In a review published the other day, Dennis Ross gives a reasonably fair assessment of Hugh Miles's book on al Jazeera. Most of his criticisms are fair enough - I agree with Ross that Miles identifies a bit too strongly with al Jazeera, taking more of a lawyerly attitude of defending al Jazeera from its critics rather than an analytical position, and that he doesn't pay enough attention to its possible negative effects. But one paragraph of his review really bugged me:
But why shouldn’t al-Jazeera live up to its credo? Why shouldn’t it question what Arabs are doing to themselves, rather than just condemning what non-Arabs are doing to the region? Why doesn’t it talk about the failings of education in the Arab world? Why doesn’t it expose Islamist madrassas that teach hatred toward the outside world? Why can’t it debunk mythologies, rather than spreading risible conspiracy theories (such as blaming Israel’s Mossad for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks)? Why can’t it seriously question what the intifada has cost Palestinians rather than glorifying suicide bombers as “martyrs”?
This is annoying because it is just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong... and its wrongness so easy to prove that you have to wonder why such an experienced figure as Ross feels free to do it. This isn't a judgement question, it's a straightforward factual one: almost every point Ross wants to see raised has been raised on al Jazeera talk shows, repeatedly. "Why shouldn’t it question what Arabs are doing to themselves, rather than just condemning what non-Arabs are doing to the region?" It does - all the time. Al Jazeera lambasts Arab rulers and Arab society with glee, which is exactly why Arab states view it with such alarm. With three minutes research, I could give you a list of a dozen shows in the last year which have "questioned what Arabs are doing to themselves" - it would be easy because virtually all of the dozens of programs dealing with democracy or reform ask those questions. Or "Why can’t it seriously question what the intifada has cost Palestinians rather than glorifying suicide bombers as “martyrs”?" OK, here's a few: "The martyrdom phenomenon", Open Dialogue, June 2002; "Martyrdom operations" The Opposite Direction, August 2002; "Is the Intifada a waste of time?" January 2002; "Impact of the Intifada on the Palestinian economy," December 2002. Do those fit the bill of asking what the intifada has cost Palestinians, or questioning "martyrdom operations"?
The point isn't that al Jazeera is beyond criticism - as the most powerful media force in the Arab world, it should be criticized and held to account. Its own journalists acknowledge that the station has struggled with how to deal with the hostage videos and with how to cover Iraq. You could raise legitimate questions about how the shows are framed, about the cumulative effect of certain kinds of coverag, about who gets invited onto the programs, and so much more - all the "media bias" questions which make our own domestic debate so wonderful (Ross himself has appeared on al Jazeera, for what that's worth).
But al Jazeera should be criticized for what it actually does, and not for what people think that it does. Some of the station's most trenchant critics are Arab journalists and thinkers like Hazem al Amin and Hazem Saghiyeh - including some of al Jazeera's own personalities such as Khaled al Haroub. Their commentaries strike home precisely because they are attacking the reality and not the imaginary construct. As Gordon Robison put it the other day,
"When clips of Al-Arabiya’s Iraqi election coverage were screened with translation several of the westerners expressed surprise to see how closely it resembled American television coverage of the same event. It was a moment highlighting the degree to which the West’s understanding of the media revolution taking place in the Middle East remains based on hearsay and fifth-hand information. Another case in point: a western participant, inevitably, spoke about the televising of beheadings of hostages in Iraq. To his credit it was a western news executive who leapt in to remind everyone that no Arab news channel has ever aired a beheading. Ever."
So let's do one of those around the horn things, and see what al Jazeera is showing these days. For one, it has been covering the saga of Ayman Nour, the leader of Egypt's new opposition party Hizb al Ghad who has been arrested and his party's newspaper stopped. Today, it has a story on a protest demanding Nour's release. Salim Azouz wrote in al Quds al Arabi that al Jazeera played a decisive role in bringing Nour's plight to public attention by interviewing him from the Parliament floor the day he was arrested and then covering the press conferences and rallies in his defense. I ran a search on the al Arabiya website, since no such coverage appeared on its front page, and found that the "moderate, pro-American" al Arabiya ran one Reuters story on Nour on January 31, and has not mentioned his name since. So, if lavishing attention on protests against authoritarian rule - you know, spreading democracy - is your thing, score one for al Jazeera over al Arabiya.
What about the talk shows? Well, old Yusuf al Qaradawi has had a couple of episodes of Sharia and Life lately. The most recent one, February 6, was on the subject of "Political and Civil Freedoms", while the one before that was on "Religious and Intellectual Freedom." Earlier this week Khaled al Haroub hosted the old Egyptian liberal El-Sayyid Yassin to talk about "Arab reform between sultanistic oppression and the democratic mirage." Haroub's previous shows had been "The crisis of Arab intellectuals", with the now late Hisham Sharabi and Burhan Ghalyoun, and "The crisis of democracy in the Arab countries". Back in January, Ghassan bin Jadu had shows on "the Arab future and the issue of reform". Hafiz al Mirazi did the show on Bush's democracy rhetoric with Natan Sharansky that I mentioned at the time. Faisal al Qassem did a show recently ridiculing the personality cults of Arab dictators, and did one the other day which posed tough questions about Arab and Muslim charitable societies, the adequacy of their response to the tsunami, and the allegations about their ties to terrorism. Lots of shows have looked at the Iraqi and Palestinian elections and their implications.
Okay, that's enough. I don't mean to be too harsh to Dennis Ross here - overall the review of Miles was fair, but what annoys me is the all too typical method he adopts in that last part of the review. I see this again and again - people posing rhetorical questions like "why doesn't al Jazeera do X?" without doing the research to find out whether or not al Jazeera has in fact done X. Once you've done your homework, criticize away! Is that too much to ask?
Okay, all done now.