Media and Islam: Al Jazeera

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.

4 thoughts on “Media and Islam: Al Jazeera

  1. This topic is quite interesting, and I thank you for your beautiful insights. However, when we judge the reliability and accuracy of media outlets, we don’t need to evaluate them based on their comparability to western media ‘norms’ like CNN, BBC, and NPR. We don’t need to see the names of former employees from western networks to convince ourselves that Al Jazeera is then a qualified news channel. This kind of comparison between Middle Eastern media networks and western ones is reductionist, because it simplifies the historical, and geo-political underpinnings of each media outlet, and this in part blinds us to the multiple journalistic and propagandistic purposes of media corporations. Also, Al Jazeera has one of the most effective research centers in the Arab world: Al Jazeera Center for Studies.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ammar! I agree with you that checking its employees’ past working experience in western media is a flawed way of judging the reliability and accuracy of Al Jazeera. Western media are not perfect with their own inherent bias. That’s why I have used other indicators — scholarly research, my own observation — to help me make an evaluation. None of the indicators by itself is completely reliable. But if all of them point to the same general direction, I’ll have much more confidence on my evaluation.

    You sound very knowledgeable about Al Jazeera. It takes years to truly understand “the historical and geo-political underpinnings” of a media outlet and its home region. For many Americans like me, unfortunately, we don’t have that understanding yet, thus need a lot of help from experts like you and those mentioned in my post. But we are also weary of fake or manipulative experts who are in plenty supply on the topic of Islam. So we often start from experts we already trust like BBC journalists. Hopefully we don’t end up with them but explore further and get to know the experts and people who are truly inside Islam.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and knowledge with us. That’s exactly what we have hoped for in launching this project. We welcome more input from you.

  3. I’m impressed with Lisa’s open-mindedness. I too scratched Al-Jazeera off my list when David Marash quit and I heard reports that Saudi Arabia had squashed any real democratic forums which would involve real critiques. But reading Lisa’s post has re-kindled my curiosity about Al-Jazeera. I wish we had the same access as they have in D.C. And as an afterthought, it’s strikes me funny that here we are demanding “accuracy and lack of bias” from a start-up Arabic news channel when right here at home we have our “fair and unbiased” Fox News!

  4. Al Jazeera is Muslim biased, Anti-Semitic in their reporting and the American they have hired have been liberals who are also against the Jews and Israel.

    Check out what Honest Reporting and Jihad Watch has to say about them.

    Go to youtube and watch the muslim-biased interview with Mordechai Kedar, a Tel Aviv professor who wipes up Al Jeez’s reporter with THE TRUTH!

    Ammar, I must assume you are a decent man who seeks the truth. However, I also must assume you are a Muslim who bases his beliefs on the Koran which seeks the death of all infidels, i.e. Jews, Christians and anyone who is not a Muslim.

    Wake-Up, People! Political Correctness is the surest way to the demise of the US and the world if we allow Islam’s agenda to take center stage.

    Check out, too. Walid Shoebat, ex-PLO Terrorist explains what the “Infidel” must know.