Al-Jazeera Rocks, Rolls and Reports

If you're looking for complete coverage of the "regime change" phase of President Bush's Invasion of Iraq, you will find drips and drabs on American-operated television. The major news networks, however, are not likely to bump any of their regularly scheduled programs (especially with May sweeps just around the corner) for a report on anti-U.S. demonstrations in Baghdad, an in-depth profile of Jay Garner, the Bush-appointed overseer of the corporate looting of Iraq's resources -- er ... reconstruction of the country -- or a story about how U.S. corporations merited a guaranteed stranglehold over the allocation of rebuilding contracts.

On the other hand, the networks would likely return to wall-to-wall coverage if: a) a video surfaces of Saddam Hussein eating bagels in a downtown Baghdad café; b) Saddam, his sons, any of his relatives or major Baath Party officials -- say Tariq Aziz for example -- are apprehended; c) the U.S. military actually discovers weapons of mass destruction. Of course if a SUV chase across the dessert materializes, count on all the networks to be there.

One more thing: If the Bush Administration decrees that there be a mammoth "Operation Iraqi Freedom" victory parade in the streets of Washington, D.C. or New York City -- or maybe both -- on July 4th, you can bet your red, white and blue beach umbrella that the major networks and the 24/7 news channels will be down with that.

Meanwhile, it's nearly back to business as usual at the TV networks. As Steve Perry recently noted at his Bush Wars Web Blog: "You can say a lot of things about the behavior of the news networks, but you can't say it isn't consistent. From OJ to Susan Smith to Monica to Chandra to the war and Laci Peterson, 'the news' is just a struggling species of reality TV now."

It's Al-Jazeera Time

Despite getting denounced by the Pentagon, knocked by the U.S. media, having a reporter and cameraman attacked by a crowd of Iraqi Americans in Detroit celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, being banned from the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ, harassed by British troops in Basra, and having its headquarters in Baghdad bombed and one of its reporters killed by the U.S. military, Al-Jazeera has done a bang-up job reporting on the invasion of Iraq.

And of all the television networks covering Iraq - including the major networks and the 24/7s (CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel) -- al-Jazeera is certain to stick with the story long after all the embedded have been dismissed and the networks have moved on to OJ II or III.

In a recent column for Newsday, Frances S. Hasso, assistant professor in the Gender and Women's Studies Program and the Sociology Department at Oberlin College in Ohio, commended al-Jazeera for its "approach to covering the war -- both critical and multidimensional, with an ideological commitment to democracy, openness and pluralism -- [which] has seriously threatened the political projects of the world's most powerful."

On a recent edition of CNN's Larry King, CBS News' Bob Simon said that he had just returned from Europe and it seemed like there were two different wars going on: One, televised by U.S. networks, was a rip-roaring success, sanitized of Iraqi blood. The other was the war the rest of the world was witnessing.

One of the reasons for this, writes Hasso, is that al-Jazeera was broadcasting "live, full coverage of press statements and conferences held by U.S., Iraqi, United Nations, Arab League, European Union, French, British, Egyptian, Saudi and other officials, thus always reflecting multiple realities throughout the war that are once again not covered routinely by the U.S. news networks."

You probably will never get to see it on American television, but an Australian outfit prepared a short documentary taking a closer look at some of the reports televised during the early days of the U.S. invasion. While, in its estimation, none of the U.S.-owned networks fared particularly well, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel (big surprise!) was an especially egregious example of nativist cheerleading and excessive warmongering. According to Media Watch Australia, but for the work of al-Jazeera we would all be less informed about the murder and mayhem unleashed upon the Iraqi people.

Michael Wolff recently pointed out in New York magazine that al-Jazeera was the clear winner of Gulf War II and the network "is going to be very big -- big to an extent and at a scale that is just dawning on the al- Jazeera folk themselves. The network is being transformed the way Gulf I transformed CNN -- but then, CNN's audience has rarely exceeded more than a few million, whereas Al Jazeera already speaks to a good 35 million every day."

Throughout the invasion -- and in Afghanistan before this -- al-Jazeera reporters have embodied the best values of journalism despite the network occasionally reflecting television's dark side. The reporters themselves have risked, and given, their lives to accurately portray both sides of the story, something that most American reporters were unable to do. The network, however, lived down to the worldwide credo of television; "if it bleeds it leads." Al-Jazeera didn't spare the gore -- and for this they have been both applauded for unmercifully showing the real face of war, and criticized for being too sensationalistic and playing for ratings.

Al-Jazeera unflinchingly showed shots of dead and mangled Iraqi bodies in what Wolff called a "mesmerizing bloodiness." The shots are "not just red but gooey. There's no cutaway. They hold the shot for the full viscous effect. It's vastly grislier than anything that's ever been shown on television before. It's snuff-film caliber," Wolff writes.

Launched in 1996, al-Jazeera has been built on the emirate of Qatar's investment of $150 million and "the plan was to be self-financing in five years," which they haven't yet achieved. According to Wolff, Jihad Ali Ballout, the marketing-and-PR head of al-Jazeera (before al-Jazeera, he was with Philip Morris), is the man with a business plan which includes "Dominat[ing] the region, and then, with English-language broadcasts and other international partnerships, extend[ing] the brand throughout the world." Wolff mentioned that Ballout was looking forward to the unveiling of the al-Jazeera in English Web site.

However, when the Web site was launched in late March, it was greeted by the mother of all hacker campaigns. Responding to the hackers, managing editor Joanne Tucker said that the staff was unable to update the English site in the early hours of its launch: "We've had a lot of obstacles thrown in our way. I thought the launch would be quite smooth and wouldn't make too many waves, but the reaction has been amazing. It has been almost surreal."

A U.S.-sponsored Alternative

To give you an indication of how threatening a presence al-Jazeera has been to U.S. aims in the region, reported on April 18 that the Bush Administration has earmarked at least $30 million (out of its $74.7 billion request to pay for the Invasion of Iraq) for a new broadcast news network in the Middle East - the Middle East Television Network. "The money is to provide start-up costs for…a network, which will broadcast news and information with a pro-American spin in Arabic via satellite to televisions across the region." This is the second "request for funding…in the last two months. Last month, President Bush's international affairs budget included another [$30 million]…request for the network under its controlling authority, the Broadcasting Board of Governors [BBG], which manages non-military international US broadcasting [including Voice of America]. The new funds will pay for remaining start-up costs and the network's first year of operations."

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee BBG head Kenneth Tomlinson, said that the venture was "the most important public-diplomacy initiative of our time." Tomlinson added: "Al-Jazeera should not go unanswered in the Middle East."

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