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East of Spin City

French porn gave it legs, U.S. attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan gave it wings. This year Al Jazeera plans to start broadcasting in English. And that might be good for us.

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In the summer of 1997 the nine-month-old Arab news outlet Al Jazeera was an almost complete unknown. Broadcasting just 12 hours a day from Qatar and stuck with a weak Ku-band transponder--all that was available on the single overcrowded satellite then serving the region--the station languished until the French, ever the agents of exotic cultural exchange, interceded. On a Saturday afternoon in July the leaseholders of the satellite's mighty C-band transponder, Canal France International, accidentally broadcast a hard-core porn movie--Club Prive au Portugal--in place of the educational fare slated to run. As many as 33 million Islamic viewers may have been watching, and the consequences were swift: CFI was expelled from the Arabsat satellite and Al Jazeera took its place. Few observers could have predicted how much more troublesome to the status quo than mere Western filth the station would quickly become.

The comic coincidence of cultural clash and dumb luck that catapulted Al Jazeera into living rooms across the Arab world makes a good thumbnail for the maverick network's rise to worldwide notoriety. As detailed in Hugh Miles's new "biography," Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West, the station never met an opportunity it didn't embrace. Selling a politicized take on current events, backed by a shadowy billionaire presumed by many to call the ideological shots, and charged by its critics with incitement and even conspiracy, its influence and popularity have skyrocketed. Today the channel reaches an estimated 50 million viewers.

Sound familiar? The resemblance of Al Jazeera to Fox News is striking--down to its motto, which translates as "the opinion and the other opinion." But then the whole media landscape author Miles surveys is lousy with such East-West resemblances, and a good deal of the book's appeal lies in his articulate examination of these correspondences and conflicts.

A Saudi-born British journalist who's written for the London Review of Books and the Sunday Times, Miles got interested in Al Jazeera during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when he was monitoring Arab news feeds for Rupert Murdoch's Sky News. The station's top-of-the-line footage drew him in, and an article about its coverage of the war led to this full-scale assessment. Granted apparently unfettered access to reporters and daily operations by the station's management--who were eager, he says, "to have an independent observer snoop around"--he's compiled something thoughtful as well as thorough. He comes off as faintly starstruck at times--Yosri Fouda, the host of an investigative program on the station, is described as "an impeccable dresser with eyes like the palace cat . . . the sort of man you are very glad decided to work for the forces of good, rather than evil"--but he consistently goes out of his way to dig up multiple takes on a given controversy, even when they raise serious questions about Al Jazeera's purported objectivity. And while he's more left than the average American on the big Arab questions, he subjects his own positions to the same empirical scrutiny he champions in Al Jazeera to present an admirably even handed account of almost inherently polarizing material.

Founded in 1996 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera broadcasts from Doha, the Qatari capital. A tiny nation sandwiched "like a mouse sharing a cage with two rattlesnakes" between Saudi Arabia and (across the Gulf) Iran, Qatar has a population of about 800,000. Its vast natural gas stores have given it one of the world's highest per-capita incomes, which, combined with its size and relative ethnic homogeneity, has insulated the country from the social unrest that plagues its larger, more socially stratified neighbors. A close relationship with the U.S., which has invested buckets of defense dollars in Qatar at As Sayliyah, the base outside Doha where Centcom is located, hasn't hurt either.

When the emir seized power from his father he was 44, a good 20 years younger than any other Persian Gulf ruler. Within a year of his accession, he launched Al Jazeera. Though he ponied up $137 million U.S. to start and still subsidizes much of the operation, the decree that established Al Jazeera stipulates that any interference on his part will trigger the mass resignation of the editorial board. Just how much behind-the-scenes pull this allows him is anyone's guess. But he followed up in 1998 by abolishing the Qatari Ministry of Information and has stood by the network even under intense political pressure from powerful, pissed-off neighbors--not to mention a progressively more pissed-off American ally.

