Different Cultures, Different Coverage
For a rough comparison between coverage on Al Jazeera, which feeds the interests of its 35 million Arabic-speaking viewers, with coverage in the West, CJR chose a handful of recent news events. Al Jazeera provided tapes of its handling of those events. The BBC did the same for its own reporting. We acquired transcripts of coverage by CNN and the three major broadcast networks. George Saliba, professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University's department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, translated and analyzed the Al Jazeera videotapes. In addition, a cjr contributor in Jerusalem, Stephen Franklin, videotaped four days chosen at random (January 14, 15, 17, 18) on Al Jazeera's principal daily newscast, Hassad al Yawm, and wrote detailed summaries. In the U.S., we compiled transcripts of the ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN evening news broadcasts for those same dates. The results provide some perspective. A few examples:
THE BOMBING CAMPAIGN BEGINS, OCTOBER 7: CNN's reports on that dramatic afternoon came from correspondents in remote parts of Afghanistan who were far removed from the bomb targets. The news was "filtering out very slowly because of the lack of communication and infrastructure," a CNN correspondent told anchor Aaron Brown. The network aired reaction to the bombing from Shimon Peres, Israel's foreign minister; from the French president, Jacques Chirac; from New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani; and from leaders of the U.S. Congress. Other reports came from the White House and the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera's cameras and correspondents were in the very streets of Kabul, shooting tape of the rubble, interviewing citizens whose homes had been destroyed. Al Jazeera's great advantage in covering the Afghan war is that it has been a presence in the country for years, with unique access to its splintered factions and warlords. The network was allowed to remain in Kabul after the Taliban ordered Western journalists out. And it speaks the language of Afghanis at the street level.
Al Jazeera's anchorman described the air assault on Taliban forces, but then quickly shifted viewers' attention to how the bombing had affected Kabul's civilians in poor neighborhoods. People displaced from their homes wondered to Al Jazeera if they would survive later bombardments, and where their food would come from. "Though the U.S. and British attacks supposedly have been focused on specific targets," the voice-over declared, "they don't always hit those targets." One old man was pictured squatting on the rubble of his house, and throwing fistfuls of dirt toward the camera in frustration. The U.S. has advised its people to be patient during a long campaign, said the reporter. But the people of Kabul have nothing to be patient about except their own poverty and hunger, he said -- a patience they have been known for throughout history.
On that October 7, Peter Jennings used Al Jazeera's reports on the bombing's progress, before turning to ABC's hired military analysts in the U.S., and to a phone interview from Pakistan with Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban; another phoner with former national security adviser Sandy Berger in Shanghai, and live chats with correspondents Bob Woodruff in Quetta, Pakistan, and David Wright, somewhere with the Northern Alliance. "We're just whistling in the wind" about the extent of the bombing, Jennings admitted, "until we get an official briefing from the Pentagon."
Correspondents at the other U.S. networks had a comparable, distant view of the action. NBC's Tom Aspell was forty miles from Kabul watching "some flashes of anti-aircraft fire a long way to the south of us." CBS's Jim Axelrod said he was speaking "from a mountain path about twenty miles northeast of Kabul." Both networks had other war news from the White House and the Pentagon. But, as worthy as the American reporting was, Al Jazeera's -- on that occasion at least -- conveyed far more of the human truth of a massive bombing attack and its effects at ground zero.
THE FALL OF KABUL, NOVEMBER 13: Once again, Al Jazeera's cameras mingle with the crowds for close-in pictures of Afghan faces, some of them joyous as Northern Alliance forces take control of the city; others bewildered, as they see alliance soldiers kicking the bodies of dead Taliban fighters and angrily yanking the beards of others. Says Professor Saliba, watching the videotape: "Al Jazeera's focus shifts quickly from the military people as they enter the city, to the Kabul population, who are seen immediately in the midst of war, trying to find a way to survive in these very chaotic conditions."
For the BBC, correspondent John Simpson had himself filmed striding along the road toward Kabul like a conquering hero, surrounded by happy children, and announcing (rather prematurely) "the end of the Taliban, the most extreme religious system anywhere on earth." Under the Taliban, he explained, young girls had been denied an education, men could be whipped for shaving, music and chess were banned. "Freedom is in the air here," he declared grandly.
CNN's Matthew Chance in Kabul offered more context than either Al Jazeera or the BBC, predicting correctly that the city might return to the "bitter ethnic factional infighting" that had ravaged it before the Taliban took over in 1996. And NBC's Aspell -- after reporting that Taliban fighters were lynched, stoned, and left in ditches -- announced that Al Jazeera's own headquarters in Kabul had suffered damage, "not by looting crowds, but from American bombs. Overnight, U.S. missiles struck the station." It was accidental, American officials said later.
