Has anyone watched the English-language version of Al Jazeera lately? The Qatar-based Arab TV channel’s eclectic internationalism—a feast of vivid, pathbreaking coverage from all continents—is a rebuke to the dire predictions about the end of foreign news as we know it. Indeed, if Al Jazeera were more widely available in the United States—on nationwide cable, for example, instead of only on the Web and several satellite stations and local cable channels—it would eat steadily into the viewership of The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Al Jazeera—not Lehrer—is what the internationally minded elite class really yearns for: a visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously.
Over just a few days in late May, when I actively monitored Al Jazeera (although I watched it almost every evening during a month in Sri Lanka), I was treated to penetrating portraits of Eritrean and Ethiopian involvement in the Somali war, of the struggle of Niger River rebels against the Nigerian government in the oil-rich south of the country, of the floods in Bangladesh, of problems with the South African economy, of the danger that desertification poses to Bedouin life in northern Sudan, of the environmental devastation around the Aral Sea, of Sikh violence in India after an attack on a temple in Austria, of foreign Islamic fighters in the southern Philippines, of microfinancing programs in Kenya, of rigged elections in South Ossetia, of human-rights demonstrations in Guatemala, and of much more. Al Jazeera covered the election campaigns in Lebanon and Iran in more detail than anyone else, as well as the Somali war and the Pakistani army offensive in the Swat Valley. There was, too, an unbiased one-hour documentary about the Gemayel family of Christian politicians and warlords in Lebanon, and a half-hour-long investigation of the displacement of the poor from India’s new economic zones.
The fact that Doha, Qatar’s capital, is not the headquarters of a great power liberates Al Jazeera to focus equally on the four corners of the Earth rather than on just the flash points of any imperial or post-imperial interest. Outlets such as CNN and the BBC don’t cover foreign news so much as they cover the foreign extensions of Washington’s or London’s collective obsessions. And Al Jazeera, rather than spotlighting people who are loaded with credentials but often have little to say, has the knack of getting people on air who have interesting things to say, like the brilliant, no-name Russian analyst I heard explaining why both Russia and China need the current North Korean regime because it provides a buffer state against free and democratic South Korea.
Al Jazeera is also endearing because it exudes hustle. It constantly gets scoops. It has had gritty, hands-on coverage across the greater Middle East, from Gaza to Beirut to Iraq, that other channels haven’t matched. Its camera crew, for example, was the first to beam pictures from Mingora, the main town of Swat, enabling Al Jazeera to confirm that the Pakistani military had, in fact, prevailed there over the Taliban.
VIDEO: Al Jazeera beams the first pictures out of Mingora
And Al Jazeera also excels at opening your mind. I have spent the past two years reporting from the Indian Ocean region, dealing predominantly with Muslims and indigenous nongovernmental organizations; watching Al Jazeera is the vicarious equivalent of engaging in the kinds of conversations I have been having. One of the multitude of problems I have with Fox News is that even its most analytically brilliant commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer, seem to be scoring points and talking to their own ideological kind rather than engaging in dialogue with others. Watching Fox, you have to wonder whether many of its commentators have ever had a conversation with a real live Muslim abroad.
Of course, Al Jazeera has some overt prejudices. In covering the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, for example, it is clearly on the Palestinian side. Tear-jerking features about the sufferings of the Palestinians are not matched with equal coverage of the Israeli human terrain. What you get from Al Jazeera is the developing-world point of view, or, more specifically, that of the emerging developing-world bourgeoisie; and that outlook is inherently pro-Palestinian, as well as deeply hostile to American military power. You can actually measure President Barack Obama’s partial success in already changing America’s image abroad by the positive coverage he has been getting lately from Al Jazeera.
Overlying Al Jazeera’s pro-Palestinian and anti-Bush sentiment is a breezy, pacifist-trending internationalism. In too many of its reports, the subliminal message appears to be that compromise should be the order of the day. According to Al Jazeera, the politically weak, merely by being so, are automatically in the right. A certain kind of moral equivalency is Al Jazeera’s lifeblood. The history of human suffering seemingly begins and ends with that of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and that of the Iraqis under erstwhile American occupation.
Yet Al Jazeera is forgivable for its biases in a way that the BBC or CNN is not. In the case of Al Jazeera, news isn’t so much biased as honestly representative of a middle-of-the-road developing-world viewpoint. Where you stand depends upon where you sit. And if you sit in Doha or Mumbai or Nairobi, the world is going to look starkly different than if you sat in Washington or London, or St. Louis for that matter. By contrast, in the case of the BBC and CNN, you are explicitly aware that rather than presenting the world as they find it, those channels are taking a distinct side—the left-liberal internationalist side—in an honest and fundamental debate over foreign policy.
Halford Mackinder, the turn-of-the-20th-century father of modern geography, stated that provincialism is very useful, since it prevents the tyranny of the wider, geographical majority. What Mackinder feared, writes one of his biographers, W. H. Parker, was the horizontal organization of the world according to class and cultural and ideological tendencies. Instead, Mackinder promoted a vertical organization of the world by regions and localities. And so, just as American states and individual counties curtail the power of the federal government, other news outlets in various parts of the world may pose the only defense there ever will be against Al Jazeera, which, excellent as it is, has its own developing-world perspective.
Unfortunately, the BBC and CNN don’t have so much a different viewpoint from Al Jazeera’s, as a similar philosophical outlook that is more weakly and dully presented. Then there is Fox, with its jingoistic, meatloaf provincialism straight out of an earlier, black-and-white era. Could Fox cover the world as Al Jazeera does, but from a different, American-nationalist perspective? No, because what makes Fox so provincial is its utter lack of interest in the outside world in the first place, except where that world directly and obviously affects American power. What use does Fox have for Niger River rebels or dispossessed Indian farmers? Thus, we are left with the insidious despotism of Al Jazeera: and it is despotism, because we have really no other serious news channel to turn to.
George Orwell intimated in 1984 that purity can be a form of coercion, and in that respect, I find Al Jazeera’s moral rectitude disturbing. Because its cause is that of the weak and the oppressed, it sees itself as always in the right, regardless of the complexity of the issues, and therein lies its power of oppression. But I will continue watching Al Jazeera wherever I can, because I find it so riveting compared with other news channels. And if my politics crawl to the left as a result, that will be yet more evidence of just how insidious Al Jazeera’s influence is.