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With Al-Jazeera's American Challenge Comes Responsibility

posted on: Jul 6, 2009

On July 1, media relations between the Arab world and the United States took a fascinating turn. For the first time, the Doha-based satellite television station Al-Jazeera began bringing its English-language news service to a large cable television audience in America, beginning in Washington DC and then moving to other US cities.

As the company’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, recently explained, the station is now expected to reach 2.3 million American viewers through MHZ Networks, a Washington area cable teelvision provider. This new situation will give it the potential to effect significant change in US-Arab relations. Though Al-Jazeera International launched English-language programming in November 2006, it was not picked up by major US cable providers because of the widespread view that its coverage went against American objectives. This new decision marks a cultural shift.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, Al-Jazeera frequently featured critical coverage of American foreign policy. Routinely, US government and military officials have criticized the station for what they – and many Americans – perceived to be biased coverage and an inflammatory tone adopted in its programs.

While many Americans and Arabs hold widely divergent views of the television station, President Barack Obama sent a clear message to Al-Jazeera by granting his first interview upon entering the White House to Al-Jazeera’s more nuanced Saudi-owned competitor Al-Arabiya. What he effectively told the station is: You should be objective when covering American stories.

As the president said, he seeks a fresh relationship, one “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect” and “upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.” The new Obama administration has taken the lead seeking to advance cooperation and understanding. In order to promote constructive dialogue along similar lines, Al-Jazeera must follow suit.

Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the United States has yet to offer viewers a complete picture of American society. Since September 11, 2001, interest in America has risen noticeably in the Arab world. Few Arab media outlets, however, have satisfied this growing demand. Everyone reports on America the “superpower,” but few report on America as the complex, diverse and democratic society that it is. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the United States and its policies has tended to reflect a limited understanding of the country’s inner workings or its history. This has created a skewed image of America in the Arab world – one which must be adjusted.

Of course, Al-Jazeera’s enormous success in the Middle East has come about in a satellite news environment with little real competition. The United States, on the other hand, has a plethora of diverse media outlets. For Al-Jazeera to keep up with CNN or NBC or other American networks, the new cable station will have to make serious improvements. This means providing real insight into domestic US politics – not oversimplification.

Issues such as the role of religion within the United States and the decision-making process behind foreign policy decisions are of real interest to the Arab community. Al-Jazeera should extend its coverage beyond the immediate concerns of Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict to provide more nuanced, quality journalism to the viewership it will attract.

Biased or not, Al-Jazeera has secured a front-row seat in the international media arena, right next to CNN and BBC. More importantly, Al-Jazeera has a huge influence in shaping the opinions and perspectives of Arab audiences. In order to compete in a larger new market like that in the United States, the station’s influence must be used to foster understanding and build bridges between the US and the Arab world, not to further miscommunication.

Arabs are used to foreign media penetrating their living rooms: from BBC’s Arabic service, to Russia Today, to France 24, to the State Department funded Al-Hurra and the Iranian Al-Alam. Yet today, Al-Jazeera controls much of the news that the Arab community receives, capturing a large Arab audience.

Yet with such success comes responsibility. Cable access in America provides a big opportunity for Al-Jazeera: let us hope that its leadership takes up the challenge of providing more probing, more multifaceted analysis that provides a more accurate and comprehensive picture of what is happening on both sides.

Mohamed Elmenshawy
The Daily Star