Feature:Opinion

Journalists’ crush on Al Jazeera English

Matt Philbin Managing Editor, Culture and Media Institute

Whether the “Arab Spring” will eventually bring the blessings of liberty and human rights to residents of the Middle East is still unclear. But we already know it has done wonders for Al Jazeera English (AJE), a “news” network owned by the ruling family of Qatar and funded by its government.

AJE’s coverage of the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings earned rave reviews from liberals and the mainstream media. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly applauded its broadcasts. Prestigious newspapers and high-profile journalists began to demand that cable companies nationwide find it a place on the dial, since it is currently available only on the web and in three U.S. markets. Next week, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism will bestow its highest award on AJE. Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) also ran a fawning article on the network in its May/June edition.

AJE is the “balanced, thorough, and cosmopolitan cousin of Arab-centric Al Jazeera Arabic,” purred CJR. Unfortunately, none of that is true. Many of AJE’s executives and editors came to it from Al Jazeera, making the two more like conjoined twins than cousins.

Thorough? As liberal Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart noted, AJE willingly ignored the brutal sexual assault on CBS’s Lara Logan in Tahrir Square by 200 men on Feb. 11.

Capehart confronted Heather Allan, head of news gathering for AJE, about an internal email in which she flatly stated the network wasn’t covering Logan’s attack. Allan lamely responded that AJE “believes, as a general rule,” that journalists “are not the story.” Capehart wasn’t buying it, and linked to an article on the AJE website in which journalists in Egypt were indeed the story. As of May 11, AJE’s website included a section demanding that Syrian officials release reporter Dorothy Parvaz, who’s been detained there since April 29.

Another example of AJE’s vaunted thoroughness: On March 12 in the Israeli settlement of Itamar, someone stabbed to death five members of a Jewish family as they slept. Among the dead were three children, including an infant. Despite public condemnations from the Palestinian Authority and the usual festive ululating and candy-slinging in the Gaza Strip, a search of AJE’s website finds no report on the murders themselves. They are mentioned in two stories — as the cause of Israeli oppression and violence.

Is it “balanced”? The opinion columns on AJE’s website are a diverse ideological mix of anti-Americanism, anti-Americanism and anti-Americanism, leavened with a dollop of anti-Israelism and a cup of anti-capitalism for good measure.

It’s like MSNBC with a beefed-up Middle East bureau. Except its man-crushes aren’t for messianic community organizers, they’re for child-killing terrorists.

In 2008, Al Jazeera threw a televised birthday party for Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, newly released from prison in a prisoner exchange. In 1979, Kuntar had shot an Israeli civilian in front of the man’s four-year-old daughter and then bashed in her head with his rifle. Al Jazeera felt Kuntar’s birthday merited cake and fireworks, and one of the network’s interviewers told Kuntar, “You deserve even more than this.”

But that’s Al Jazeera, not AJE. Surely there was a difference in coverage? There was. As in this report, in which AJE focused on the suffering of the family — Kuntar’s family, as they awaited the prisoner swap.

In The Wall Street Journal on the seventh anniversary of the videotaped beheading of his son Daniel by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Judea Pearl wrote, “Al Jazeera elevated Kuntar to heroic heights with orchestras, fireworks and sword dances, presenting him to 50 million viewers as Arab society’s role model. No mainstream Western media outlet dared to expose Al Jazeera efforts to warp its young viewers into the likes of Kuntar. Al Jazeera’s management continues to receive royal treatment in all major press clubs.”

And now AJE is collecting coveted awards and big-name journalists are going to bat for it. Why?

For starters, AJE’s agenda is of little account to the mainstream media. As the Boston Globe opined on April 3, “Yes, the network has a point of view — its coverage tends to be skeptical both of non-democratic rulers in the Middle East and North Africa, and of American involvement in the region. But many Americans share this same viewpoint, and even for those who don’t the network can be deeply informative.” Bias, you see, only matters when you can accuse Fox of it.

But the real reason American “journalists” have taken up AJE’s cause is because they believe that in Egypt this year it achieved their highest aspiration — it dictated events.

On Feb. 13, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “Too often, Americans scorn Al Jazeera (and its English service is on few cable systems), but it played a greater role in promoting democracy in the Arab world than anything the United States did.” (Dear Iraq and Afghanistan vets, thanks for nothing, Love Nicky.)

A week earlier, Kristof’s colleague, Brian Stelter, breathlessly described how the “sense of mission — and of opportunity — permeates the Al Jazeera compound on the outskirts of Doha,” and wrote that, “Many observers believe that by televising the uprisings, Al Jazeera is influencing them — and tilting the Middle East toward a version of democracy in the process.”

In other words, the supposedly neutral mainstream Western media is celebrating Al Jazeera for its activism, not its journalism. Now that makes sense.

Matt Philbin is the managing editor at The Culture and Media Institute.