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The Ombudsman Column

The Al Jazeera Effect

A story on FOXNews.com last week, headlined "Al Jazeera's Presence on PBS Alarms Some" by Eric Shawn, apparently did alarm some of those who saw the story.

Although only four people wrote to me, and all of the e-mails appeared to have come from viewers who had seen the FOX News story rather than the public broadcasting program involved, the episode is interesting because it raises issues of censorship and propaganda.

What follows are some excerpts from the April 8 FOX News report and broadcast and a response from the producer of the program called Worldfocus, which was the subject of the FOX News report. Then comes a letter from a person in Boston (who asked that his name not be used) that encapsulates the arguments against the use, on occasion, of film and reports from Al Jazeera English (AJE), the English-language off-shoot of the original Arabic language TV network, along with clips from many other international news organizations on the program. Worldfocus, which started seven months ago, is a half-hour, five-nights-a-week program of global news.

I also stick my two cents in at the end, but I should say at the beginning that I do not agree with the critics on this one.

First, the FOX News Story

The story was introduced online this way: "PBS' new program, WorldFocus, airs international reports from Al Jazeera's English channel, leading some lawmakers to declare that PBS, which is partly funded by taxpayer dollars, should not be promoting Al Jazeera."

Correspondent Shawn then reported: "Al Jazeera television is known for airing Islamic extremist videos and even hosted an on-air birthday celebration for convicted Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar who murdered four Israelis in 1979. 'It is a professional institution but it is a militant institution that wants to convey an ideological Jihadi message,' said Walid Phares, a terrorism analyst for FOX News.

"Critics charge that the Jihadist message now is making its way to public broadcasting in America. PBS' new program, WorldFocus, airs international reports from Al Jazeera's English channel — one of many foreign broadcasters, like England's ITN and Israel's Channel 10, included in the newscast.

"But according to some in Congress, there is little difference between Al Jazeera's networks that broadcast in Arabic or English and, they say, PBS, which is partially funded by taxpayer dollars, is recklessly promoting Al Jazeera by airing the segments.

"'My concern is that the American people should be pretty darn upset about the fact that their tax dollars are going to fund this,' said Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C. 'I mean, they're already upset about what their tax dollars are going to fund, and now they're funding propaganda.'"

The program then reported that "WorldFocus declined an interview on its use of Al Jazeera reports but sent a statement," and included portions of that statement in the news broadcast. I won't repeat them here because they are printed in full below.

Three Points

I have three quick points to interject here:

First, the story says "according to some in Congress," but there is only one person quoted, Rep. Myrick. I have no doubt that there are others who would object if they were told anything with Al Jazeera in the name was appearing on U.S. television, let alone PBS. But the segment, as broadcast, leaves me wondering whether even Rep. Myrick knew about this or had ever seen the program or, rather, was told about it by the reporter and asked for comment. I don't know that, but that's the way it came across to me.

Second, while a critic of AJE is interviewed, there is no sense that AJE has its defenders in the U.S. press. For example, when David Marash, a veteran U.S. TV correspondent and former substitute host for ABC's "Nightline" program, resigned in March 2008 after less than two years as the first Washington anchor for AJE, he was critical about what he considered at the time to be signs of bias emerging from the network's planning desks in the Doha, Qatar, headquarters when it came to stories about the U.S. But he also told the Columbia Journalism Review that globally "Al Jazeera sets a very, very high reporting standard" and that "in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Asia, on Al Jazeera. You see state-of-the-art, world-class reporting . . ."

Third, Worldfocus is not, technically, a PBS program and it is not distributed by PBS. The program is produced by a company named Creative News Group in New York City for WNET.org in New York and presented by WLIW on Long Island, N.Y. Both of those are member stations of PBS but this program is not a part of the core National Program Service of PBS and PBS, as an organization, has nothing to do with it. Rather it is distributed by American Public Television, which is actually older than PBS, and is another source of programming for the nation's public television stations.

Worldfocus Responds

Here's the response to the FOX News report by Marc Rosenwasser, executive producer of Worldfocus:

"Al Jazeera English is one of many partners Worldfocus uses to help provide American viewers with a unique perspective on international news. Among the others are Channel 10 of Israel, ITN of Britain, Deutsche Welle of Germany, TV Globo of Brazil, Africa 24, ABC of Australia, Link TV (which is an aggregator of Middle Eastern news channels), the new website Globalpost, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, ABC and NBC. We also occasionally interview reporters from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

"We typically pay our most regular contributors but not occasional partners. We do not pay Al Jazeera English and we have not used packages from the Arabic-language Al Jazeera network. With all contributions from our partners, including Al Jazeera English, we reserve the right to edit content — and we often do.

"Though many people who have not seen Al Jazeera English think of it as a propaganda machine for Islamic extremist causes, much of what it produces is not ideological and much is not even from that part of the world. Certainly, the vast majority of what Worldfocus has aired from AJE has not been ideological at all. Among the pieces we have taken from Al Jazeera this month are features about Tibetan monks living under Chinese rule, the opening of the Syrian stock market, elections in El Salvador, a dispute in Malaysia about what language should be used to teach science and math, Italians no longer visiting their once-favorite vacation destination in Kenya because of the global recession, and the opening of the 'killing fields' genocide trials in Cambodia. Some of these reports come from former American television network correspondents and producers.

