and “there must be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas” (Marlin 226).
During the second Bush administration, U.S. officials increasingly employed the term “democracy” as part of its foreign policy agenda, signaling the administration’s “avowed commitment to exporting representative government.” On the one hand, the Bush administration touted “democracy” or the “spreading of democracy” as a rhetorical and political weapon used to justify its military operations in the Middle East (Moeller 167-8). While the current U.S. government continues to promote “democratization of the Middle East as a core aspect of its strategy for the war on terrorism, the people allegedly being democratized remain an abstraction” (Ackerman 21).
On the other hand, the news organization Al Jazeera has been instrumental in the democratic development of the Middle East through its programming, stalwart reporting, and steadfastness to withstanding mounting challenges. Furthermore, while American news agencies continue to cut reporters and news bureaus, Al Jazeera has expanded its operations widely in the past decade. The network has continuously pushed the envelope while operating in extremely hostile territories where it faces harsh critics and deadly opponents on both Arab and American fronts.
In this paper, I examine Al Jazeera’s nascent arrival on the international news media scene and its burgeoning successes, review the impact of the network on its Arab and international audiences, and highlight the troubles and criticisms it faces both in the Middle East and the United States. To achieve this goal, I have organized my paper into four main sections. In the first section, I examine briefly the origins of Al Jazeera, its budget, and viewership. In the second section, I discuss the role of the network in the Arab world and the responses from the governments and citizens of the region. In the third section, I discuss the U.S. government and mainstream media reactions and highlight the ongoing U.S.—Al Jazeera media war. Finally, I provide an analysis of Al Jazeera and the effect it has had on democracy in the Middle East and on conventional news media. In doing so, it becomes clear that Al Jazeera may be the most important democratic influence on the Middle East today.
Al Jazeera: A Brief History
The island. This is the English translation of Al Jazeera—a suitable name for a news organization that so often finds itself isolated and surrounded on all sides by hostility. Although it receives some government funding from the government of Qatar where it is based, Al Jazeera is privately owned and managed independently (Bahry 89). The network started broadcasting in February of 1999, with the support of Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the new emir of Qatar, who wanted to reflect a new democratic depiction of Qatar to the outside world. Shaikh Khalifa wanted to project his reforms to the west, one of which included the women’s right to vote—the first in the Gulf States (Bahry 87). Al Jazeera was one of these reforms, created as “part of an effort to modernize and democratize Qatar” (Zednik 44). The network quickly acquired “a reputation for airing perspectives that went far beyond what Middle Eastern information ministries considered acceptable” (Ackerman 18).
In 1996, Shaikh Khalifa granted Al Jazeera $137 million. This was initially meant to be a one time donation as it was thought that the station would become self sufficient in five years. However, it is hard to estimate Al Jazeera’s budget due to the company’s secrecy. With hundreds of journalists and offices all over the world, one report estimates that Al Jazeera “could not function on less that $40 million annually.” Advertising does not account for much of Al Jazeera’s budget as many countries refuse to advertise on the station due to intense political rifts. In fact, only 40-45 minutes of advertising is allocated on Al Jazeera each day, constituting only 40% of Al Jazeera’s revenues (Bahry 94-5). Saudi Arabia’s disapproval of Al Jazeera, for example, “continues to hang like a cloud, sufficient to deter most large companies with business in the kingdom from buying time for their products and services on the channel” (Tatham 29). According to one analyst, “Al Jazeera is in an inhospitable place for advertisers who dislike divisive issues” (Zednik 47).
