For many Americans, Al Jazeera is probably the most well-known and most misunderstood news organization from the Muslim world. Launched in Arabic in 1996 by the Emir of Qatar, a tiny country in the Persian Gulf, Al Jazeera‘s ambition is to become an independent and influential television network on the scope and caliber of BBC and CNN International. It became hugely popular yet controversial in Arab countries because of its many confrontational talk shows, but few Americans paid much attention to it until after the 9/11 attacks when Al Jazeera aired statements by Osama bin Laden. It’s hard for Americans to trust Al Jazeera and it was hard for me, too. I suspected that an Arab news organization would have an inherent bias. I doubted that a TV network sponsored by a government, a non-democratic government, could be truly independent. The suspicion was hard to get rid of when I couldn’t receive or understand Al Jazeera‘s broadcast.
But my impression started to change in late 2006 when Al Jazeera launched its English service. The first thing that caught my eyes was its news anchor, former ABC newsman Dave Marash, a well respected American journalist. He made a convincing case why Al Jazeera could be trusted during his interviews with Here on Earth. If Al Jazeera can attract Dave and many former BBC journalists, I thought, it couldn’t be a completely bad news organization. But two years later Dave quit Al Jazeera citing lack of editorial control. That ended my interest in the networks as well.
But I may need to reevaluate. I spent this past summer in Washington, DC, and was surprised that Al Jazeera is available there without cable or satellite. Then this month, two lengthy articles praising the network appeared in two well respected magazines — The Atlantic Monthly in the US and The Walrus in Canada. “In the case of Al Jazeera,” the Atlantic article says, “news isn’t so much biased as honestly representative of a middle-of-the-road developing-world viewpoint.” Besides DC, according to the Walrus article, twenty other American cities also have Al Jazeera on air through a non-profit educational broadcaster.
I also did some research on the web that further improved my trust in Al Jazeera. First, I found a 2008 study of Al Jazeera English (mentioned in the Walrus article) by two scholars from Queens University of Charlotte and the University of Southern California. After in-depth research on the network’s employees and audience in six countries, the scholars conclude that Al Jazeera “is a media that is more likely to cover contentious issues in a way that contributes to creating an environment that is more conducive to cooperation, negotiation and reconciliation.”
I also checked out the professional background of Al Jazeera journalists and management listed on its web site. Al Jazeera English now is managed by Tony Burman, the former news chief of CBC Television with 35 years of experience in Canadian public broadcasting. All three other directors have solid experience in the UK television industry. The vast majority of Al Jazeera‘s 70 journalists used to work for respected European and American media such as the BBC (19 journalists) and CNN (14) .
Additionally, I read some recent Al Jazeera news stories about a topic I’m very familiar with — China, my home country. With its journalists inside China speaking local languages and doing field reporting, Al Jazeera‘s news coverage is factual and in-depth, comparable to that of NPR and PBS, two of my favorite news organizations.
I’m giving Al Jazeera another try. It’s good to hear a different but honest voice in media, even if it causes discomfort among its audience, because that’s when journalism is at its best: When it makes audiences think and helps to transform them from consumers to citizens.
What’s your impression of Al Jazeera? If you’re not watching it already, would you like to give it a try? We would like to hear your take on it as well as your impression of other media sources for information on Islam.
P.S. (April 20, 2010): NPR’s On the Media show interviewed Wadah Khanfar, Director General of Al Jazeera, on March 26. Here is the link to the audio and transcript of the interview.