"We also believe Al Jazeera English does sometimes offer us and our viewers a unique perspective from various parts of the world where it has access that others don't. During the war in Gaza, we frequently aired reports from Gaza from AJE. We typically paired those reports with reports from our Israeli partner, Channel 10. With that approach, we saw both sides at once. We have also taken a number of spots from Al Jazeera English from Afghanistan, where it has interviewed Islamic militants, and from Pakistan, particularly from the Swat Valley, where the Taliban recently took control from the pro-Western government. We believe there is value in seeing what is going on around the world, even if the news is bad. Ignoring bad news does not make it go away."

And Here's the Letter from Boston

"The decision of the PBS program 'Worldfocus' to include material submitted by Al Jazeera English is contrary to PBS' Editorial Standards.

"Mr. Getler, I have seen Al Jazeera English. It is most definitely a propaganda machine for Islamic extremist causes. At the very core of Al Jazeera's mission is its dedication to advancing an Islamic extremist agenda in whatever way it can, including glorification of even the most abhorrent terrorist behavior, as it did in its birthday celebration for Samir Kuntar, who murdered a little girl's unarmed father in front of her, before bashing her brains in with a rifle. Al Jazeera English markets a more subtle, sanitized version of its Islamist propaganda, but it is Islamist propaganda nonetheless.

"Although I personally have never seen Al Jazeera English coverage of any world event that was not stained by its jihadist bias, I will accept that 'much of what it produces is not ideological.' An argument could be made that WorldFocus should therefore accept content from Al Jazeera English, after carefully inspecting that content for evidence of obvious distortion.

"However, I take issue with that argument, and with WorldFocus' assertion that Al Jazeera English offers an otherwise unavailable perspective. The Arab world is large in population, geographic area, and diversity of journalistic sources. There are other Arab media outlets that have not so thoroughly and repeatedly disgraced themselves as propagandists supporting the most vile of extremists. Any perspective that is uniquely offered by Al Jazeera is virtually guaranteed to be a perspective that stinks of unfairness, inaccuracy, lack of objectivity, and bias. WorldFocus only cheapens itself by relying on a organization that has so thoroughly demonstrated its contempt for journalistic integrity in the past."

Here's Worldfocus Again, Briefly

When I asked Rosenwasser about this letter specifically, he said: "The only thing I would like to add [to his previous statement] is: Our partnership with the 'Mosaic' program of Link TV enables us to get reports from other Arab broadcasters besides Al Jazeera English. In fact, we air these regularly. So Al Jazeera English is hardly our only supplier from that part of the world."

My Thoughts

As I said near the top of this column, I don't agree with the critics about this program. I think it is a plus for American viewers to see and understand what is on Al Jazeera English, and that viewers of public broadcasting are quite able to make up their own minds about whether what they are watching has news value or is propaganda. Worldfocus, as its producer points out, uses material from many news organizations and reserves the right to edit content.

Al Jazeera's pioneering Arabic-language satellite news channel (it started in 1996) has become a huge factor in the Arab world. Tens of millions of people watch it. It dwarfs any other Arab channel, both in audience and coverage. Long gone are the days when Western giants such as CNN and the BBC had a monopoly on international viewers and the prism through which they got the news. It seems to me that it helps Americans to have some idea of what millions of other people are watching and how the news is presented to them.

Al Jazeera does view things through an Arab world prism because that is its main audience. And it also focuses heavily on the civilian costs of war — whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or Gaza. So its filming and reporting became valuable from these regions, even if, at times, they are hard to look at. Yet it is better to know this as part of the mix of reporting, in my view, and to absorb it in context with all the ways we get information, than to have only the often sanitized version of warfare that one gets on American network television.

About AJE

It is difficult to be precise about the size of Al Jazeera English's audience, but it has been estimated at more than 80 million households. More than a half-million Israeli households receive it. AJE, however, has had very little success in penetrating American television and cable distribution companies, which is another story, although it can be watched on the Web.

The tiny and wealthy Persian Gulf country of Qatar, where Al Jazeera is headquartered and gets its financial support from the government there, is actually fairly pro-American, with the United States maintaining a military base outside the capital city of Doha. The news service's top editor has said the network gives far more coverage to the U.S. than it gives to radical Muslim movements and that, "We do not support al-Qaeda's policies. Al Jazeera tries to cover all sides in the U.S. conflict with al-Qaeda. It attempts to balance stories by giving both points of view." Its reporters and camera crews have been kicked out of, or harassed in, many Arab countries.

Although the Bush administration was a harsh critic of Al Jazeera, many of its top officials were interviewed by the network, and last year AJE broadcast an extensive interview with U.S. Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was the first Arab network to broadcast interviews with Israeli officials.

It was a topic of considerable press coverage in January when a newly inaugurated Barack Obama gave his first major TV interview of any kind, as president, to another Arab network, Al Arabiya, even though it reaches a considerably smaller audience than Al Jazeera. Perhaps the White House felt it didn't want to touch, at this point, the lightning rod that is Al Jazeera in some of American public opinion. The questioning the president got from Al Arabiya was quite polite. There were no questions about the just-ended fighting in Gaza, for example.

Al Arabiya, operating out of the nearby United Arab Emirates, was founded in 2003 as something of a more moderate voice than Al Jazeera. But it, too, has its funding linked to government; in this case it is the Saudi Arabian government-controlled Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) that is the major part-owner. So take your pick.

The real test of intense and graphic coverage for these relatively new networks will come, it seems to me, when there is new conflict within the Arab and Muslim worlds, as happened during the long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and when Saddam Hussein used gas against Kurds in Halabja in 1988 and when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.