Nonetheless, Al Jazeera has continued to survive and even expand in what is often considered a shrinking market. This is partly due to Al Jazeera’s success in enlivening politics and journalism in an area previously regulated by colorless and unexciting state-run media (Parameters 151). Since 1999, Al Jazeera has broadcasted to their viewers a variety of events, twenty-four hours a day. The network started with 497 employees, eleven foreign offices, and thirty-eight foreign correspondents (Bahry 90). Employees represent most countries in the Arab League, with talk show hosts, secretaries, and producers from Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Palestine. Now, nearly 30 bureaus can be found in cities like Brussels, Paris, London, New York, Washington, Moscow, and Islamabad (Zednik 44). These bureaus reach more than 100 million Arab viewers worldwide. Nearly half of all Palestinians watch Al Jazeera in addition to millions of Arabs who have studied in the West and see the channel as a “refreshing change from the monotonous traditional fare they are usually offered” (Bahry 93-4).
Launched in 2006, Al Jazeera English (AJE), Al Jazeera’s international counterpart, reaches around 40 million viewers, 60% of whom are American. Additionally, more than 20,000 subscribe to Al Jazeera’s online channel (Boler, Magnan, and Schmidt 303). According to Josh Rushing, a former U.S. Marine and co-host of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines, “To be Al Jazeera during these historic times is like peering out of a swirling epicenter” (Ackerman 22).
Al Jazeera and the Arab World
Until Al Jazeera arrived on the scene, many in the Arab world did not pay attention to their countries’ media, deeming them as mere mouthpieces for the government. With the emergence of a news outlet based in an Arab country and staffed mostly by Arabs, people began to turn to and trust the news put forth by Al Jazeera. Enthusiasts claim that Al Jazeera has succeeded in opening “Arab eyes to a new, daring, frank and provocative medium” (Bahry 90-1). For many viewers, Al Jazeera represents an objective news organization with controversial elements previously ignored by other Arab television stations (Jorisch 83). It is the only twenty-four hour news channel of the Arab world on which guests speak freely on programs that have often resulted in shouting matches or participants storming off the set during live newscasts (Zednik 45).
Al Jazeera is a network that relies heavily on video newscasts and is both famous and infamous for its broadcast of graphic images. By televising shocking footage of Palestinian, Iraqi, and Afghani civilian casualties, Al Jazeera has “not only spurred much debate about the appropriate content of coverage, but also have affected the political dynamics of the region” (Parameters 152). Whereas American media typically shies away from graphic images, Al Jazeera’s decision to relay these images, some say, may be one of the sole reasons for its popularity (Fahmy and Johnson 245-6). Nonetheless, research conducted in the Arab world finds that “graphic visuals portraying human suffering arouse national sentiments of support for issues related to the Palestinian cause and the economic sanctions against Iraq” (Fahmy and Johnson 247). Although the West is quick to criticize Al Jazeera’s commitment to airing the uninhibited images, the channel’s policy of editing out distressing images allows only the “bare minimum necessary for the news story” (Tatham 30).
In addition to stimulating debate vis-à-vis the transmission of graphic images, Al Jazeera’s program Opposite Direction offers its viewers a fresh type of discourse. It is the most popular program on Al Jazeera and the most controversial. Presenters on the show have, at times, referred to Arab states as “lackeys of U.S. imperialism.” Countries like Jordan, Morocco, Libya, and Algeria have all disputed the news organization over its broadcasting, accusing it of “expressing ideas that directly oppose their rulers” (Bahry 92-3). Although in some countries their respective governments have closed Al Jazeera’s offices and ambassadors have been recalled, Al Jazeera has become so powerful and influential “that it is difficult for any given Arab country to boycott it permanently” (Bahry 94).
Al Jazeera’s policy of scrutinizing all sides of the debate has led The Index on Censorship, a British organization that promotes freedom of expression, to award Al Jazeera a prize for “its skill in maintaining independent commentary” (Cockburn 12). In fact, Al Jazeera’s success is “primarily due to the unlimited freedom the station exercises in comparison with other Arab TV stations” and its introduction of “major innovations in broadcasting and reporting” (Bahry 97). It offers a “visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously” (Kaplan 55). These factors have impelled other Arab news outlets “to improve their content and broadcast quality” (Miladi 156).
