by Tom Thurlow
It has been almost two months since Al Jazeera America (AJA), the American outlet of Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera, debuted in the U.S. Viewers of the network note its impressive graphics and lack of commercials, a welcomed change of pace compared to most cable news in the States. The network also employs a host of familiar faces that help bolster AJA’s image as just another news network. It remains to be seen just how radical AJA will let its coverage becomes once it grows more assured of its acceptance into the mainstream. Already AJA’s Sunni sponsors have let the mask slip.
Despite a petition drive to exclude AJA from cable distribution, AJA’s coverage is definitely on the rise. Last spring and summer, AJA went on a hiring spree, hiring producers, writers, technicians, and hundreds of other staffers. AJA also snapped up big news names like Joie Chen, David Shuster and Soledad O’Brien, and then opened 12 American bureau offices. Broadcasting began August 20.
Of course, AJA is not just another news network. AJA’s parent company, Al Jazeera, is owned by the government of Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich, Sunni Muslim state in the Persian Gulf, bordering Saudi Arabia. Qatar is ruled by Shiekh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who, despite his personal business dealings with Israel, is pro-Hamas, pro-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Israel. Al Jazeera’s news coverage has reflected those views.
In fact, Al Jazeera is so pro-Muslim Brotherhood it recently got kicked out of Egypt for instigating Muslim Brotherhood protests there. In 2008, Al Jazeera’s Beirut bureau chief threw an on-air birthday party for Samir Kuntar, convicted killer of an Israeli family.
Americans learned to hate Al Jazeera in the days after 9-11, when Al Jazeera first repeated the charge that American Jews were warned beforehand of the attacks in New York, then repeatedly broadcast interviews of Osama bin Laden. Al Jazeera has even described the War on Terror as “so-called,” and suicide bombings as “paradise operations.”
Through the years Al Jazeera has had on-air personalities who were blatantly anti-Semitic. One popular Al Jazeera show, “Shari’a and Life,” features a host who regularly criticizes Shiites, Americans and Jews.
During the height of the Iraqi war years, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described Al Jazeera as “the mouthpiece of Al Qaeda,” while President George W. Bush referred to Al Jazeera as “a terrorist organization.” Upon the initial invasion of Afghanistan and later in Iraq, US military forces bombed local Al Jazeera offices because of the support they had given terrorists.
Now that AJA is on the air in the US, Americans will get to judge for themselves if AJA will be an independent news network covering news items important to Americans, or if AJA possesses the dispositions of its parent company.
While the network’s foreign news coverage is acceptable, the viewer gets the feeling that AJA is “up to something” whenever the news involves Israel, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Mideast in general.
Take for example the network’s coverage of the civil war in Syria. A Pew study revealed that most of the Syrian coverage by AJA was similar to most other American networks, but AJA spent much more time covering the humanitarian aspects of the story and the hardships of the rebels. And no wonder – Qatar has funded the rebels.
Strictly as a marketing issue, this liberal domestic news slant puts AJA in the same crowded category as most other American news channels, like ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, NPR and MSNBC, leaving Fox News alone in the right-of-center TV news coverage. Granted, AJA is only weeks old, but so far it is positioning its domestic news coverage in a pretty crowded field.
One recent episode of an in-depth news talk show on AJA, “The Stream,” revealed a definite anti-Israeli bias. The episode addressed the issue of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and how to get Israel to discuss peace. Special guests included members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which is a scandal in and of itself. The ISM is an organization, not of peace activists, but of para-militants who actively work with Palestinian terrorists and who call for armed force against Israel. ISM activists protect weapons-smuggling tunnels and have been photographed with assault weapons. Another group on the show calling itself Combatants For Peace (CFP) equates Israeli soldiers with Palestinian “combatants” (i.e. terrorists). Neither the CFP nor ISM’s websites acknowledges Israel’s right to exist, even with defensible borders. The Stream even included a former Israeli soldier, who complained of Israeli aggression against Palestinians. He was probably trying to be Israel’s version of John Kerry, circa 1971.
The show featured furrowed brows and hand-wringing about how to get “both sides to stop talking past each other,” and how to “open a dialogue.” A stream of viewer tweets across the bottom of the screen confirmed that the viewers were of the same mindset. There was also some talk of “Israel’s occupation” and the need to boycott Israel’s products in order to foster peace talks.
AJA also maintains a website to supplement its on-air overage. Recently, the website reported on a study that calculated the number of deaths from the Iraqi war to be over 500,000, dramatically higher than estimates from most other studies. The website also included a letter from an inmate and hunger-striker at Guantanamo, complaining of the force-feeding he has to endure to keep him alive. Poor guy!
So what is a news-watcher to do? When it comes to foreign news coverage, most of the important news involves Middle East matters, a subject where AJA is pretty biased. For domestic news, so far AJA’s coverage is similar to the coverage of several other networks.
But beyond these questions, what is the point of Al Jazeera even coming to America? Why would the Emir of Qatar go through the hassle and expense? One theory could be that AJA is some sort of pan-Arab pride project. And it is true that most significant regions of the world have at least one major news network. Some have also speculated that AJA is just a vanity project on the part of the Emir of Qatar, which is possible.
One other theory, and it is speculative but worth pondering, is that AJA may be getting into the American mainstream, slowly getting accepted, so that if there is another 9-11, a war involving Israel, or some other mass terrorist event, AJA will be there to share its pro-Al Qaeda or anti-Israel side to American viewers. Kind of an “embedded news network,” ready to propagandize at a moment’s notice. Given Al Jazeera’s past loyalties to Al Qaeda and positions against the US and Israel, it is certainly possible.
When Al Gore sold Current TV to Al Jazeera, he is reported to have said that Al Jazeera “gives a voice to those who are not typically heard,” and “speaks truth to power.” Actually, in the event of a war involving Israel or another large-scale terrorist attack against Americans, AJA will be a vehicle for arguing against speaking truth to terrorist powers. It may in fact be terrorized Americans who will be forced to speak truth to AJA.
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