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TV news tuned in to the Middle East

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 25, 2001


TEMPLE TERRACE -- Before we enter the coffee shop, Jamil Jreisat wants me to understand a few ground rules.

TEMPLE TERRACE -- Before we enter the coffee shop, Jamil Jreisat wants me to understand a few ground rules.

Don't talk to the owner. Don't talk to his employees. And definitely don't talk to his customers.

We were walking into the Al-Aqsa Cafe on 56th Street in Temple Terrace, a small, tidy restaurant that serves as an informal meeting place and hangout for many in the area's close-knit Muslim community. Even though the owner's conditions were a bit restrictive, I didn't care.

I was there for one reason: to get a look at Al-Jazeera.

Jreisat, a Jordan-born professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida, arranged the visit because he doesn't have the satellite hookup for the Arab-centered, 24-hour news channel at his home. Al-Aqsa offers the Arabic-language channel on a big-screen TV that dominates its dining area.

The professor agreed to sit next to me for awhile and translate the Qatar-based news outlet's 3:30 p.m. report so I could see for myself what has the U.S. government and some American journalists so knotted up.

"People look at it like, 'Somebody finally broke CNN's monopoly (on international news),' " said Jreisat, who has lived in the United States for 40 years but still bristles at the way some American media outlets cover news in the Middle East. "There's a great demand for news from a different point of view."

Such talk can be dangerous. No one knows better than an Arab in America how quickly some U.S. citizens can forget principles of free speech in wartime.

These concerns are part of what keeps the owner of Al-Aqsa from talking to reporters (an American flag flies in front of the building, to reassure any passerby of the owner's allegiance). Jreisat has passed up many chances to speak with reporters as well, a habit he's willing to break to talk about Al-Jazeera.

The news channel was founded in 1996 by a group of Middle Eastern journalists trained by the British Broadcasting Corporation, as a symbol of modernization efforts by the new emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Since Sept. 11, Al-Jazeera has gained worldwide fame through its coverage of hostilities in Afghanistan, airing unedited statements from accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and Taliban officials, along with footage of bomb damage from U.S. air strikes and images from areas forbidden to Western journalists.

Earlier, its coverage of the recent intifada -- or resistance of Palestinians against Israelis in contested areas -- made Al-Jazeera must viewing for many connected to the Arab world. Willing to report news that angered Arab rulers in a landscape dominated by state-run media, the channel has earned a reputation for editorial independence, though some have challenged its position since the war's start.

A blistering New York Times magazine story last week claimed bin Laden has emerged as the star of Al-Jazeera -- the centerpiece of a finely tuned coverage plan aimed at inciting the channel's estimated 35-million Arabic-speaking viewers while appearing to be objective.

But top CNN anchor Aaron Brown had a more moderated view of Al-Jazeera's work covering the current war.

"The way I've looked at Al-Jazeera is that it's a resource I'm glad we have," said Brown, who has emerged as the ubiquitous face of Western terrorism and war news coverage thanks to CNN's global reach.

"They need to be viewed in the context of the audience they're dealing with," he added. "They're doing things no one else in the Arab world is doing. At least these guys are talking to Colin Powell and Condi Rice; they're carrying the Pentagon briefings. Are they perfect in the way an American audience might expect? Perhaps not. But it is a window to the Arab world to hear the American position."

Indeed, when Jreisat and I sat down to watch a little Al-Jazeera a few weeks ago, I couldn't help marveling at how they had adopted Western approaches.

Correspondents and anchors were dressed in conservative suits, except for one female reporter who covered a story in a country that required traditional garb. The presentation was muted and matter-of-fact, imported straight from the BBC's no-frills, no-nonsense approach.

At the same time on CNN, the news of the day focused on the American economy, anthrax concerns (the New York hospital worker who had contracted pulmonary anthrax in a still unknown way had just died) and the new latitude the U.S. Congress had just handed law enforcement in pursuing those suspected of domestic terrorism.