Since its arrival on the global arena, Al Jazeera has pursued editorial independence by defying the prevalent state-sponsored media control. It did so through its uncensored newscasts and “covering news which Arab governments would rather cover up” in a place where the only viewpoints expressed were those held by the governments (Sahraoui and Zayani 28-9). According to investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, Al Jazeera has “done more than any other to break the stranglehold over information previously held by authoritarian forces, whether monarchs, military strongmen, occupiers or ayatollahs (7). It has been described as anti-Jewish, anti-American, and anti-Arab. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has described Al Jazeera as the biggest media and political phenomenon to hit the Arab world (Tatham 30).
What distinguishes Al Jazeera from every other Arab news agency is its unambiguous criticism of Arab governments. It even “dares insult them directly (Bahry 88).” For some, Al Jazeera symbolizes the Arab world’s CNN (Fahmy and Johnson 248). Others, like Hassan Ibrahim, dislike the term “The CNN of the Middle East.” Ibrahim is a BBC-turned Al Jazeera journalist who believes that CNN, as a private company, “appears to be the mouthpiece of the American administration.” Al Jazeera, Ibrahim contends, maintains an environment where “diversity can be expressed freely and free of intervention of the attempts of some to use a news service to serve political goals” (Boler, Magnan, and Schmidt 304). Still, others compare Al Jazeera to a “David standing up to the Goliath of the Western world” (Rushing 206).
For the people of the Arab world it has been their governments that have embodied the Goliath. Historically, freedom of the press in the Arab world has been restricted. Before the arrival of Al Jazeera, news in the Arab world “consisted only of protocol news heavily laden with government propaganda.” Polls now show increasing support by citizens of the Arab nations for a free press system (Fahmy and Johnson 250). In lieu of democratizing the societies that they govern, the Arab governments exhibit a tendency to accuse the independent media, such as Al Jazeera, of “endangering the unity of the Arab world” (Al Kasim 102).
In other respects, Al Jazeera has been “praised for its refusal to regurgitate the official line of Arab government officials and its commitment to accuracy and balance while at the same time showing an Arab perspective of the news” (Fahmy and Johnson 245). For Al Jazeera, balance is partly represented by its decision to incorporate graphic images into its broadcasting. It is “a basic question of journalistic objectivity,” presenting to its audience the public issues and agendas of the day concerning the Arab world. Refusing to show these images, according to Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief, Hafez al-Mirizi, “would not be realistic journalism” (Fahmy and Johnson 248). In one poll, when asked about whether Al Jazeera should be allowed to show graphic images, nine out of ten respondents agreed. They also agreed that graphic images from Palestine/Israel and the war in Iraq constituted “valuable information missing from other media sources.” More than 89% of the respondents agreed, “such visual information was missing from national Arab media” (Fahmy and Johnson 256).
In addition to its inclusion of graphic images, Professor Marc Lynch of Williams College believes that “Al Jazeera has constructively shattered the prevailing Arab political consensus, with its freewheeling and often inflammatory guests presenting views every day with televised examples of how democratization can mean both deliverance and demagoguery” (Ackerman 21). For this and other reasons, a third of Al Jazeera’s viewers turn their attention to the channel for at least five hours each day (Fahmy and Johnson 248). The example set by Al Jazeera may have prompted some Arab regimes “to start rethinking their policies toward freedom of the media.” One such example is the “media free zones” in Cairo, Jordan, and Yemen where journalists can freely report and broadcast anything they desire (Bahry 97-8).
Supporters of Al Jazeera contend that it lives up to its motto, “The opinion and the other opinion,” with its willingness to tackle complex matters, incorporating a variety of viewpoints into the debate, and leaving room for the audience to decide (Fahmy and Johnson 249). Due to this willingness, however, many Arab rulers view Al Jazeera’s application of free press principles as “a considerable problem” (Tatham 31). Prior to Al Jazeera’s first broadcast in 1996, Arab leaders “were accustomed to state-owned media that did not question the status quo.” Al Jazeera has thrown a wrench into this system, catering to its audiences rather than the governments under which it operates. More than 400 complaints have been received by the Qatar government regarding Al Jazeera programming. No Arab government is “immune from the channel’s on-the-air criticism” (Da Lage 55).
