Assessing the balance of TV news from the Arab world

From the moment fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia, marking the beginning of the current Arab uprisings, the Al Jazeera television network has dominated news coverage of the region, reporting on the revolts from all angles, with correspondents in different locations and news crews in all the hot spots.

Assessing the balance of TV news from the Arab world

While the state-owned media in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya continued to broadcast government propaganda, Al Jazeera—launched by the government of Qatar in 1996—aired demonstrations and protestor demands. They interviewed journalists, poets, intellectuals and students fighting to overthrow the repressive regimes.

Marwan M. Kraidy, an associate professor in the Annenberg School for Communication, says that although he doesn’t credit Al Jazeera with causing the rebellions, the channel has had a decisive role in disseminating unfiltered information.

The majority of Americans, however, cannot watch Al Jazeera on television, nor its sister channel, Al Jazeera English, because most U.S. cable operators do not carry either one. With the exceptions of Toledo, Ohio, Burlington, Vt., and Washington, D.C., Al Jazeera English is not available in the United States.

Kraidy, who also was the founding director of the Arab Media and Public Life project at American University, recently penned an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer arguing that U.S. cable providers should add Al Jazeera English to their lineups.

“Americans are missing out on sophisticated and consistent coverage of parts of the world that CNN and BBC remember only during crises, and then only for the duration of the news cycle,” he wrote.

Cable companies have charged that there is a lack of demand for Al Jazeera English, but Kraidy says he knows from experience that many Americans are interested in seeing the channel, especially since the start of the unrest in the Arab world.

“There’s definitely more attention being paid to [Al Jazeera English] in the United States,” he says. “Several prominent journalists have written about it as the go-to place to get really good, thorough, systematic news about the uprisings.”

In a Feb. 16 blog post, The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin applauded Al Jazeera English for its “live, round-the-clock streaming coverage” of the Egypt uprisings, and said it distinguishes itself with “a refreshing lack of strong personalities gumming up the transmissions—giving viewers some relief from the perfume of egocentrism that emanates from our cable news channels.”

At a March Congressional hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers, “Like it or hate it, [Al Jazeera] is really effective. And in fact, viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news.”

Kraidy says politics play a role in the unavailability of Al Jazeera English in the United States, particularly negative stereotypes about its Arabic-language sibling, which some have dubbed “Bin Laden TV.” He says both channels are balanced in their own way, with the English version offering more consistency. (In 2005, British tabloid the Daily Mirror reported that President George W. Bush planned to bomb Al Jazeera “in Qatar and elsewhere,” but was talked out of it by United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair.)

The question of why most American cable networks will not carry Al Jazeera English has recently received enough attention to have entered the realm of late-night television comedy. Ayman Mohyeldin, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, was a guest on Comedy Central’s faux newscast “The Cobert Report” on March 22.

“We’ve got like 17 Showtimes and a channel for pets, how come, if you guys aren’t dangerous, you’re not on any of our channels here?” asked comedian and host Stephen Colbert.

“People come to Al Jazeera because they get good international news,” Mohyeldin responded. “The reality of it is these cable companies, which are not carrying Al Jazeera, are sadly helping contribute to the misinformation that is happening in this country.”

Kraidy says he has noticed an increased awareness about Al Jazeera English and a shift in American opinions about the channel between its launch in 2006 and 2011.

Shortly after the channel first aired, he appeared on the PBS “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” explaining its mission.

“I got hate mail in my email box,” he says. “And I wasn’t really defending the channel.”

But after his Inquirer op-ed, he says he received only positive emails. In many ways, Kraidy says the United States is the exception in rejecting Al Jazeera English.

“Everywhere else in the world people have access to this, and I think it’s only to our detriment that we don’t,” he says. “It’s another source of information. Name one media organization that doesn’t have a bias. The key is to have a plurality of voices and be able to make up your mind.”

Originally published on April 7, 2011