But Al-Jazeera was focused on the deaths of several Palestinians killed that day by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories (in the news channel's coverage, they are often called "martyrs.") Its reports were filled with quotes from surviving relatives and witnesses who contended the killings were reprisals for the assassination of an Israeli government official weeks before.

In these stories, the Israeli army was called an "occupation force" -- a term American media rarely use. Reports referring to bin Laden also called him an "accused terrorist," a distinction between accusation and proof that American media also rarely make.

Perhaps because we were watching their afternoon newscast, I didn't see many of the one-sided moves reported in the New York Times story: the glamorous photo of bin Laden in the background of the channel's main set; the call-in shows featuring anti-American and anti-Zionist rhetoric; a focus on anti-American and anti-Western public protests.

Compared side by side, CNN and Al-Jazeera both seemed deeply rooted in their home cultures. CNN's war coverage, headlined "America's New War," features images of U.S. flags waving in a wind.

Al-Jazeera's logo, rendered in an ornate Arabic script, emerges from a pool of water in an eye-catching computer graphic.

Supporters have complimented Al-Jazeera's comprehensive coverage of the war in Afghanistan, particularly before the Taliban retreats last week that allowed Western journalists access to more of the country. Now, it's Al-Jazeera that's on the run, with reporters in Afghanistan fleeing Northern Alliance troops, who see them as Taliban sympathizers.

True enough, the channel's habit of airing unedited comments by bin Laden and Taliban officials leaves it open to broadcasting false boasts and misinformation. Good journalism is often much more than just airing two sides of an issue.

USF's Jreisat said Al-Jazeera has also been criticized by Arab viewers for presenting Israeli statements in a similar way. Still, according to the BBC, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in early October asked the emir of Qatar to exert influence on the news channel and pull back its more anti-American elements -- an ironic move, coming from an official of a country with a free press of its own.

In America, CNN and other news outlets have found themselves pulled in two directions: criticized by conservative news viewers for giving too much airtime to bin Laden and revealing too much about American military strategy, but faulted by others for going too far in supporting U.S. positions.

And at a time when media outlets are facing record revenue shortfalls -- thanks to a slumping U.S. economy, advertiser reticence following the terrorist attacks and the increased expense of covering a war -- no one wants to be labelled unpatriotic by viewers.

"Part of the problem is . . . we're often left with, 'Here's what the Pentagon says' and 'Here's what the Taliban says' -- and I don't treat them as equals," said CNN's Brown. "So when (reporters) ask, 'How's the war going?' Well, there's sometimes no objective way to verify that."

According to the Washington Post, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson told his staff to balance images of civilian casualties in Afghanistan with reminders of Americans killed in the U.S. terrorist attacks, saying it seems "perverse to focus too much on the casualties and hardship in Afghanistan."

Similarly, Al-Jazeera has been criticized for focusing too much on civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

That hints at the biggest gripe even moderate Arabs have with the U.S. news media: We don't seem to value lives in the Middle East at the same level we value Americans.

"In the Islamic world (after the September terrorist attacks in the United States), there was a hope that the death of Islamic people would be given the same weight . . . that we would somehow change and come close to an understanding that we're all people," said Ian Docherty, producer of national programs for Boston's public radio station WBUR-FM, which posts an English translation of Al-Jazeera's 3:30 p.m. newscast daily at www.wbur.org/special/specialcoverage/feature_aljaz.asp.

"(But) the West is willing to find religious and moral justifications for bombing," he added. "So (Al-Jazeera) returns to the normal dynamic . . . an examination of how the West has oppressed them."

Docherty also finds Al-Jazeera's straight reporting of Taliban claims troubling.

"But within the framework of a very closed society, they're doing something remarkable," he said. "In the same way journalists in England, Ireland and the U.S. are struggling with objectivity, so is Al-Jazeera. And I don't think they're doing any worse a job."

As we left the coffee shop, Jreisat noted that, although he doesn't get Al-Jazeera at his home now, he's considering it.

His reasoning is simple: "When everybody is angry with them, to me, it means they're doing something right."

- Material from Times wires and files was used in this report. To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com.

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