In 2002, Al Jazeera was prohibited from operating in Bahrain due to territorial disputes (Sahraoui and Zayani 79). The previous year, the Algerian government cut Al Jazeera’s satellite feed during a program about the Algerian civil war (Zednik 46) while in 1998 and 2002, the Jordanian government shut down Al Jazeera’s bureau in Amman (Zayani 56). The Palestinian Authority once raided Al Jazeera’s Ramallah bureau demanding, “images insulting to Arafat be removed” (Zednik 47). To this day, there exists no senior official representation of the Saudi government in Qatar (Tatham 29). The Saudis have gone so far as to denounce Al Jazeera as a disgrace to the Persian Gulf states and label it a threat to “the stability of the Arab world and of encouraging terrorism” (Da Lage 56).
Additionally, Al Jazeera has received criticism from some Arab regimes for being the first station in the Arab world to broadcast interviews with Israeli officials (Scahill 8) while others have complained that it has maintained a U.S. bias, accusing it of allocating more airtime to U.S. officials than to their opponents (Tatham 29). Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld have all appeared on Al Jazeera (Zednik 45-6). At times, Al Jazeera has been chastised by Arab governments while simultaneously commended by the American government for its “stinging criticisms of Arabic royal families and oil-rich dictators, and for its investigations into taboo subjects such as child brides and polygamy” (Asquith).
Al Jazeera has been criticized in the Middle East for “airing the region’s dirty social and political laundry” to millions of viewers who consider its coverage an “authentic reflection of Arab identity” (Ackerman 21). The Egyptian government has branded Al Jazeera a “sinister salad of sex, religion and politics” (Zednik 47). According to some, Al Jazeera is the root of “friction” and “instability” within the Arab countries and “hostile to the notion of Arab unity.” In spite of its criticisms, most of the Arab leaders that criticize the channel are eager to appear on it (Milade 157-8).
Paraphrasing Khalil Rinnawi’s book Instant Nationalism: McArabism, Al-Jazeera and Transnational Media in the Arab World, Soek-Fang Sim states that Arab media outlets like Al Jazeera were initially endorsed by Arab governments as “a way of creating pan-Arab content that would be popular and coherent with Islamic values.” However, despite these governments’ attempt to maintain control of the media, the unforeseen result has been a “more critical and participatory public sphere and civil society across the Middle East (Sim 338). In one poll, respondents from Arab nations and predominantly Muslim countries were asked to rate from one to ten (with one being the lowest) their country’s level of freedom of the press. Arab media scored 2.83. The respondents indicated that the Arab press suffered heavily under censorship and made the argument for a freer press. Close to 80% of the respondents “strongly agreed that the Arab media should be allowed to freely criticize their government and another 16% agreed.” Two-thirds of those surveyed strongly agreed, “Arab media should be allowed to publish free from government control” (Fahmy and Johnson 254).
It is only this kind of free press, one that “reports what it knows, rather than what it is told is acceptable to say,” that can ultimately keep the government in check (Moeller 173). This kind of unabashed journalism is the essence of a true and free media and is essential to democracy—in the Middle East, the U.S., and indeed, the world.
Al Jazeera and the United States
Notwithstanding the rare instances when it applauds Al Jazeera for their critique of corruption in the Arab world, the U.S. government spends much of its time chastising the Arab news channel. U.S. officials have often claimed that Al Jazeera focuses more on “sensationalism and exaggerated situations,” deliberately distorts facts, and manipulates events (Bahry 96). Some have gone so far as to claim that Al Jazeera serves as a “vehicle for incitement to violence” (Jorisch 83). Regardless of Al Jazeera’s intents, what is evident in American mainstream media coverage is the emphasis of White House policy directives. Although this may be historically discernible, the Bush administration “raised secrecy and information control to a level never before seen in Washington” after 9/11 (Moeller 169).
