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Robert D. Kaplan's article "Why I Love Al Jazeera"

May 15, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Robert D. Kaplan’s article “Why I Love Al Jazeera” (The Atlantic – Oct. 2009 – pp55-56.)

Review by Dr. Hanan Chehata, Middle East Monitor, (MEMO), London

In his article “Why I love Al Jazeera” Robert Kaplan lavishes high praise on the English version of the Qatar based news station. He declares that Al Jazeera “is what the internationally minded elite class really yearns for.” He commends the depth and breadth of the reports, the “unbiased” nature of the documentaries, the fact that Al Jazeera is often the first on the ground in troubled regions (and therefore gets the scoop that others don’t) and perhaps most importantly, the fact that “Al Jazeera excels at opening your mind.”

In terms of its breadth of coverage he demonstrates how, in only a few evenings of viewing, Al Jazeera delivered “penetrating portraits” from dozens of countries including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, South Africa, Sudan, India and many others. It also covered news items as wide ranging as floods and other natural disasters, to rigged elections; religious tensions and clashes, to human rights demonstrations. He asserts that it has demonstrated a “gritty, hands-on coverage across the greater Middle East, from Gaza to Beirut to Iraq, that other channels haven’t matched.”

As Kaplan says, “the fact that Doha, Qatar’s capital, is not the headquarters of a great power liberates Al Jazeera to focus equally on the four corners of the earth rather than on just the flash point of any imperial or post-imperial interest.” This is a type of coverage which is lacking in other news outlets such as the BBC and CNN who “don’t cover foreign news so much as they cover the foreign extensions of Washington’s or London’s collective obsessions.”

Al Jazeera “excels at opening your mind”, Kaplan says, and he describes the reporting of Al Jazeera as being the kind of “vicarious equivalent of engaging in the kinds of conversations” that he has been having while reporting from abroad and interacting with people on the ground. In contrast, he says, “watching Fox, you have to wonder whether many of its commentators have ever had a conversation with a real live Muslim abroad.”

He does, however, also have a criticism of the channel, namely its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of which he says, it is “clearly on theAl Jazeera Palestinian side.” He purports that “tear-jerking features about the sufferings of the Palestinians are not matched with equal coverage of the Israeli human terrain.” Furthermore, the “history of human suffering seemingly begins and ends with that of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation” (as well as the issue of Iraq). However, I believe that it is only fair to point out the fact that, as it is the Israeli occupation that is the cause of all of the Palestinian suffering, it is only right that the victims of that occupation should be accorded their due portion of news coverage and that, as victims of an occupying force, the Palestinian perspective is therefore deserving of the media and indeed the world’s full attention and interest.

Nevertheless, he does qualify his statement when he goes on to say that “Al Jazeera is forgivable for its biases in a way that the BBC or CNN is not. In the case of Al Jazeera, news isn’t so much biased as honestly representative of a middle-of-the-road developing-world viewpoint.” In contrast “in the case of the BBC and CNN, you are explicitly aware that rather than presenting the world as they find it, those channels are taking a distinct side… in an honest and fundamental debate over foreign policy.”

He further points out that a person’s stance on issues, such as Palestine, will naturally be colored, to a degree, by where you live and so those in Doha, Mumbai or Nairobi will look at international issues in a very different light to those sitting at home in Washington or London. I would argue however, that although geography may certainly be an influential factor in shaping your world view, it is by no means a purely determinative one. It is not only those in the Muslim world, for instance, who are taking a stand with the people of Palestine. Many prominent Westerners and non-Muslims have taken up the Palestinian cause as well. The recently published Goldstone Report, for example, offers a damning indictment of the behavior of the Israeli armed forces in the Gaza War (Dec. 08 – Jan. 09) and concluded that the actions of the Israelis amounted to War Crimes and possibly Crimes Against Humanity. The panel of experts who came to this conclusion however, were not local to the region but included experts from South Africa, Pakistan, Ireland and the UK and in fact Justice Richard Goldstone himself is of Jewish decent.

Kaplan’s overall analysis of Al Jazeera is, however, a refreshing one at a time when others are talking about the “collapse of journalism.” Just a page away from Kaplan’s article in October’s issue of “The Atlantic”, Correspondent Mark Bowden in his article “The Story behind the Story” (46-54), offers his “lament over his dying profession.” Bowden bemoans the fact that, whereas in the past the aim for reporters was for the truth to prevail, today in journalistic debate “winning is way more important than being right.” The drive for power through being declared the winner “is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us to a world where all information is spun, and where all ‘news’ is unapologetically propaganda.”

Bowden further lambastes the media for their collusion, intentional or not, with “political hit-men” who engage in the character assassination of public figures for who it is not in their interests to succeed.

Bowden illustrates his point with reference to the fact that within minutes of U.S. Circuit Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in May, “journalism rose to perform its time-honored pie-throwing role” and proceeded to publish reports from an “attack dossier” that was compiled with the intention of knocking her off her temporary pedestal and transformed her instead into a political and media target. Given the fact that Bowden implicates news stations such as MSNBC, CNN, CBS and ABC of using the same sources without offering a “smidgen of context”, it is uplifting to read Kaplan’s assessment of Al Jazeera’s “deeply reported descriptions of developments.” Not only do they cover a wide range of issues but, he says, they frequently do so “in more depth than anyone else.”

There is no doubt that Al Jazeera also has its own critics but, nevertheless, in a world where the international media’s attention on issues such as the plight of the Palestinian people is so often slanted by the biases and immoral practices of the media, as described by both writers, perhaps the broadcasting trend being set by Al Jazeera is a chance for the world at large to see a truer picture of what exactly is going on in that region of the world without the spin of the pro-Israeli media/propaganda machine.