In its infancy Al Jazeera benefited immensely from another East-West fender bender, a failed joint Saudi-BBC venture that began in 1994 and was squashed in '96 by the Saudis for inadequate toeing of the party line. This left around 250 BBC-trained journalists out of work and, in Miles's romantic coinage, "out of a dream, for they had shared a vision that the Arabic service was going to make a difference in the Arab world by setting a higher standard than the tawdry and venal reporting of state television news." This group went on to form the working core of Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera's news programming was initially almost secondary to its talk shows, particularly The Opposite Direction and Religion and Life, still the station's most popular. The range of both invited guests and unscreened callers given airtime made these programs a forum for open debate unlike anything seen before in the Middle East, where at the time virtually all discourse was monopolized by state-controlled networks.

Voices diverging from the region's twin orthodoxies, autocracy and Islam, weighed in on the moral status of Hezbollah, pan-Arab state corruption, and the viability of democracy in the region. Before long Al Jazeera had outraged every government in the region; its reporters have since been banned or expelled from almost every Arab nation at one time or another. In classic fashion, of course, each suppression has only validated the station's claims of editorial independence and further boosted its clout on the "Arab street."

The three stories that shot Al Jazeera's news division to international fame were the 1998 bombing of Iraq, the second Palestinian intifada, and the American invasion of Afghanistan. In each case Al Jazeera was the sole news organization on the scene. Nobody else had much of a presence in Baghdad or Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the first place; in the occupied territories Al-Jazeera's ground presence left the Western competition in the dust, and gave more play to the wound at the heart of the Arab psyche than any state-controlled media would dare.

By the time the invasion of Iraq was imminent, Al Jazeera had become the dominant news source in the Middle East, and the envy of every major Western bureau for its unmatchable regional presence, native savvy, and precious raw footage. When the war began, it was again the only organization to stay on in Baghdad, and--as notoriously recounted in Control Room, Jehane Noujam's 2004 documentary--they suffered in the onslaught. Although the station apprised the U.S. of the coordinates of the Baghdad bureau more than two months earlier--having learned its lesson the hard way in Kabul--correspondent Tareq Ayyoub was killed on April 8, 2003, when U.S. forces targeted the building Al Jazeera was operating from. Since then Al Jazeera claims to have endured all manner of harassment from a vengeful West: from sabotage by rival journalists at Centcom to CNN double-crosses and even detainment and abuse by soldiers in Iraq.

In the wake of 9/11 the U.S. administration has moved from cautious support of Al Jazeera as a legitimate outlet for free speech to reactionary saber-rattling at its alleged proterror bias. "We know it has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over again," Donald Rumsfeld said in October 2001. "They are trying to manipulate world opinion in a way that is advantageous to them and disadvantageous to us."

But when it comes to Al Jazeera conspiracy theories, everyone's got one, and we've arrived rather late to the game. The West may label the station anti-Semitic for its relentless (and grisly) coverage of the intifada, but in the Arab world its broadcast of Israelis speaking Hebrew--another regional first--and positively seditious criticism of the ruling classes got it pegged long ago as a Zionist subterfuge. Rivals Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran have viewed it at best as an instrument of nouveau riche Qatari ambitions for regional dominance, at worst as a covert American operation designed to destabilize and fragment the whole Arab world. And of course almost every Middle Eastern dictator has eyed the station as an instigator of the pan-Arab populism that's his deepest, darkest fear.

America's issues with Al Jazeera, if often the mirror image of the Arab oligarchy's, are specific to the political climate that's prevailed here ever since the towers went down. The network's inconvenient airing of the human cost of war--on both sides--has been called both incitement and morale-sapping propaganda. Its knack for being Johnny-on-the-spot--always in time to catch on camera, say, a military convoy hitting an IED--has given rise to accusations of outright collaboration with insurgents and terrorists. And many civil libertarians who might be OK with the airing of Osama's prerecorded grievances aren't at all comfortable with the broadcast of Western hostages in captivity or being murdered. Throw in the documented connections between some Al Jazeera personnel and the controversial organizations they cover--Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban--and you've got a fair number of legitimate questions, some of them more troubling than others.