In recent years and during previous wars, the U.S. government disseminated its message to its citizens and the world through its news organizations’ satellite transmissions. This method proved extremely effective in influencing public opinion during the first Gulf War. However, the balance of global news and information power has shifted dramatically in the following decade (Seib 613). Now mainstream media outlets renounce their role as independent informant, capitulating “to the White House demand that they fall in line with the ‘patriotic’ message” (Moeller 169). The second Gulf War marked the crossroads, symbolizing an end to the monopoly of global news by American and Western media (Seib 601). It was at this watershed that Al Jazeera arrived onto the global media scene from where it has been able to summon an audience “that eludes Western media” (Seib 602).
If it is true that Al Jazeera’s decision to broadcast graphic images of war has been the key to its success and increased viewership, then it has been to the detriment of the American media and their decision not to broadcast. The mainstream media are “less likely to show graphic images today than they were decades ago … because of a concern it might offend audiences.” The result for American viewers has been a portrayal of bloodless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely free of dissent (Fahmy and Johnson 248). Conversely, Al Jazeera’s viewers see it all and many believe that “seeing it all” has its advantages. “In wartime,” as one analyst states, “the media should not downplay the events in a conflict. (The viewers) do not want the impression that war is not a terrible thing.” For Al Jazeera’s audience, anything less than the whole truth, including the broadcasting of graphic images, amounts to “not getting the whole story” (Fahmy and Johnson 258).
In 2003, Faisal Bodi, senior editor for the Al Jazeera website said, “Of all major global networks, Al-Jazeera has been alone in proceeding from the premise that this war should be viewed as an illegal enterprise. It has broadcast the horror of the bombing campaign, the blown-out brains, the blood-spattered pavements, the screaming infants, and the corpses” (Seib 602). Much of the controversy surrounding Al Jazeera arose when it aired video of killed and captured coalition troops. Ibrahim Hilal, Al Jazeera’s editor-in-chief, defended these actions by claiming, “What we are doing is showing the reality. We didn't invent the bodies … they are shots coming in from the fields. This is the war. We have to show that people are killed in this war” (Seib 602). Further controversy arose with Al Jazeera’s decision to air footage of dead American and British POW’s. Allied officials condemned Al Jazeera. The response from the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ was to expel Al Jazeera reporters. Hackers responded by attacking Al Jazeera’s English-language website and “replacing it with a red-white-and-blue U.S. map and the slogan LET FREEDOM RING” (Ghosh, Poniewozik, et al.).
During the first Gulf War, Al Jazeera’s absence meant that it was unable to shape public opinion in the Arab states. The second Gulf War, however, allowed for a new “terrain where the battle for hearts and minds (between the U.S. and Al Jazeera) had to figure centrally rather than peripherally” (Sim 338). In 1998, Al Jazeera filmed the bombing of Baghdad by the Americans during Operation Desert Fox (Bahry 92). At the start of the American attacks on Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban forced out all foreign news organizations and journalists. Only Al Jazeera was permitted to cover the assault. Instantaneously, Al Jazeera was “not only delivering the news to its thirty-five million viewers, including 150,00 in the U.S., it was telling the world’s top story to billions of people around the planet via international media” (Zednik 45). In fact, Al Jazeera’s pictures and videos were the only materials available due to the network’s “exclusive coverage from Kabul, the only camera and only TV team internationally to be in Kabul and to cover the war” (Kalb and Hess 201). These circumstances ennobled Al Jazeera to become the lone rival to CNN “as a recognized international source of information” (Bahry 92). Al Jazeera’s one-up in covering the assault on Afghanistan forced CNN, the BBC, ABC News, and others to sign contracts with Al Jazeera (Zednik 47).
