Al-Jazeera International: A CNN for the Developing World

By Lawrence Pintak

On its first day of broadcasting, Al-Jazeera International provided a fast-paced, first-rate lens to the Middle East and Africa. It also proved that it was indeed different from the BBC and CNN -- by ignoring some of the world's most-important news events.

Washington-based Al Jazeera anchors Ghida Fakhry (2nd L) and Dave Marash (2nd R) prepare to go live on the first day for Al Jazeera English.
REUTERS

Washington-based Al Jazeera anchors Ghida Fakhry (2nd L) and Dave Marash (2nd R) prepare to go live on the first day for Al Jazeera English.

Call it the Un-CNN. Imagine the BBC devoting 24 hours to special coverage of Africa and the Middle East. Picture that and it will give you a sense of the first day of broadcasting for al-Jazeera International (AJI), the English-language cousin of the channel the Bush administration loves to hate.

AJI has the look and feel of the BBC and rival Sky News. The visual identity -- graphics, backdrops, audio stingers, precise English and overall pacing -- are all straight from the BBC. There's an obvious reason for the similarity: Three-quarters of the on-air staff, and most of the management, come from British and American networks.

Al-Jazeera’s critics have been waiting with sharpened knives for evidence of anti-American or anti-Israeli bias on the new channel, but none of that was evident in the first day of broadcasting. One thing was apparent, though: A self-conscious, sometimes excruciating, emphasis on being the non-Western voice. Like the old 7-Up campaign that positioned the lemon-lime soda as the alternative to Coca-Cola, al-Jazeera International is perhaps trying too hard to show it does not have the Western-centricism of CNN, the BBC and their counterparts.

Make no mistake, it is refreshing to see stories from largely ignored corners of the world, but on Day One, they came at the expense of other important developments, whether in the United States, Europe or Japan.

Carefully balanced coverage

Two news stories dominated coverage -- the elections in Congo and the pair of rocket attacks on Israeli targets that left one dead and several injured. Coverage of the Middle East story was carefully balanced, with reports from both sides. The piece from the Israel-based reporter showed footage of the coffin of an Israeli woman who was killed and bloody images of a 17-year-old man injured in the second attack. No one mentioned “martyrs” or “terrorists.” In fact, a report from Iraq employed the aggressively neutral term “guerrillas.”

The weakness was not in bias but in the breadth and depth of news coverage. The day was feature heavy. A handful of "exclusive" interviews, including one with Congo's president-elect Joseph Kabila, were endlessly -- indeed agonizingly -- repeated. Breaking news -- with the exception of the Palestinian rocket attack in Israel -- was the exception, rather than the rule. A timeless feature about suicides among members of a small tribe in Brazil looped throughout the day. So, too, an interview with a United Nations official about stolen passports. Not exactly coverage that will change the world.

Still, it was gratifying to see a reporter standing in Darfur reporting on the largely ignored genocide. Ditto a rare dispatch from Robert Mugabi’s Zimbabwe. It was equally gratifying not to see coverage of Michael Jackson performing in London. However, the absence -- in the hours this writer tuned in, at least -- of any mention of many stories that dominated coverage elsewhere in the world was striking: the Congressional testimony of the US commander in Iraq, the tsunami in Japan, John McCain entering the US presidential race, or anything in Europe.

Aside from the Israel-Palestine piece and a report from Iraq, one of the few breaking news stories in the early hours was a speech by the Qatari foreign minister, which raises obvious red flags about the channel’s obligation to its financial benefactors.

An emphasis on the developing world

In a recent interview, the director general of the al-Jazeera channels, Wadah Khanfar, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the new English channel would have a “global” perspective with an emphasis on the so-called “South” or developing world. That was obvious in the coverage. But on Day One, it was as if the “North” ceased to exist. So, too, Asia.

Much hype from al-Jazeera’s PR machine has focused on the fact that the channel has a rolling broadcast day, with programs originating from Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Washington D.C. and London as prime-time moves around the globe. But as daylight fell on Asia, AJI remained preoccupied with the Middle East, Africa and that one small tribe in Brazil. At noon in Kuala Lumpur, the anchor led the hour by taking “a glimpse back at some of the day’s news and how we covered those stories,” which consisted of a somewhat disjointed series of edited highlights from coverage earlier in the day. An hour later, exactly that same half-hour taped segment was repeated. If there was any news in Asia -- like a tsunami in Japan for a start -- viewers couldn’t tell from watching AJI.

Al-Jazeera’s flacks are certainly right about the failure of Western networks to adequately cover the developing world, but, in its first day at least, the channel was in danger of trading a Western-centric view of the world for one preoccupied with the Middle East and Africa.

Growing pains

Much stronger than news coverage were the current affairs offerings. Under AJI’s format, the first half of every hour is devoted to news and the second half is a current affairs broadcast. Riz Khan, who has had previous stints at CNN and the BBC, interviewed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres (though it was more a series of short speeches than an interview); “101 East” focused on Taiwan politics; and “Every Woman” looked at skin bleaching in Africa and the plight of a woman whose husband is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. But weaknesses existed even there. Much of the material is purchased from freelancers and what promised to be an interesting edition of “Witness” about Iraq’s oil consisted largely of a segment shot by an Australian filmmaker embedded with the Australian navy in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2005. It had a very dated feel.

The station promises to provide a slightly different take on the Middle East. Here, a Wednesday screen grab of Al Jazeera's coverage of the Gaza Blockade.
REUTERS

The station promises to provide a slightly different take on the Middle East. Here, a Wednesday screen grab of Al Jazeera's coverage of the Gaza Blockade.

There were obvious growing pains, such as an anchor in Asia introducing the wrong reporter for that ever-present Brazil segment and jarring transitions in the edited segments of coverage from earlier in the day. But that’s all part of the shakeout. There are a few bigger questions: Can the channel hold its own when a major news story breaks, or is it destined to be a Third World feature service with very splashy graphics? And, will it continue trying to serve as a counterbalance to the Amero- and Euro-centric coverage of the Western networks or will it find its own balance between the two?

Lawrence Pintak is director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo. His latest book is Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas.

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