By Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
Ever since Osama bin Laden’s first videotaped commentary on the U.S. attack on Afghanistan was shown on al-Jazeera, we have seen the Arab world’s most independent television outlet attacked repeatedly. First, there was the verbal criticism by the Bush Administration that warned off American media from carrying unedited and accurately translated broadcasts of al-Jazeera material. Last week, the attacks turned violent when U.S. forces literally bombed al-Jazeera’s Kabul studios. In the wake of that bombing, Fouad Ajami (2001) has criticized not this extreme abridgement of freedom of the press, but al-Jazeera’s coverage of current events instead.
I found Ajami’s experience with watching al-Jazeera reminiscent of my own experience watching the Fox News Network. I should first confess that I don’t usually watch the Fox News Network. However, while my car was being maintenanced recently, I spent some hours in the waiting room of a car dealership where the television had been tuned to that channel.
Ajami is concerned with what he calls the “unsubtlety” of al-Jazeera’s “nonstop coverage of the raids on Kabul and the street battles of Bethlehem.” The entire time I was in the dealer’s waiting room I endured the same thing from Fox’s point of view. Of course, on the day the World Trade Center was bombed, it was not just Fox, but all American commercial television news media that not only engaged in nonstop coverage of the devastation of that day, but showed the same few images over and over again.
Ajami telegraphs his distaste for al-Jazeera’s decision to show a documentary about Che Guevara during this period. Such a programming decision, he reflects, constitutes an allegory that evokes the hunt for bin Laden. At the same time, of course, the Zionists were even less subtle in their failed attempts to equate the World Trade Center bombings with the attacks on civilian targets in Israel. “Now, do you get it?” they asked, when the Palestinians had the greater right to ask that question.
Ajami characterizes bin Laden as the “star” of al-Jazeera programming in October. Of course, he has been pretty much the star of American programming as well. The American depictions of him may be unflattering, but the heavy is the real star of this kind of black-and-white drama. Whom do you remember more vividly from the first Star Wars trilogy: Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader?
Ajami finds a shamelessness in al-Jazeera’s sensationalism that also reminds him of Fox News, but he claims that al-Jazeera is even more extreme. Yet his descriptions of their promotional material seems only like a perhaps cruder version of what American media does all the time to try and get people to tune in to their programs. It seems to be the price of market-driven news outlets, that they have to pander to their audiences. Should we really conclude that this makes government-controlled media preferable? I don’t think so, and I can’t believe Ajami would either. His objective is more limited: he just wants the American government to stop “rewarding” al-Jazeera with interviews and concentrate on the government-owned outlets that, he says, have a greater viewership. They may have a greater viewership in the sense that the official Soviet newspapers had a larger circulation than underground newspapers in that country, but they likewise have little credibility.
Ajami criticizes al-Jazeera for its lack of neutrality in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people in the second Intifada. To demand neutrality here is as absurd as demanding neutrality by the American media between the bombers of the World Trade Center and the residents of New York. The American media, headquartered in New York, catering to an American audience, cannot be blamed for identifying with the victims of the terrorism in that city, and al-Jazeera should not be blamed for identifying with the victims of Israel’s violent occupation policies.
Ajami considers American news media to be more fair and balanced than al-Jazeera, and he provides some good examples, like their failure to mention Afghanis who oppose the Taliban. Modern Arabs, new to freedom of the press, lack the sophistication of American press today. American journalism has had over two hundreds years to mature. The Arabs still show an undue concern for what the authorities in charge might think. While al-Jazeera has largely overcome that with regard to the Arab governments, Ajami’s examples show that it has a long way to go when it comes to questioning the extremists that don the mantle (or the mask) of Islam.
On the other hand, I don’t see American media to be as objective as Ajami believes. On most issues, I would agree that the emerging Muslim press (not just al-Jazeera, but Kuwaiti newspapers, the Pakistani media, etc.) has a lot to learn from the American press. Yet, they could not conceivably exceed the American media’s bias and one-sidedness on the issue of Israel.
Even severe critics of the American media’s bias towards Israel have found themselves surprised by the depth and totality of that bias. In describing the moves to suppress his book criticizing the excesses of the Israeli secret police, Victor Ostrovsky (1997) recounts the chilling words of Yosef Lapid, the former head of Israeli television. On a Canadian television program, Lapid announced that, “since Israel’s Mossad could not kill me [Ostrovsky] in Canada without causing a diplomatic incident,” Lapid hoped that “there would be a decent Jew in Canada who would do the job for us.”
To Ostrovsky’s astonishment, the media, which could not get enough of denouncing Khomeini’s fatwa (legal ruling) threatening capital punishment for Salman Rushdie for exercising his right to publish hate literature, exhibited indifference to Lapid’s call for the murder of Ostrovsky for writing an exposé of Israel’s secret police. Ostrovsky (1997) concluded “what I had thought to be an Israeli influence on American and Canadian media through the Jewish community in the United States and Canada was in fact a stranglehold.”
At least al-Jazeera allows the representatives of the U.S. government to present their points of view, even if a contrary perspective frames those presentations. The Wall Street Journal to this day has not printed rebuttals from Palestinian intellectual and activist Sami Al-Arian or the Council of Islamic-American Relations to direct attacks on them published within its pages. Sophisticated though the American media may be, The Wall Street Journal, at least, has not yet grasped the unfairness of denying space to people you attack directly.
Fouad Ajami 2001, “What the Muslim World is Watching,” New York Times Magazine (11/18).
Victor Ostrovsky 1997, “The Contrasting Media Treatment of Israeli and Islamic Death Threats,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (Oct.-Nov.) p. 37