TERRORIST BOMBINGS IN JERUSALEM, DECEMBER 1: When two suicide bombs and a car bomb exploded near a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem within an hour, eight Israelis were left dead and more than 180 injured. Al Jazeera's coverage focused more on subsequent events in Palestine -- the arrest by Palestinian police of people suspected of having a connection to the bombings -- than on the scene of terror in Jerusalem's streets and the images of bloodied victims. Is this because the network's cameras are not wholly welcome in Jewish neighborhoods, or for reasons connected to the sentiments of the viewers?
A spokesman for Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority declares that the group observes the rule of law, and that one cannot be a bomber and presume he's acting in the Authority's best interests. Al Jazeera's reporter puts the bombings in the context of a retaliation for an earlier assassination by Israelis of a Hamas leader. "What the reporter tries to keep impressing upon us," says Professor Saliba, "is that there is a sequence to these events. The viewer comes away with the understanding that there is a vicious cycle -- a retaliation. The Al Jazeera reporter reminds you that we are in that cycle of viciousness."
CNN, for its part, showed exclusive videotape of the devastation, the fear and the hysteria in the streets of Jerusalem, residents fleeing for safety, the bloodied victims on gurneys en route to hospitals, the efforts of police and firefighters to contain the damage. Then: reactions from Israeli and Palestinian officials. "What difference between Arafat's regime and the Taliban?" asks Anan Gissin, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister. "He has the largest terrorist coalition from here to Afghanistan, with Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, all of which have tentacles around the world." But hasn't Arafat arrested Palestinian suspects in the Jerusalem bombings, CNN's man inquires? "He arrests retired terrorists," Gissin answers. "He leaves the active ones to continue."
Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator, is at pains to insist that Arafat has indeed condemned "these attacks tonight," but he reminds CNN that Palestinians "are under total Israel siege. We have our people being killed. We have more settlements being built." Negotiation, he says, is the only way to end the cycle of "violence and counter-violence."
On ABC, retired general Anthony Zinni, the American negotiator, was calling the bombings "the lowest form of inhumanity that can be imagined." NBC's Keith Miller in Tel Aviv said time was running out for Arafat. The BBC's man on the scene said, "There is a sense here that this conflict is slipping beyond hope."
ARAFAT BANNED FROM BETHLEHEM, DECEMBER 24: In solidarity with Palestine's 50,000 Christians, Arafat traditionally has accompanied Christian leaders and clergy to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. In December, he was prevented from doing so -- held in virtual house arrest in Ramallah by the Israelis following the wave of suicide bombings against Israel earlier in the month. When high-level Christian clergy visited Arafat to wish him well before proceeding to Bethlehem, Al Jazeera's cameras showed Monsignor Michel Sabbah, the ranking Roman Catholic prelate in the Holy Land, addressing an outdoor gathering and expressing the hope that the Christmas season would help lead to "peace and justice." As an expression of dismay over Arafat's exclusion from Bethlehem, the clergyman seized the moment to send a message to the Israeli population. The capacity to bring peace was in their hands, he said, since they are the most powerful force in the region. Al Jazeera filmed the clerics departing Ramallah in their cars, which were inspected by Israeli forces to assure that Arafat was not being smuggled to Bethlehem. Reporting later from Bethlehem, Al Jazeera's correspondent said the Christmas festivities were more somber than in past years because of the heightened tensions. His videotape showed bullet marks and other signs of destruction on the town's buildings; nothing could disguise the intensity, he said, of earlier Israeli bombardment. Nevertheless, the hostilities "could not wipe the smiles from the faces of children who, on this major feast day, are hoping for the feast of their own independence."
The American networks reported the facts with less tilt toward Palestinian emotions, and with comment from Israeli officials. "You can't harbor terrorists and at the same time present yourself as the champion of Christianity and peace," the Israeli spokesman Gissen told ABC. "Words, words, words from Yasir Arafat!" an aide to prime minister Ariel Sharon complained to CNN. In failing to arrest known Palestinian extremists, the PLO leader had shown himself to be "a master of words, but no action."
Still, the U.S. coverage was even more expansive than Al Jazeera's in reporting the alleged insult to Arafat and the Christian Palestinians. The Israelis even ignored an appeal from the Pope to let Arafat go to Bethlehem, CBS told its viewers. The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, according to CBS's man in Bethlehem, called Israel's decision "an affront to the dignity of all Palestinians and hardly in the Christmas spirit."
FOUR DAYS IN JANUARY By mid-January, the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces had largely been routed in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera and Western TV news organizations shifted most of their attention elsewhere, with Al Jazeera resuming its heavy emphasis on coverage of Palestine. On January 14, for example, the network's lead story was about the car-bomb assassination by the Israelis, and burial, of Raed Karmi, a leading member of the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The network's reporter failed to mention Israeli accusations about how many people Karmi had killed, which would have provided a context for the story. Videotape showed the destroyed car, Karmi's body, and his fellow fighters kissing his body and touching their fingers to his blood. A top Palestinian activist calls Karmi "one of the most respected leaders of the Al Aqsa Brigade" and condemns the Israelis for breaking the cease-fire.