The Taliban ensured Al Jazeera’s operations in Afghanistan and the network arguably had an easier time than most Western news agencies in Iraq. However, despite the fact that the network had established itself as a credible and driving force in international news media, the station’s on-the-ground employees were not free from danger. Salah Hassan, a thirty-three-year-old cameraman for Al Jazeera, rushed to cover the site of a roadside bombing in Iraq. He filmed the site and interviewed bystanders. When the U.S. military arrived they arrested Hassan, accusing him of knowing about the bombing in advance. He was sent to Abu Ghraib where he was hooded, beaten, and forced to wear a jumpsuit covered in vomit. He was kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell and released weeks later. A colleague of Hassan was badly beaten by U.S. troops in Abu Ghraib and released a month later (Parenti 20).
American forces have arrested and imprisoned more than twenty Al Jazeera reporters and cameramen. The number of Al Jazeera journalists abused by U.S. soldiers in Iraq is even greater and fits “into a larger pattern of US government hostility toward Al Jazeera … best viewed in the context of the escalating, multimillion-dollar media war between Al Jazeera and the US government.” Nonetheless, U.S. forces did not document “a single instance of an Al Jazeera journalist conspiring in an attack on the (U.S.) occupation” (Parenti 21-3).
The U.S.—Al Jazeera media war has escalated to deadly proportions. Six weeks after Colin Powell expressed outrage at what he referred to as Al Jazeera’s “inflammatory rhetoric,” two five hundred pound bombs obliterated Al Jazeera’s Kabul news bureau (Zednik 45). Fearing another attack on their Baghdad bureau, Al Jazeera notified the U.S. military of Iraqi coordinates. The Pentagon said it “had taken due note and promised it wouldn’t be attacked.” In fact, as reported by Robert Fisk of the Independent, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department visited the Baghdad news bureau and reiterated the assurances twenty-four hours before American missiles blew up the offices (Cockburn 12). A source told the Mirror that Bush “made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere” (Scahill 8).
Nevertheless, after the arrests and attacks on Al Jazeera personnel and infrastructure, the U.S. government appealed to the Arab network for assistance. The Americans sought to take advantage of Al Jazeera’s reach to millions of viewers in an attempt to influence the station’s coverage. They offered Al Jazeera four embedded reporter positions. The network accepted one (Seib 603). Al Jazeera’s refusal to succumb to a colossal embedding platform permitted Al Jazeera more freedom to cover “the effects of war on the Iraqi civilian community” rather than the perspective of war exhibited by Al Jazeera’s western counterparts (Tatham 29). According to Scahill, “The real threat that Al Jazeera poses is in its unembedded journalism … The war against Al Jazeera and other unembedded journalists has been conducted with far too little outcry from the powerful media organizations of the world” (Scahill 8).
Arab journalists are not the only newsmakers who suffer from the U.S. embedding strategy. The military’s profound mistrust of the media, coupled with its predisposition toward secrecy, also frustrates American and other Western journalists embedded with the military. The embedded journalists are “fed a poor diet of information and boring images that (are) difficult to sensationalize … and disjointed images of the process of war (without showing its consequences on victims)” (Sim 336). A Penn State University study found that embedded reporting resulted in “more articles about the U.S. soldiers' personal lives and fewer articles about the impact of the war on Iraqi civilians.” In these stories, more than 93.2% cited soldiers as sources. For unembedded (independent) reporters, the number was significantly lower at 42.8%. The New York Times relied on embedded reporters for 37% of their stories and the Washington Post relied on embedded reporters for more than half of their stories. 100% of the USA Today’s stories came from embedded reporters (“Embedded Reporting Influences War Coverage”). Goodman asks, “Where are the reporters embedded in Iraqi hospitals, in the peace movements around the world, to show the real effects of war?” (Boler 201).
