The Blog

Al Jazeera, in English

A look at the baffling new force in global news.

11:00 PM, Jan 3, 2007 • By LOUIS WITTIG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

If this isn't propaganda for America's enemies, that's only because the definition of propaganda in today's constantly shifting media environment isn't perfectly clear. What is uniquely disturbing about AJE is the delivery: Right after the weather and sports scores, they give reports depicting Hamas gunmen as victims and the Islamic Army of Iraq as Arab minutemen. And as the channel cuts back to ideologically ho-hum stories on Ben Affleck's latest project, it's easy to see how unconsciously this all might be digested.

Of course, even this is different from the original flavor of Al Jazeera, whose broadcasts incite violence against Americans, whose panel show guests suggest that the Nobel Prize is a Zionist plot, and whose reporters are doing time in Spanish jail, convicted of aiding al Qaeda.

AJE supporters try to claim that the new network is independent from the original Al Jazeera. But as Cliff Kincaid, of Accuracy in Media, notes, both Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English are funded directly by the emir of Qatar, and three of the four top managers at the English-language channel come from the Arabic one.

TAKING A HANDS-OFF APPROACH to Al Jazeera English is, Kincaid continues, akin to giving Tokyo Rose an anchor's seat on NBC radio during World War II. This is not an uncommon reference for the network's critics and it sounds vaguely right. Only Tokyo Rose probably never had U.S. Navy spokesmen on her show to discuss Guadalcanal. Al Jazeera English, on its Inside Iraq program, does.

Eventually, the questions that proliferate after an hour of watching AJE can't be contained: What's an enemy's perspective and what's enemy propaganda? How do you classify an outlet that airs deceptive and terrorist-promoting segments, but only for about five minutes of every hour? What if some of its reports have a pro-Western tilt? Does a balance of biases constitute journalistic integrity?

If it isn't like having Tokyo Rose on NBC, then perhaps watching AJE is like viewing East German TV news during the Cold War. (It's fun to imagine a channel between NBC Nightly News and the CBS Evening News where a bald, colorless man in a 20-year-old suit delivers the day's top story: Central Committee chairman visits Tractor Factory 225.) Anything like East German TV would instantly discredit itself. But Al Jazeera English isn't really in this ballpark. Partially it's because of the money and the polish. Partially--this is a big caveat for propaganda--it's because AJE does report actual news.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Al Jazeera English is beyond historical comparison. After all, the war on Islamist terrorists is also, as Americans have been oft reminded, a new kind of conflict. One that requires us to, simultaneously, hunt down and kill terrorists, aid earthquake victims in Pakistan, prevent nuclear proliferation, liberalize world trade, promote women's rights, suppress the Afghan opium trade, imprison terrorists, conserve oil, and win hearts and minds, just to name a few imperatives.

The problem isn't that Americans don't understand the various imperatives of this new conflict; or that hawks think the war is A while doves think it's B. It's that most every reasonable person believes that it is A, B, C, D, and E at the same time, with the order of importance changing from day to day depending largely on the news.

Without a unified, coherent understanding of what the war on Islamist terror is and isn't, what counts as propaganda in the war--and what's just a free press--will be blurry.

Consider the example of a recent Saturday on AJE: Jane Dutton delivered the news from Doha, where the first reports were that female candidates for Bahrain's parliament were doing surprisingly well in the first race they have been allowed to run in.

Fifteen minutes later, a news magazine called Listening Post came on. It contained a segment pondering whether reporters in the Palestinian territories were right to embellish and dramatize images of local suffering, or whether Israeli atrocities are so egregious as to need no embellishment.

Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.

Correction appended 1/4/07: The article originally misidentified AJE broadcaster Sir David Frost as "Sir Martin Frost."