It has been called “terror television” and a “mouthpiece for al-Qaeda,” and critics say its anti-Israel bias only serves to further demonize Israel worldwide.
Supporters praise it for its comprehensive coverage that tries to present all angles of a story.
Now, after being blacked out in virtually all of the United States, the Al Jazeera television network owned by the Qatar royal family has come to New York.
Time Warner Cable subscribers saw Al Jazeera’s English-language network for the first time last week on the Rise station, Channel 92. Because it is not a premium service, it is available to all subscribers. Verizon FiOS said it would soon also carry the network on Rise, Channel 466, throughout the New York area. Both systems will carry it for 23 hours each day.
Cablevision, which serves most of Long Island, said it has no agreement to carry Al Jazeera English but is “always evaluating the channels we carry, based on consumer interest and other factors.” Nevertheless, last week it began carrying Al Jazeera English’s weekday one-hour news summary on a two-hour tape delay at 5 p.m. on Rise’s sister channel, WRNN, Channel 48.
Richard French, general manager of WRNN, said his privately owned stations decided to carry Al Jazeera English because of the unrest that has spread across the Middle East. He said he had watched the network’s coverage of the Egyptian uprising and “found it to be quality programming. It has more resources in the Middle East than anyone else. … Reaction from viewers is anecdotal but overwhelmingly positive.”
Al Antsey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, said the network is operated with “editorial independence and editorial integrity. We can be anti and pro nothing, and we provide comprehensive reporting, giving a 360-degree view.”
“I started at CBS News and have worked at Reuters, the Associated Press and ITN,” Antsey added. “I’m a journalist, and we have hundreds of the best journalists on earth [working for us]. We have no agenda.”
But the network was severely criticized earlier this year for ignoring the Feb. 15 attack and sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan by Egyptians while she was covering the Arab uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Although the global media reported the story, Al Jazeera English was silent, even though it had what was arguably the most comprehensive coverage of the uprising.
Noting that the network’s mantra is, “The heart of the story, every angle, every side,” Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post wrote: “That’s less believable now.”
Asked if Al Jazeera English had ignored the story because it would have shown the Egyptian protesters in a less favorable light, Antsey replied: “The events that happened to Lara were awful. I worked with her at ITN. … We broadcast to 130 countries around the world, and as a global broadcaster it was not so much on our agenda as it was in the U.S. We looked at the wider picture. We didn’t do a unique story on it, but rather we reported on the challenge of being a reporter there and the threats made to journalists.”
Those who monitor the media are less than sanguine about WRNN’s decision to carry Al Jazeera English.
In a statement provided to The Jewish Week, officials with the nonprofit CAMERA: Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America said it should not be overlooked that Al Jazeera “is run and funded by a state [Qatar] that itself stifles dissent — a subject Al Jazeera sometimes reports on, but rarely in detail.”
The statement said that even though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended Al Jazeera earlier this year for offering “real news,” there is “good reason for caution in giving Al Jazeera unfettered access to U.S. viewers. Its brand of journalism comes with dubious baggage.”
CAMERA has documented “the unbalanced reporting and commentary” of Al Jazeera in its English-language service, asserting that the network “casts Israel as the aggressor in its response to rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza and obscures Hamas’s responsibility for starting the violence.”
Don Irvine, chairman of the nonprofit Accuracy in Media, said he is “disappointed” Al Jazeera was able to “come in through the back door [on someone else’s channel] when it would otherwise not get on.”
“We call it terror television because it has been used as a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda,” he said. “It is a network for Arab world propaganda, particularly for those who want to promote jihad against America. I don’t think WRNN, in deciding to carry it, understood the implications of giving it airtime.”
Irvine said that in reporting on terrorist attacks, Al Jazeera gives terrorist supporters a chance to justify their actions without letting the other side speak.
“There is no counterbalance,” he said. “They have a clearly defined view. They don’t have to ram it down your throat for 24 hours a day. But if they report on a terror incident for three or four minutes with a justification of what was done … it will eventually convince” the viewer.
Antsey admitted there have been errors at Al Jazeera, such as the time the Arabic channel held a birthday party on the air for Samir Kuntar, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization who was convicted of killing four Israelis, including smashing the head of a 4-year-old girl against a rock.
“The gentleman involved was fully reprimanded, and he no longer works for us,” Antsey said. “Clearly, that was taken very seriously. That is not the channel I run. I would not have run that. … Action was taken immediately after the show was aired.”
Irvine said there clearly is a difference between the English and Arabic stations. He said the “English version is more sanitized because it appeals to an American audience and it wants to look like CNN International. And so it covers soccer and does features so it does not appear as harsh as Al Jazeera Arabic. But that does not mean its mission has changed all that much. [Qatar] wouldn’t have launched this network if it didn’t want to have influence in the U.S. … They are not about facts and the truth. They have a point of view and want to push this propaganda, and there is nothing that says they have to be fair.”
During its first week of coverage here, the all-news English-language network carried a story from its reporter in the Gaza Strip in which she said that Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls the area, has begun distributing free food to residents in an effort to improve its image. Al Jazeera is one of the only news agencies with a news bureau in Gaza.
In another report, the network reported on the growing strength of Norway’s far right following the bombing and shooting rampage by Anders Breivik last month that killed 92. It also interviewed people in other parts of Europe who said the massacre occurred at a time a nationalist revival was taking root across Europe.
Cliff Kincaid, director of Accuracy in Media, pointed out that both networks “are paid for by the emir of Qatar, and we have documented that some of the management personnel for Al Jazeera English come from Al Jazeera Arabic. The editorial policy comes from the same people who run both networks. The difference is that with the English [network] they have hired a number of Western faces. But keep in mind that one of the first hires in the U.S. was David Marash. He claimed he would have editorial independence and be able to develop his own stories, but he quit after two years in 2008.”
In an e-mail interview, Marash this week described Al Jazeera English as, “Must-see TV news, probably the best news channel in the world (albeit with weaknesses in sometimes reporting its attitudes rather than the full story on American stories). I watch it almost every day.”
Asked about its coverage of Israel, Marash said it “clearly keeps its eyes on the interests and treatment of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, which gives them plenty of occasion to criticize the Israeli government. But in Israel they do try to report stories out, and to base them on facts or clearly attributed points of view.
“It may be anti-Netanyahu, anti-Likud etc. … but it is not anti-Semitic.”
He pointed out that during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al Jazeera English reported the attacks on Israeli civilians “with as much outrage as it reported attacks on innocent Lebanese, which is typical of their approach.”
“The Arab Spring can, I think, be called the Al Jazeera Revolution,” Marash added, “since the values of the revolution were promulgated to the revolutionary generation via Al Jazeera Arabic.”