Al Jazeera: How It Sees the World
was the title of a presentation sponsored yesterday by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies and Adam Smith Global Television. Jerry Goodman, sponsor of the presentation, and author of the money books written under the pen name Adam Smith (not to be confused with the 18th Century Adam Smith, which Amazon and the Library of Congress appear to do) introduced the speaker, Abderrahim Foukara, Al Jazeera‘s New York Bureau Chief. Drs. Amaney Jamal and Michael Doran completed the panel. Mr. Foukara’s not the most facile of speakers and the presentation was done as a series of questions from Mr. Goldman (JG) and replies from Mr. Foukara (AF).
The first question was what it is about Al Jazeera (AJ) that gives it its impact? Mr. Foukara went into AJ’s history, and pointed to two factors, the invasion of Kuwait, where CNN (the only TV channel allowed by Saddam) “dragged the Arab world screaming into the informational revolution that later produced Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya“, and others. AJ was an extension of the BBC in that most of the staff were derived from the BBC and came with certain baggage that continues to shape the AJ experience. That’s not the only baggage since it’s not good enough to replicate the BBC; it’s a different audience with different limitations and different opportunities, and the cultural difference between the British and the people of the Middle East sets a different tone.
JG How do you get the bin-Laden tapes? How do you know they are real? How do you promote them?
AF someone calls in with the time and place for the tapes to be picked up, sometimes they come in the mail. They’re flacked as a news headline and subsequently they play the full tape in the news report. There’s an ongoing controversy regarding the relationship between AJ and the Bush administration as to whether AJ should relay the tapes because we don’t really know what bin-Laden’s saying between the lines. The AJ decision makers say AJ’s a broadcaster and they show both sides.
JG Al Arabiya says Al Arabiya’s [the Middle East’s] CNN and Al Jazeera’s its Fox [News Channel].
AF During the Security Council debate on Iraq a UN official asked, “When are you going to stop being the Fox of the Arab world?” If you watch AJ over a certain period of time it’s very difficult to decide whether you’re watching AJ, Fox, or CNN since they style wavers from one style to another depending on the program. There’s not one editorial decision, not one broadcasting style, and that could be both an advantage and an Achilles’ heel.
Mr. Goodman remarked that we’re at a disadvantage since we don’t watch AJ, and asked Mr. Foukara to give us a little idea of “the flavor of AJ”. Mr. Foukara stated that half the audience of AJ is illiterate and AJ is their only source of news. He then showed clips from a news headline program, a show named The Opposite Direction, and Islamic Law and Life where people call in asking about religious issues. “ The headline news is an international news program, in Western-oriented style, fast, concise, and to the point”, and is never a list of activities from any ME government as you find in the ME countries.
The Opposite Direction, immensely popular, “played a role in expanding and consolidating the AJ audience, and has shaped political debate in the Arab world, since until the 1990s there was absolutely no political debate”. . . “The cleric from Islamic Law and Life commands a lot of respect in the Arab world, and his views are sometimes very controversial”.
(There was a mix-up with the video clips, but the subtitled clip shown was from MEMRI, where the cleric stated suicide bombings are OK since they’re Allah’s way of compensating the Palestinians for their lack of military strength.)
When asked to compare Fox, NBC and AJ, Mr. Foukara used coverage of the Iraqi elections on election day.
He started with a clip of Geraldo Rivera in a desolate field, pointing at the covered corpse of a woman on a pickup truck, and asking “what’s the point of the insurgency that it has to kill people like her?”. AF pointed out the Fox philosophy of reporting, with Geraldo editorializing.
The next clip was a BBC story on the same day, a woman voting in Jordan, one in Sweden, and the large ballots used in Amsterdam. AF said that “Fox’s coverage painted a very rosy picture”, “all forward-looking. The BBC steps back, with a momentous, even somber and serious tone”.
(This comment, considering the two election-day clips shown, strained my credulity and gave me serious doubts as to Mr. Foukara’s frame of mind — how much more somber and serious than a corpse?)
Mr. Foukara pressed on, next with a clip of the AJ election day coverage, with an attractive, young (unveiled) woman at the AJ studio, going to a man saying (subtitled) that “the election was not reaching Western standards but it’s better than what we’d had before”, and Kurds, voting to secede or stay, outside the polling station. Mr. Foukara stated that the AJ coverage started with very gory scenes of violence.
Amaney Jamal, assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, made a rather lengthy comment on AJ’s receiving uncensored, non-state controlled news, and her question was whether AJ’s popularity is due to its striking the right tone, but her sense is that the most successful programs imitate Western programs, so what’s going on?
AF “I didn’t use the word “right tone”, I said that someone determined that on certain shows they need to jazz up a little. The issue is to stoke the fire. Unlike American media, the Arab media has no accurate demographic statistics”. The information is passed on by word of mouth “and that’s how AJ by and large works.”
Michael Doran, assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies saw AJ as wonderful, and not wonderful. “Wonderful because the Arab media had been bulletin boards of the ruling elite”, with the newspapers having 5-6 pages of international news, 2 pages of say, Mubarak’s activities, and no opinion pages on anything going on domestically, but now “there’s more and more freedom of expression, for instance, someone asking a Saudi royal how do you justify the lavish lifestyle of the Saudi royals”. Not wonderful in that the US military doesn’t like the AJ coverage. Dr. Doran called a high-level US military official to ask for a specific example of why the US military doesn’t like AJ prior to this presentation. The high-level official told Dr. Doran that in late March the Taliban had been trying to infiltrate Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Taliban attacked a US outpost and were defeated. The AJ crew got there, asking where the Taliban was since they won. When the AJ crew was told the Taliban lost, the AJ crew picked up and left. They didn’t talk to any of the military, they didn’t report, they didn’t film, they just left. . . AJ is still banned in Iraq and many Iraqis say AJ’s working with the terrorists. . . Stories on the Jeddah sewer system won’t get AJ viewership; two stories that’ll get them wide viewership are anti-American and anti-Jewish stories.
AF There are two issues. “The first is a technical issue: I have to admit in terms of training people how to deal with stories AJ has a long way to go . . . The second lies at the heart of the philosophy of the station. The scourge of the media, be it AJ or CNN, too, is the attempt to merchandise sentiments — the Arab world is anti-American — because being ‘anti-something’ sells.”
There were a couple of questions from the audience, and also Mr. Goodman remarked that AJ is indirectly financed by American SUVs because of the gas prices. Mr. Goodman asked the panelists if AJ was a positive influence, to which Dr. Jamal enthusiastically replied it is. As to Dr. Jamal’s question on claims AJ is connected to the CIA, Mr. Foukara says he hears that all the time. He had also mentioned that AJ put Qatar on the map, and people associate Qatar with AJ, not with CenCom.
Report also posted at Blogger News Network
Fausta, I’m thrilled you covered this! I had it in my calendar to go, but as it turned out I was in Atlanta yesterday and could not get back in time. I even thought yesterday morning to email you and suggest that you go, and then I lamely forgot about that, too, until I was on the plane home (I was quite running around). Great job, and a great example of open source journalism!
I was wondering if you were there — but most of the audience was either too old or too young.
The auditorium was filled to capacity, even when it was 4:30 PM.
Final Historian says
Good coverage Fausta. I was especially interested in this part:
“the Arab world is anti-American — because being ‘anti-something’ sells.”
Its nice for someone to openly say this, rather than just say that the they are against Sharon and Bush.