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In defense of al-Jazeera

Brave New World:’s Michael Moran comes to the defense of al-Jazeera.

One day in April 1996, as I headed for my desk in the newsroom at BBC Television Centre, I noticed an odd gathering of journalists in the space beside ours - the newsroom of BBC Arabic Television. There were tear-streaked faces, hugs among staff members and anger as the 250 journalists were told that the network, a BBC partnership with a Saudi company, would be shut down because the Saudis tried to censor a documentary on executions in their puritanical country. It was a devastating defeat for a brave group of journalists.

For many of BBC Arabic’s staff, that day marked the death of a long-held dream: uncensored news for the Middle East, reports shorn of the crazy conspiracy theories, anti-Israel sentiments and sniveling praise for venal regimes that is standard fare on state-controlled broadcast networks from Algiers to Islamabad.

Jamil Azar, then with the BBC’s Arabic service, told me later how wrenching it was for so many on the staff who worked so hard at something they truly believed would change attitudes in the region. “We understand the BBC’s position,” Azar told me. “But the gap it will leave will be tremendous.”


As it turned out, the gap was quickly filled. From the ashes of BBC Arabic rose al-Jazeera, a satellite channel funded by the Emir of Qatar and other Arab moderates who had recognized during BBC Arabic’s short life that the long-term interests of Islam would be served best by truth rather than censorship. Unfortunately, that kind of foresight temporarily escaped the White House, opening the United States up to charges of hypocrisy at precisely the time when the United States needs to be seen taking every possible step to be up-front about its goals.

The first time most Americans heard the name al-Jazeera was Sunday, Oct. 7, the day U.S. and British forces began hitting the Taliban and its “guests” in Afghanistan. The timing was almost surely accidental — Western journalists had spent three weeks expecting an attack at any moment. But the impact on the White House was undeniable, and suddenly Washington reverted to the kind of bullying that had not been evident in the buildup to the attack.

Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced al-Jazeera for airing “vitriolic, irresponsible kinds of statements” when it broadcast a videotaped statement by suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden praising the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

The CIA leaked its concern that bin Laden might be sending secret messages through these taped statements. Condoleeza Rice, the national security adviser, called and visited with top American network and newspaper representatives, urging them to consider the dangers of airing bin Laden’s views. On the shallower media outlets around the U.S., al-Jazeera suddenly found itself being equated with the former Communist mouthpiece Pravda or Hitler’s National Zeitung.


The truth could hardly be more different.

Today, al-Jazeera is staffed by many of the same journalists I saw weeping in London that day, including Azar. It is the lone Arabic broadcast outlet to put truth and objectivity above even its survival. For its pains during the five years of its existence, it has been attacked by virtually every government in the Middle East.

The network’s bureaus around the region are periodically closed because of al-Jazeera’s insistence in airing stories about the corruption of government officials in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere. Israeli officials and journalists, all but banned from other Middle Eastern networks, are staples on al-Jazeera, whose motto is “We get both sides of the story.”


To truly understand how wrong it is to attack al-Jazeera, one needs to consider two points.

First, that to be anything but a lackey in the Arab media is to invite beatings, torture or death. The Society for the Protection of Journalists’ annual list of reporters killed in the line of duty is littered with the corpses of moderate, tolerant Arab journalists who have stood up to their bullying dictatorships, on the one hand, or their puritanical mullahs, on the other.

Second, the fact that bin Laden’s zealous murderers chose al-Jazeera as a way to get their message out has very little to do with the fact that al-Jazeera is the Middle East’s only free news network. Did the rebel Irish Republican Army send coded messages to the BBC and the Reuters news agency claiming responsibility for its bombings because it thought British journalists would be sympathetic? Did Saddam Hussein choose CNN as a conduit for his own propaganda during the Persian Gulf War because he took a shine to Peter Arnett? Of course not, though some — most memorably former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, claimed so at the time.

The reason all of these outlets get the story is because they earn it. Al-Jazeera worked hard covering the Afghan story when the very notion of doing so would have been dismissed at an American news meeting. It is important to remember that the list of American journalists who have set foot in Afghanistan over the past five years is short, indeed. It’s not that it wasn’t possible: My colleague Preston Mendenhall did it just this spring and produced our series Pariah Nation.

Still, we couldn’t get NBC to air any of the hours of video he shot while there. It simply didn’t fit the mold of what NBC executives thought would garner the largest possible audience.

In contrast, al-Jazeera — and the BBC, until its correspondent was ejected by the Taliban — stayed in Kabul through the 1990s to cover a civil war that has been raging, in part with American weaponry, for more than a decade. So do we blame al-Jazeera for covering this war? As Fox would say, ‘You decide.’


Happily, the attacks the Bush administration launched on al-Jazeera recently backfired so completely that Washington quickly shifted tactics, suddenly granting long-denied interviews with officials like Powell and Rice. Now, there’s even talk of buying time on al-Jazeera to broadcast some kind of paid political advertisement about the conflict. To many, after the U.S. efforts to squash al-Jazeera, this will be lumped into the same category as the bin Laden campfire video: propaganda.

That brings us to the final lesson here: what passes for news in America. For the past 10 years, roughly since the idiotic O.J. Simpson trial, the language of marketing has entered American newsrooms like a badly targeted cruise missile. Talk of plot lines and demographics, sexiness and “water-cooler” appeal have polluted a mission that is protected by its own constitutional amendment. Celebrity journalists interview celebrity dimwits about their sex lives, while American foreign policy is left running on auto-pilot.

The hard truth is that the U.S. media left America as unprepared for these terrorist attacks as any Air Force general or CIA bureaucrat. As we dropped bombs on Iraq for 10 years running — justified or not — the U.S. media failed to report on it. Then suddenly, on Sept. 11, we think “We’re at war” when in fact there hasn’t been a day since the Gulf War ended when an American aircraft hasn’t locked onto a target with a missile or bomb. We were at war, it’s just that the media didn’t think it was interesting enough to tell you about it.

That’s our lesson to learn.

Michael Moran is senior producer for special projects at He worked as the BBC’s U.S. affairs analyst in London from 1993-96.