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Sunday
Jan132013

US & Middle East Opinion: Sense and Sensibility About Al Jazeera America

When it comes to America and the Middle East, subtlety has long been out of fashion. The discourse around the Arabic news outlet Al Jazeera is not bringing it back.

In fairness --- if that's the right word ---, the network is wildly complex, operating on every continent, employing journalists and producers from a myriad of backgrounds, and receiving its funding in opaque, even mysterious ways. These are hard things to explain, so it is much easier and more re-tweetable to either stigmatise the outlet as a terrorist mouthpiece or eulogise it for providing real news that American networks refuse to broadcast.

This is a fool’s choice, of course, but it is a choice ever more prevalent in the wake of Al Jazeera’s purchase of the US outlet Current TV. Owned in part by former Vice President Al Gore, Current has gone through a variety of branding strategies over the years, the most recent of which has been a left-leaning public affairs model.

The sale of Current to Al Jazeera has thus energised right-wing critics such as the Islam-bashing Pam Geller, who have long made a hobby of comparing Democrats with Stalinists, equating Arabs with Jihadists, and then warning the rest of us about the rise of Islamo-Communist Fascism.

It is not worth refuting Geller's raving about a “Leftist Jihadist” conspiracy in any detail, since her vague accusations are based on nothing more than selective readings of Al Jazeera by people no less biased than herself. All the same, there is a danger in this acquisition, particularly for left-leaning Americans.

It is tempting to accept Al Jazeera as a model of liberal news-making. For starters, it is hard not to like something that the Gellers of the world hate so much. Then there is Al Jazeera's marketing as a “voice of the voiceless” and a “voice of the South”, aligning itself broadly with an anti-imperial worldview that is deeply engrained in both the American and European left. In many cases the station has shown itself willing to provide counter-narratives that give expression to disempowered people across the globe, ranging from Egyptian political protesters to Baltimore public school students.

Easy labels never really fit when it comes to media entities, however, and Al Jazeera is no exception. Round-the-clock news is exorbitantly expensive to make, and no one does it as an act of charity. Although it is not entirely clear how Al Jazeera pays all its bills, it seems clear that the station benefits from keeping at bay the Qatari Government and its allies, including the US. The station has had a spotty record in covering stories, such as the Bahraini uprising, that threaten the interests of Gulf monarchies. Far from promoting Islamic "radicals", Al Jazeera has a natural bias towards the conservative, often despotic, Arab regimes that America has long supported in the Middle East.

Al Jazeera's news comes with a vantage point and a set of interests, as is the case with all media outlets. The discerning viewer certainly has much to gain by watching it, but liberals should be careful to avoid the assumption that the enemy of Pam Geller is necessarily a friend.

There is little doubt that Al Jazeera’s astounding $500 million bid for Current TV was motivated in part because the latter’s liberal viewers were the most likely American constituency to give the Arab giant a chance. And a chance --- rather than an unquestioning devotion --- is exactly what it deserves.

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