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Who’s afraid of al-Jezzera – and why

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The announcement that al-Jazeera is buying Al Gore’s Current TV network can be expected to run into what pundits call "a serious image problem." Allowing the Qatar-based, Arab-owned network to be seen in 40 million U.S. households may be more than our fragile citizenry can bear.

With its alleged positions against U.S. foreign policies and wars, al-Jazeera is just too "left" to be allowed access to our fearful public.

Has anyone noticed that much of the world is "left" of the United States?

Because of my occasional appearances on al-Jazeera news shows, and having written opinion pieces for its web site, I can be accused of knowing on which side my pita is being buttered. Fair enough. And my experiences with al-Jazeera will only confirm the obvious. In its selection of stories and editorial slants, it is to the left of mainstream American media.

So what?

Al-Jazeera is also an outlet of professional journalists, generally well-informed and seeking to at least appear balanced. No one has ever suggested to me what to say or write. The network may present Arab voices, but its coverage includes more of the world than this parochial image allows. From oppressed native tribes in Peru to Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, al-Jazeera reports undercovered news. Its reporters may be pro-Palestinian, but the network provides a rare platform in a region where Israeli officials and dissenters can both appear.

Looking for objective journalism in an era of 400 channels plus the Internet is looking backward to the bygone ideals of three national networks and Uncle Walter. Seeking the widest, most diverse sources for views of the world seems a more realistic goal for U.S. media.

My own opinions may be shaped by experiences with al-Jazeera’s English-language channel. The Arabic part of the network has a separate staff, housed in more modest quarters across the street in Doha from the English channel. And in my few appearances on the Arabic channel, the editorial slant seemed a bit different.

Whether I was invited to comment on congressional elections, global warming or race relations, the questions inevitably veered toward the pro-Israel lobby. As in, after a few questions on the scheduled topic, something like: "Interesting point about liberalizing relations with Cuba, and how does that affect the Israel lobby?"

Obsessed? A bit. But perhaps we should wait for Chuck Hagel to actually be nominated as secretary of defence before we write off this view of the power of the pro-Israel lobby as completely delusional.

Al-Jazeera will be running its American operation under a separate U.S.-based news channel with its own staff, which shows recognition of the issue of bias. Much of the paranoia about al-Jazeera rests on a somewhat antiquated notion of media ownership. While any of us writing about media will occasionally fall back on the vision of the willful reactionary owner (read: Rupert Murdoch) controlling the direction of his empire, the reality is more complicated. Reporters, editors, advertisers, sources, competitors, corporate strategists and even the audience shape the content of modern media. Bringing al-Jazeera to more of America may also mean bringing more of America to al-Jazeera.

There may be winners on both sides. We Americans do brag about our marketplace of ideas. The U.S. audience may gain access to the perspectives of a respected international network covering stories from regions of the world — sub-Saharan Africa, the various -stans and South Asia — that our national media has largely ignored. Al-Jazeera may gain insights into people that are far more diverse, engaged and welcoming than many of the images it broadcasts abroad.

Those still stridently opposing this alien investment in our homeland might remember the words of the great media strategist Lyndon Johnson. When asked why he had brought a longtime political antagonist into his camp, he replied: "Better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in."

 

Gary Wasserman teaches government at Georgetown University’s school of foreign service in Qatar.

 

—The Washington Post

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