Although offered embedded positions with the U.S. military, Al Jazeera has been routinely denied access to the military’s press briefings. One of the reasons for this denial is that Al Jazeera serves as an anti-American mouthpiece with evidence stemming from Al Jazeera turning Osama bin Laden into their “star” (Zednik 45-6). Although the Bush administration repeatedly denounced Al Jazeera for airing bin Laden’s videotapes, to which it had exclusive rights, the American media aired segments of the tapes for an estimated $100,000 per minute (Boler, Magnan, and Schmidt 308). Al Jazeera, it appears, has become “a convenient scapegoat for profound U.S. policy errors” (Lynch 21).
Scapegoat or not, Al Jazeera has not been deterred by the arrest or murder of its journalists. The rise of Al Jazeera’s offshoot channel, Al Jazeera English (AJE), has caused friction in the U.S.—Al Jazeera media war. AJE’s arrival in the American scene, with a bureau in Washington D.C., “has been greeted in the United States with something approaching horror” (Ackerman 18). AJE’s rise is a notable and positive side effect to the global financial crisis and the subsequent collapse of the mainstream media. Shawn Powers, a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, said, “It’s almost a perfect storm for Al Jazeera English because everyone realizes there’s a crisis in journalism and they are one of the few networks with the resources not to worry about it.” From its onset, Al Jazeera was expected to fail, as it took on “the biggest names in international news.” Now, however, AJE correspondents now outnumber every other news bureau reporters. The vacuum caused by the collapse of the media industry has allowed for Al Jazeera’s increase in newsrooms (Campbell). At the same time, organizations like the BBC and CNN continue to lose their grip on the market (Tatham 30).
In contrast to its parent station Al Jazeera Arabic, most of AJE’s employees are neither Arab nor Muslim. This decision proves to be a tactical and effective move by Al Jazeera in reaching a wider audience (Asquith 23). Despite AJE’s success, some see the imminent collapse of the English-language channel, claiming that it lacks the excitement and fast-paced character of its parent company (Weinman).
Despite these negative predictions, the Americans have taken note of Al Jazeera’s successes. To combat Al Jazeera’s rise in popularity, the U.S. fronted $62 million in 2004 to create Al-Hurra, an Arabic-language satellite channel based in Virginia. The goal of the channel is to garner support for the U.S. occupation in Iraq and bolster American legitimacy in the Arab world by serving as “the public face of America’s ideological offensive in the Middle East.” Al-Hurra, or “the free one” in English, included Palestinian and Lebanese journalists and boasted Colin Powell as one of its board of directors (Parenti 22-3). Al-Hurra has been referred to as “just another ill-conceived Washington media stunt, leading nowhere” and polls have shown that most Arab viewers either do not watch the channel or do not trust its reporting (Parameters 152).
American mainstream media coverage of events in the Middle East appears to have lost legitimacy in the Arab world. Al Jazeera, however, through its transmission of civilian deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip to its in-depth analyses of Arab governments and US foreign policy, has taken the reigns and has become the exclusive driving force in uncensored global news reporting. Al Jazeera has surely affected public opinion and occupies a noteworthy place in the journalistic world. Nevertheless, Al Jazeera is being attacked on another front.
After the launching of Al Jazeera English, the American media have intensified the campaign against Al Jazeera. According to Ackerman, “What Fox News did for gun owners and evangelicals who felt culturally isolated and politically marginalized by CNN, (AJE) hopes to do for English professors and software developers disgusted by both networks.” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly of The O’Reilly Factor stated on his show, “Al Jazeera has a close-knit relationship with Al Qaeda and other Islamic terror outfits” while Fox’s Sean Hannity turned down an invitation to speak on Al Jazeera, claiming that doing so would “put American troops in jeopardy” (Ackerman 20). Al Jazeera has been labeled elsewhere as the “terrorist wire service” and a “radioactive brand” while the Bush administration “all but accused Al Jazeera of being “an accomplice to terror” (Jones 38). Nevertheless, Fox News, with its “jingoistic, meatloaf provincialism” and its “utter lack of interest in the outside world,” does not have the ability to cover the world’s events the way Al Jazeera does (Kaplan 56).
