Why All the Fuss About Al-Jazeera Broadcasting in America?
The New York Times is wondering why there is so much opposition to Al-Jazeera's purchase of Current TV:
Many American policy makers and cable companies have had doubts about the impartiality of Al Jazeera, which is owned and financed by the emir of Qatar. Some have questioned the decision of Mr. Gore and his co-founder, Joel Hyatt, to sell Current, which is available to roughly 60 million American homes, to the Qatari government.
The emir, though he works closely with Washington on some issues, has interests and agendas that are sometimes at odds with United States interests. Recently, for instance, Qatar along with other Arab nations is believed to have provided arms and other assistance to terrorist organizations operating in Syria. Al Jazeera says its journalism is not directed by the policies and views of its government, but the fact that it is owned by Qatar means that there is no guarantee of its independence.
Nonetheless, Al Jazeera could bring an important international perspective to American audiences and should be given a chance to prove itself commercially before cable companies remove Current TV from their lineups. If Al Jazeera America, the channel that the company plans to create in New York to replace Current, fails to attract a critical mass of viewers, cable companies would be justified in removing it. On Thursday, Time Warner suggested that it might add the new channel to its systems in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere later “as the service develops.”
In the Middle East, where good, independent journalism is hard to find, Al Jazeera has distinguished itself by its thorough and smart coverage of many important stories, particularly the Arab Spring. In the early days of the revolution in Egypt, many people in America and around the world turned to it because it did a much better job on the ground than many of its international peers.
One of the major reasons there is so much anti-Americanism in the Arab world is media coverage by al-Jazeera and other "independent" outlets that borders on the surreal when it comes to explaining American motives and intentions. Exaggerated, paranoid, hostile -- stories about America on al-Jazeera are reminiscent of coverage of the US supplied by Pravda or TASS in the Soviet Union during the cold war.
It doesn't really matter whether they are being deliberately biased or not. The Arab worldview is radically different than anything found in the West, hence, what passes for journalism is hobbled by false assumptions and bogus premises, overlaid with a patina of paranoia -- magical thinking involving conspiracies and the threat of the "eternal Jew."
The Times is right about al-Jazeera's coverage of the Arab Spring. They brought a human element to their reporting that was missing from Western coverage. They have also distinguished themselves in covering the Syrian Civil War, as their reporters risk life and limb to cover atrocities on both sides.
The network is not without merit, but one might wonder why it would be considered valuable for American viewers to be exposed to such a skewed, even nonsensical and simple-minded take on America and American policy? It is not a question of being independent from the Emir of Qatar. It is a question of both network and viewer inhabiting a similar enough universe so that communication is possible.
Ignorance of culture is a two way street in this case. We may not understand the Arab fascination with the "hidden hand" that sees everything as a plot to keep the average citizen oppressed. But if al-Jazeera is any indication, the Arabs are laughably uninformed of our culture as well.
What value, then, in watching al-Jazeera's take on the news in America? From an anthropological perspective, it is always interesting to see how other cultures view America. Watching BBC coverage of our elections is always a treat, given the confusion sometimes shown by correspondents. And there's always the chance you will glean a nugget of information that you aren't getting by watching American cable nets.
But the real value in al-Jazeera broadcasting in America is the contribution to our understanding of why people believe what they believe. Why do Arabs overwhelmingly believe that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks? Why can't they see the difference between terrorists deliberately attacking and killing civilians and American troops battling insurgents in Iraq where civilians die in the crossfire? Why do so many Arabs think Jews control the US government?
Watching al-Jazeera won't necessarily answer those questions. But, at bottom, exposing the American people to the Arab worldview would be educational in a limited sense. If the adage "With Knowledge Comes Wisdom" is true, a little wisdom never hurt anyone.