ABC's Gillian Findlay in Jerusalem, recalling that Karmi had been number one on Israel's Most Wanted list, reported he'd admitted killing Israeli civilians. An Israeli spokesman is shown saying: "I think this accident which happened to him is a nice end to his career." Israel declined to admit, Findlay noted, that it had planted the bomb that killed Karmi. The Brigade announced it would no longer abide by Arafat's cease-fire agreement. "Three hours later," she reported, "two Israeli soldiers were shot -- one killed -- not far from where Raed Karmi died." On CBS, anchorman John Roberts said that Israel's only comment on the Karmi assassination was: "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword." Near the close of Al Jazeera's newscast that day, the anchorman showed a photo of President Bush, saying he had choked and fainted after eating what the newsman called "a salty cookie."
The next day, January 15, the U.S networks were heavy with news about John Walker Lindh, the American-born Taliban fighter, but Al Jazeera showed zero interest in that story in favor of a full menu of Palestine-based reports: the arrest by Palestinians themselves of Ahmet Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, whose group allegedly had assassinated Rehavam Zeevi, a member of the Israeli Knesset. That story reverberated with Palestinians because many harbor anger about the rounding up of their own militants under pressure from the Israelis.
Also: an interview in Washington with Judith Kipper at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on American policies in the Middle East; a report on a Washington press conference held by African-Americans who support the Palestinian cause; plus several stories from Lebanon of clear interest to Islamic activists in Palestine. Thus, there was no overlap that day between Al Jazeera's catering to its audience's special interests, and that of American TV newscasts.
All three of the major U.S. broadcast networks plus CNN gave important coverage on January 17 to the release of videotapes showing five young Islamists vowing to commit future suicide terrorist attacks. The tapes were discovered in the Kabul house of a top bin Laden aide killed in November. The Justice Department released the tapes worldwide in the hope that the five men might be apprehended before they had a chance to conduct terrorist acts in the U.S.
A second major story on American networks that night: the murder of six Israelis and the wounding of thirty others at a bat mitzvah party, when a terrorist connected to the Al Aqsa Brigade burst into the banquet room and sprayed the celebrants with gunfire. He was shot dead. The attack was revenge for Israel's assassination earlier in the week of Raed Karmi.
Al Jazeera treated both of those stories eventually, but on January 17 the al Hasad newscast opted for a list of stories about Palestine and other hot spots in the Arab world: Ahmet Quera, a spokesman for moderate Palestinians, expressed disappointment that Anthony Zinni was not returning to the region. (The reason, which went unremarked by Al Jazeera, was American frustration with the collapse of the cease-fire, which U.S. diplomats, rightly or wrongly, blamed on the Palestinians.) Colonel Jibril Rajoub, an intelligence expert, tells Al Jazeera: "The cancellation of Zinni's visit is the result of the impact of the Jewish lobby on the U.S. administration."
Other stories that day on Al Jazeera: from Islamabad, on the Pakistan-India hostilities. From Damascus, a condemnation by George Habash, the aged leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, of the arrest of a PFLP leader in the West Bank under "the direction of the Americans and the Israelis." From Saudi Arabia, a complaint about the way Saudi citizens are being treated in the U.S. in the wake of September 11. From Baghdad, pictures of Sadaam Hussein addressing crowds on the anniversary of the Gulf War. ("America will have to change the way it behaves toward the world," he says.)
Near the top of its January 18 newscast, Hassad al Yawm reported the suicide attack in Hadera, but offered few details, failing to note that the victims were attending a bat mitzvah and that the gunman crashed the event at a crowded banquet hall. Reporting the Israeli retaliation for that bloodshed -- an air attack by F-16 warplanes on a Palestinian security compound in Tulkarem -- Al Jazeera quoted a moderate Palestinian spokesperson, Hanan Ashrawi, calling the Israeli air strike an "escalation" of the hostilities.
U.S. networks showed amateur video of the bat mitzvah massacre, and also a video made earlier by the Palestinian killer, twenty-four-year-old Abdel Salam Hassouna, who is seen declaring: "I am doing this to avenge all the Palestinian martyrs."
NBC's Martin Fletcher in Hadera ended his report that night: "Israelis and Palestinians are still living by that famous verse from Exodus, 'an eye for an eye.' Less well known, though, are the opening words of that verse, 'a life for a life.'"
In comparing Al Jazeera with Western news outlets, it is perilous to base definitive conclusions on the foregoing, anecdotal evidence. Still, these are snapshots of news coverage done by journalists of East and West having the deepest imaginable cultural differences, and catering, subtly or blatantly, to the biases of their discrete audiences. Al Jazeera is excoriated by some for pandering to the prejudices of its Arab-world viewers. American networks are regularly castigated for uncritical reporting on U.S. policy decisions, especially in wartime. Al Jazeera haters are implacable in their reaction to the network's benevolence toward Arab and Muslim geopolitical goals. Others are pleased that it's a powerful voice for what they see as the legitimate aspirations of Arab/Muslims, especially those in Palestine. That twain may never meet.
Neil Hickey is editor at large at the Columbia Journalism Review.