Cliff Kincaid of the group media watchdog group Accuracy in Media claimed, “Al Jazeera intends to incite Arabs and Muslims around the world into an anti-American posture … trying to reach Arabs and Muslims in the United States who don't speak Arabic" (Asquith 23). Nonetheless, Al Jazeera’s success and journalistic prowess has led Robert Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic, to suggest that if Al Jazeera was “more widely available in the United States (on cable rather than satellite) … it would steadily eat into the viewership of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. This, Kaplan said, is because the “internationally minded elite class” yearns for Al Jazeera, not Lehrer (Kaplan 55).
Goodman expresses doubt about the state of the mainstream media in the U.S. “There is no longer a mainstream media,” she says. “This is an extreme media beating the drums of war” (Boler 201). CBS and NBC are owned by Westinghouse and General Electric, respectively—the same companies that manufacture the bombs that fall over Baghdad and Kabul. “Is it any surprise,” Goodman asks, “that most of what we watched on television was a military hardware show?” (Boler 203). According to Goodman, “The media is too important to be controlled by a few rich, media mega-moguls. It’s got to be a media run … by the people, for the people.” Al Jazeera fits perfectly into this equation (Boler 207).
Al Jazeera: A Model for Middle East & (U.S.) Democracy
Despite its controversies, Al Jazeera has proven itself to be a major player in international news media. The day before September 11, 2001, Al Jazeera’s website visits totaled one million. In the following days, visits increased to seven million daily (Seib 603). It quickly became “the most important news organization on earth” and is now one of top five most recognizable global news outlets (Ackerman 19). Not only has Al Jazeera dramatically transformed how citizens and governments view the role of the media and its importance in the Arab world but also constitutes a “major force in the region's often fragile international relations” (Tatham 30). It has succeeded in communalizing Arab viewers by showing them that “they suffer from a similar malaise” (Al Kasim 103).
If a free press is essential to democracy then a democracy ceases to be democratic when “those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism” (Marlin 226). Although most of the Arab states have complained about Al Jazeera none have been able to stifle Al Jazeera’s persistent criticisms and investigations of the regimes (Da Lage 56). Al Jazeera has played an influential role in the ongoing democratic changes unfolding in the Middle East (Da Lage 63). The network continuously challenges the Arab, American, and international governments while opposing the dominant preordained media paradigms of the region, resisting the messages relayed by those governments and the global corporately funded media conglomerates (Boler 26).
Al Jazeera has paved the way for other pan-Arab news organization, including Al-Arabiya of Dubai and MBC of Saudi Arabia, although none have come close to the hard-hitting style exhibited by Al Jazeera (Fahmy and Johnson 250). In fact, the network’s most significant contribution thus far “may be its establishment of Arab media as a viable alternative to Western news organizations and its role in attracting global recognition of Arab media voices” (Seib 604).
Al Jazeera has proven wrong the “dire predictions about the end of foreign news as we know it” (Kaplan 55). The network has also proven its ability to overcome an array of trials and tribulations, both financial and political. Indeed, Al Jazeera is here to stay. It provides a chance “not only for Americans to have a better understanding of the Middle East but for Arabs to have a better understanding of America” (Asquith 24).
The U.S.—Al Jazeera media war is continuing and vying for the hearts and minds of viewers similar to the way Vietnam War reporting battled for the hearts and minds of their viewers. Where the American mainstream media flounders at showing the true nature of U.S. wars and occupations in the Middle East, Al Jazeera fills the void. For anyone who yearns for exceptional coverage of international news it is to the groundbreaking Arab news network Al Jazeera that one should turn. There are simply no alternatives.