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America's Media Darling: Osama bin Laden

The video released last week by Osama bin Laden got very different receptions in the American and Arab media.
 
 
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If I asked you which station devoted more attention to Osama bin Laden's latest videotape, your answer would most likely be Al Jazeera. Well, I have news for you. It was FOX News.

FOX dedicated one hour and seven minutes to continuous coverage of Bin Laden's video, only interrupted by commercials. News anchor Shepard Smith read a script of Bin Laden's speech and then interviewed analysts on air for 30 minutes. This was followed by the business news show Your World with host Neil Cavuto, who discussed the effects of Bin Laden's speech on the stock market. Cavuto interviewed analysts for another 30 minutes. Talk show host John Gibson extended the coverage of the Bin Laden story for an additional seven minutes before moving onto other news.

Brigitte Gabriel, author of "Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America" and one of the guests interviewed by Neil Cavuto, told FOX, "He (Bin Laden) knows that it is going to get great publicity right now in the Arabic world. As I'm speaking to you, Arabic television -- Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese -- are playing this live."

As I was listening to her, I glanced at the more than two dozen Arab television sets playing in my office. These included four Lebanese television stations (New TV, LBC, NBN and Future), one Egyptian (Al Masriya), the Syrian Arab Republic Television, as well as other Arab satellite channels from Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, and the United Arab Emirates. I was only able to find one 10-minute news segment about Bin Laden on Al Jazeera and another one, less than two minutes long, on Sudan Television.

Meanwhile, the story monopolized American television. Wolf Blitzer, anchor of CNN's The Situation Room, covered the Bin Laden story in four separate news segments of 32 minutes, spread over four hours of air time. In the first 13-minute segment, Blitzer asked Peter Bergen, author of "The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda's Leader" about Bin Laden's beard. Toward the end of the segment, Blitzer turned to commentator Jack Cafferty, saying, "But you notice they groomed him (Bin Laden) a little bit. He doesn't have that gray beard anymore. He's got a little bit of a darker beard."

Blitzer announced that he would air additional segments of Bin Laden's tape. He fulfilled his promise, but only after three hours and dozens of commercials.

After the second video segment, which was six minutes long, with subtitles reading, "Terror Warning" and "Bin Laden's codes of terror," Blitzer asked Peter Bergen about Bin Laden's beard again. The third segment, subtitled "Bin Laden Attack Warning" aired three-and-a-half hours later. Blitzer asked Michael Scheuer, former chief of the Bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center, about Bin Laden's whereabouts. After another half an hour, Blitzer reported on Bush's reactions to Bin Laden's tape.

In contrast, Al Jazeera covered Bin Laden's video in a 10-minute report, at least one or two hours after FOX and CNN had broken the news. This is significant, because it means that Al Jazeera did not think that Bin Laden's tape was important enough to interrupt its regular programming. Instead, Al Jazeera waited until 1:00 p.m., the regular time of its daily news hour.

Although FOX and CNN spent significantly more air time on Bin Laden's latest tape than Al Jazeera did, they still missed the most important point in the entire tape: the reason behind Bin Laden's invitation for Americans to embrace Islam.

While Western analysts interviewed on CNN and FOX were quick to conclude that the reason was religious, Arab analysts interviewed on Al Jazeera reached a different conclusion.

Terrorism analyst and frequent FOX News guest Neil Livingstone said, "This is pretty much common dogma with them, and that is, Jews can never convert to Islam and therefore have salvation. They are condemned to stay in the wilderness if you will. Christians can have redemption by converting to Islam and therefore can become part of the caliphate that they want to create."

Livingstone's analysis is entirely inaccurate. According to Islamic principles, Christians and Jews do not have to convert to Islam. In fact, Muslims are required to believe in the Christian and Jewish holy books, which explains why the Qur'an refers to Jews and Christians as "the people of the book."

In fact, Bin Laden acknowledges this connection between Judaism, Christianity and Islam in his video message. "And did you know that the name of the prophet of Allah, Jesus and his mother are mentioned in the noble Qur'an dozens of times," he asks, "and that in the Qur'an there is a chapter whose name is Maryam?"

Scheuer told CNN that "inherent in his request for us to convert (to Islam) is a very explicit threat that he is going to attack us in a very hard way. The prophet told Muslims before you attack anyone you warn them, offer them a chance to convert and offer them truces."

In contrast, Arab analysts ridiculed Bin Laden's suggestion that Americans could solve their problems by becoming Muslim. Sliman Abu Rahman, an expert on Islamic issues based in Amman, Jordan, told Al Jazeera that he was surprised by Bin Laden's call. "In his earlier speeches he offered them a truce and now he is asking them to convert. I think this is very far from reality and no political organizing with realistic political objectives can have such an unacceptable political discourse."

Dr. Azzam Tamimi, head of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought, laughed, telling Al Jazeera, "I do not know how this will help solve the problem. Instead he could have said that the only solution is to withdraw from Iraq."

Throughout the videotape appear the Arabic and English words "The Solution," which, in Bin Laden's eyes, is converting to Islam. He tells the camera, "It has become clear to you and the entire world the importance of the democratic system and how it plays with the interests of the peoples and their blood by sacrificing soldiers and populations to achieve the interests of the major corporations."

Bin Laden is not threatening Americans with war if they do not become Muslim, as Scheuer said; rather, he is trying to persuade them to convert. "Don't be turned away from Islam by the terrible situation of the Muslims today," he says, "for our rulers in general abandoned Islam many decades ago, but our forefathers were the leaders and pioneers of the world for many centuries, when they held firmly to Islam."

Judging by the analysis on American television news, Americans got the wrong message. Arab commentators ridiculed Bin Laden, rather than taking his message as a declaration of war. Bin Laden is trying to transform his image from a warrior who has caused tremendous death into a Muslim preacher. He assumes that Americans can forget the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- simply by trimming and changing the color of his beard.

Jalal Ghazi is the associate producer of the Peabody Award-winning show Mosaic: World News from the Middle East, and the author of the weekly column Eye on Arab Media for New America Media.

 
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