Most have plausible answers. In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Jazeera's unique standing with the rogue governments in question undeniably made their ubiquitous presence possible, but the station's thorough penetration of the region is at least as likely the key to its success as any conspiracy. And the relationships cultivated to achieve such access--with thugs like Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar--may be suspicious, but speak just as loudly to the good old standby of doing whatever it takes to get the story.

Despite Rumsfeld's claims that the station is "working in concert with terrorists" and broadcasting "wrong and inaccurate" information, the charges have yet to stick. "Little by way of solid evidence has ever been produced to substantiate these allegations," Miles points out. "The Coalition Provisional Authority did say once it had compiled 'a list of false and misleading reports' by Al-Jazeera, but the list was never made public, since it was said to contain 'sensitive information.'"

But to Miles's credit, though, he considers explanations that aren't quite as plausible as carefully as he does the rest. Though sympathetic, he makes a good case for the station being instrumental in not only the reporting of the second intifada but its incendiary spread, even to minor street uprisings in Egypt and Jordan. The infiltration of Al Jazeera by Baathist double agents--as alleged by superreliable intelligence provider Ahmad Chalabi--is admitted as a distinct possibility, though Miles notes, "The fact is that Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war upset the regime so much that the station's staff were repeatedly threatened and bureaux were closed down. The agents could not have been having too much effect."

On perhaps the most damning matter--the pending trial in Spain of Al Jazeera star Taysir Alluni, who scored a controversial 2001 interview with bin Laden, on charges of funneling funds for Al Qaeda--he builds a strong defense, with convincing help from Al Jazeera spokesman Jihad Ballout, but admits to smelling something fishy in Alluni's story.

Miles doesn't deny that Al Jazeera may have an agenda. He points to the ginormous Al Udeid air base built for U.S. use in the desolate interior of Qatar in 1996--from which the invasion of Iraq was launched--as evidence of the station's possible diversionary role, meant to cast Qatar as something other than an American proxy. And the station's solidarity with the Palestinian cause and postcolonial resentment of the West is flatly apparent.

But like the shitstorm of approbation it's received from the hometown despots, the hostility with which its muckraking is so generally met here looks a lot like thinly disguised fear and shame. Al Jazeera alienated many in the West with its airing of footage of dead coalition soldiers early in the war, as well as the casualties of the second intifada. But its firsthand reporting in Jenin was pivotal in debunking overstated Palestinian claims of massacre. It broadcast Baathist wishful thinking as Iraq fell but was quick to debunk these heroic pronouncements--as well as the frequently misstated progress of our own forces and the stage-managed toppling of certain statues. It may have scored an interview with bin Laden, but it's also given Bush, Rumsfeld, and company every opportunity to make their case. The West's problem with Al Jazeera doesn't seem so much to be its bias as its reporting.

While the bias of Fox News--or for that matter CNN or ABC--may be no more pronounced than Al Jazeera's, the method by which it's expressed couldn't be more different. It's a matter of editing. Big American media shapes opinion with what it doesn't show--which is almost everything. Al Jazeera shapes it with what it does. While championing some causes, it does so with facts, footage, and something like genuine debate.

But the most striking thing conveyed by Miles's account of the meteoric rise of Al Jazeera--which is set to launch an English-language channel later this year--isn't just its inverted resemblance to Fox. It's that the latter's talking-points-commanded, ideology-driven breed of American media and politics is on the rise--and every day looking a little more like the sycophantic state-controlled media that Al Jazeera rose in reaction to. Al Jazeera's risky reportage may be wildly politicizing, but its hands-on approach seems more honest and more, well, journalistic, inviting comparison to an age of hard-hitting American journalism that, however brief or mythical to begin with, seems all but past.

Al-Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West

Hugh Miles

Grove Press

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Hornschemeier.

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