Since I usually focus on the Arab media, it's worth a quick note about how things are playing out there. Al-Jazeera has owned this war from the perspective of the hyper-competitive Arab satellite television media. Salim Azouz, who frequently analyzes the Arab media for al-Quds al-Arabi, wrote today that right now al-Jazeera is only competing with itself - al-Hurra, he claims, has revealed its monstrous true face by openly sympathizing with Israel (I wouldn't know if he's right, since I don't get to watch their feed); while al-Arabiya, he claims, has abandoned the field and opted to not even try to compete. I had been saying and writing for the last year or so that the al-Jazeera era was over, in that the intensely competitive Arab media market made it unlikely that any single station would ever have the kind of near-monopoly position al-Jazeera enjoyed from 1998 through 2003. Over the last week, that seems to be (at least temporarily) changing - right now the scene looks more like 2003 than like 2005.
It's worth making just a few quick notes about how al-Jazeera is scoring these gains. It has been covering the crisis intensively, throwing resources and air time at the war. In addition to its strong Beirut office headed by Ghassan bin Jidu, al-Jazeera has sent some of its most popular and accomplished on-air talent to Beirut (including Jamal Rayan and Jumana al-Namour). It has gotten great visuals, and its talk shows and programs have concentrated on the war from a wide range of angles (its first episode of Behind the News, the signature prime time program, after the war started featured three guests: Abd al-Bari Atwan, the populist Arab nationalist editor of al-Quds al-Arabi; a Hezbollah representative; and a well-spoken Saudi guest who complained about Hezbollah and gave a preview of the Saudi foreign policy which followed. It scored big with its exclusive interview with Hassan Nasrallah - which it got partly because bin Jidu has a good relationship with him, and partly because Nasrallah knew that al-Jazeera was the best way to reach a mass, attentive Arab audience.
It's been covering the crisis - as you'd expect - from an unabashedly pro-Arab perspective... but as it interprets "pro-Arab" (the axis of pro-American dictators would have a different definition, naturally). As in Iraq, that mean heavy emphasis on civilian casualties and suffering, a lot of attention to Arab protests, sympathetic attention to Hezbollah, lots of voices critical of America and Israel, and lots of voices heavily critical of the Arab regimes for not acting. Its coverage frames the Lebanon crisis as part of an overarching narrative, not an isolated event: al-Jazeera hasn't forgotten about Gaza (it was just running an interview with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya now, 2:20 my time), and places the Palestinian crisis alongside the Lebanon crisis as a single story, in which the Arab regimes are aligned with the Americans and Israel in the villains role, the Arab people (here represented by Lebanese and Palestinian civilians) the victims, and Hezbollah and Arab protestors (and sometimes al-Jazeera itself, frankly) cast as the heroes. Nobody who watched its Iraq war coverage would be surprised by its performance here - some are accusing it of cheerleading, some of distortion, some of giving too much time to American or Israeli perspectives. The usual - though to my eye it does seem a bit more restrained in its coverage. This all contrasts sharply with al-Arabiya, usually its strongest challenger, which has largely followed the Saudi line and whose coverage has struck me (and most others) as indifferent at best.
But if al-Jazeera has offered as sharp contrast with al-Arabiya, it's also clearly different from Hezbollah's al-Manar (even if it uses one of their former reporters and some of their exclusive visuals). Right now (a little before 2:00 my time), for instance, al-Jazeera is running a lengthy stream of a live press conference by an Israeli military spokesman.
It has covered the Israeli side of the crisis, which is one of the reasons that one of its correspondents in the West Bank got arrested and another shot with rubber bullets (so did an al-Hurra reporter). It's currently (2:05 my time) showing firefighters dealing with the aftermath of a Hezbollah missile, with prominent mention of the numbers of Israeli wounded (which of course could be interpreted either way: as an acknowledgement of Israeli suffering or as a celebration of said suffering - for his part, the on-air reporter plays it pretty straight). Oh, and having that reporter get arrested by the Israelis a few times was pure money for the network - it even devoted an episode of Behind the News to the subject.
Al-Jazeera is also adapting one of its best moves from the end of the Iraq war - after the fall of Baghdad, it started running every night in prime time its Minbar al-Jazeera program, which is a live, unfiltered call-in show. That gave unprecedented voice to ordinary Arabs to argue and express themselves (see chapter five of my book for extensive details) at a time of extraordinary confusion and uncertainty about the future (the main host, Jumana al-Namour, told me that this was an extremely difficult show to run precisely because it was uncontrollable and unedited). Al-Jazeera hasn't gone quite that far this time - it hasn't suspended its other programs - but it is featuring a regular program called Sawt al-Nas (Voice of the People) which features live phone calls from all over the Arab world.
This is interesting for several reasons. First, it helps solidify its relationship with viewers, who highly value the participatory dimension. Second, it's riveting television in its own way, because it's so unpredictable. And third, it exemplifies al-Jazeera's core identity claim - that it represents the authentic voice of the Arab public. Note how in the screenshot above, the screen behind the host Fayruz al-Zayani is showing live coverage of a protest against the war. True or not, the symbolism is powerful, especially at a time when its chief rival has evidently opted to be more of a voice of the Arab regimes (the Saudi regime in particular).
One last point. Unfortunately, I haven't seen much follow-up on the one State Department guest I saw on an al-Jazeera program a few days ago... the Bush administration seems largely absent from the al-Jazeera universe, by its choice, much as it seems largely absent from the events themselves. Right now, the prime time Behind the News program is focusing on Condoleeza Rice's statements about the conflict and debating American intentions and the risks of a wider war. The guests are Azmi Bishara and Amr Hamzawy (a fine Egyptian writer currently based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). I'm pretty sure that al-Jazeera asked for an American to come and discuss Rice's remarks, and didn't get one. Whether Karen Hughes can't figure out the urgency of getting someone on this kind of program - arguing about American policy in front of far and away the largest possible Arab audience - or just doesn't have the clout to persuade anyone to do it, she should probably just quit on Monday.... this sort of thing defines "failure".
Thought that those readers who don't get to watch al-Jazeera for themselves might find all this interesting.