In Defense of Al Jazeera: A Response to Marc Ginsberg

Take or leave Al Jazeera, it won't be what gets Jordanians, Egyptians, or Libyans out in the street, the conditions of their countries-and the degree to which their regimes have become despotic-will be.
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Former Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg (during the Years of Lead, it should be noted) has penned a piece for the Huffington Post asking if Qatar-based Al Jazeera has fueled "Tunisteria" (that is, stoked the already-burning fires spreading across the Middle East toward the direction of intifada).

It's a valid question -- that is, if we lived in a vacuum where all media were viewed equally and all peoples and countries viewed along the same plane. But we don't and they're not. The Arab world is viewed with suspicion and distrust by most Americans, including diplomats sent to work in the region (as we've seen from WikiLeaks cables), and its dictators long supported -- whether quietly or outright -- out of fear of Islamist uprising. Democracy in the Middle East is paid lip service, but never truly supported.

In a sense, then -- and putting aside the fact that their reporting of events on the ground in Tunisia has been truly excellent -- Al Jazeera can be seen as taking care of their own, in the same way the US media does. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged that on the Charlie Rose Show last fall, in the midst of praise for the channel:

"I watch Al Jazeera every day... because it's news. I'm not interested in what Lindsay Lohan is doing... I'm interested in news... they're still reporting news. Do they have a slant? Yeah, I think I'm round enough where I can realize what the slant is, but as I said, I'm not interested in the rehabilitation of Lindsay Lohan."

Ginsberg on the other hand, who is no slouch when it comes to Arab media (he speaks the language fluently and is president of the -- pretty cool -- Layalina Productions), writes:

Americans should not underestimate the role that the ever popular Arab news channel Al Jazeera plays in challenging the Arab world's status quo, using events in Tunisia to fuel its favorite political pastime of disgorging its anti-authoritarian editorial bias across all of its media platforms -- much to the anger and hostility of most Arab rulers, particularly those Al Jazeera views as too pro-western (Al Jazeera gives quite a pass to the despotic Syrian regime as well as to its Qatari benefactors).

Key phrase: "Anti-authoritarian editorial bias." In another universe, or a country far far away, one might call that a "pro-democracy editorial bias," or in other words, something possessed by every single mainstream American channel. To put it bluntly, can you imagine MSNBC or CNN (the two "reasonable" and "mainstream" US news stations) ever taking a non-democratic stance? No, you probably can't. On the other hand, why isn't Ginsberg criticizing his own country's Fox News, which surely throws gasoline on the fire of right-wing (American and otherwise) politics on a daily basis? And have any major US stations ever reported fairly on the Middle East? Do they criticize Hosni Mubarak or Ben Ali? Or, for that matter, Israel? The answer is an emphatic "no."

It's also worth noting here that Ginsberg is stretching the facts when he claims that Al Jazeera gives Syria a pass: Syrian opposition leaders are regularly hosted, with at least one individual, Habib Issa, arrested after appearing on the channel. More recently, tensions between Al Jazeera and Syria grew after the station gave an appearance to Mohammed Riyadh Shaqafi, a member of Syria's banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Ginsberg also notes that "Al Jazeera's editorial and opinion commentators are having a field day mesmerizing how a similar spectacle could unfold across other Arab states." While I can't help but note the truth in this, it's not without good reason: Following the Tunisian uprising, no fewer than six youth self-immolated in countries across the Maghreb, from Mauritania to Egypt. Social media -- which may not have overthrown the Tunisian regime, but which certainly assisted the media's coverage, perhaps more than ever before -- is abuzz with talk of who's next. The "Arab street" is indeed talking about change, but should Al Jazeera really get the credit for that? It's not as if anti-authoritarianism is something that emerged in the past month.

Despite Ginsberg's pedigree, it should be noted that he's also a major AIPAC player, something most reasonable people would see as a conflict of interest to democratic ideals in the Arab world. After all, staunch Israel supporters have little interest in disrupting the status quo, particularly in neighboring (and friendly) Egypt and Jordan.

All things considered, it would be irresponsible not to consider Ginsberg's closing argument:

Let's hope that Al Jazeera's penchant for regional anarchy is tempered by cooler heads within Arab democratic dissident ranks who have far more to lose than audience share if they prematurely swallow Al Jazeera's bait.

Though I think "penchant for regional anarchy" is a wee bit of a stretch (okay, an enormous stretch), but Ginsberg is not wrong to wish for "cooler heads" over the next few months, given the real risk in such protests (ask Tunisians if they really thought this would be the time it worked). Nevertheless, take or leave Al Jazeera, it won't be what gets Jordanians, Egyptians, or Libyans out in the street, the conditions of their countries -- and the degree to which their regimes have become despotic -- will be.

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