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Who’s Afraid of Al-Jazeera?

When Al-Jazeera announced in early January that it was edging its way more aggressively into the American market (through the purchase of Al Gore’s fairly moribund channel, Current TV, for $500 million), the news was met with a predictable dollop of fear and loathing. Bill O’Reilly jumped to call the Qatari-based channel “anti-American.” Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the media watchdog CAMERA Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America depicted the move as a possible threat to national security. The ADL’s Abraham Foxman hitched his worry onto a critique of the channel’s Arabic-language station, which, he said allows “all manner of virulent anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic extremists access to its airwaves.”

If this reaction was predictable, I still found it surprising. I thought that at least these ready-to-pounce critics would have taken a breath and waited to see exactly what Al-Jazeera had to offer an American audience. After all, it announced plans to create an entirely new channel known as Al-Jazeera America, which would gather 60% of its content from a series of U.S.-based bureaus, and 40% from Al-Jazeera’s already existing English-language channel, which Foxman himself characterized as less problematic. Even Time Warner Cable, which had shut down Current TV’s programming in response to the news, turned around and said it would keep “an open mind” about broadcasting the new channel.

But how could it be any other way? Even the inkling that a news channel that has a possibly, slightly alternative narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might enter the airwaves was bound to be perceived as a threat.

The recent nomination battles over President Obama’s choice for defense secretary and head of the CIA show that it doesn’t take much to be perceived as hostile to that dominant narrative. The pro-Israel right has scoured the records of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for any indication that their views on Israel were anything left of Avigdor Lieberman’s. Hagel provided lots of fodder. Brennan presented a tougher case, but soon a speech emerged, given at New York University in February 2010, in which Brennan — Obama’s homeland security adviser at the time — uttered the following: “In all my travels, the city I have come to love most is al-Quds, Jerusalem, where three great faiths come together.” His crime, apparently, was using the words “al-Quds,” the Arabic name for Jerusalem, which is, coincidently, printed on every road sign in Israel directing people to the holy city.

That’s not even fear of another narrative. It’s more extreme than that. It’s fear that the categories already comfortably established could be mixed up in any way: Israel, Jewish, Hebrew equal good; Palestine, Muslim, Arabic equal bad.

So given this hair-trigger response to the mere mention of Jerusalem’s Arabic name, Al-Jazeera never had a shot at even trying to win over those most invested in the wall that exists around these simplistic dichotomies.

But what about the rest of us? Can the channel truly be the CNN of the Arab world, an outlet that might offer us a different — dare we say Arab — perspective on the stories in our own backyard?

Let’s not imagine that Al-Jazeera, until 2011 owned by the government of Qatar and still not entirely editorially independent, doesn’t have a credibility gap to overcome when presenting itself as anywhere near a serious news station. The impression that the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera projects some of the most violent and anti-Western tendencies of the Arab street has a basis in reality. It is to Al-Jazeera that Osama bin Laden released his recorded messages. And, just to list one particularly egregious example, in 2008 the channel’s Beirut bureau threw an on-air bash for the release by Israel of Samir Kuntar, the Palestinian Liberation Front member who in 1979 kidnapped an Israeli family, killing the father and his 4-year-old daughter, whose head he smashed in with a rock.

The English-language channel, however, has kept the Arab populism at bay. In fact, there are many American media analysts who consider it to be a reliable and useful news source, covering events — like the fall of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak — in a much more comprehensive and serious way than Western outlets. Robert Kaplan, a national correspondent for magazine The Atlantic magazine, praised the channel, writing that it “is what the internationally minded elite class really yearns for: a visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously.”

There is every reason to think that Al-Jazeera America will continue in this direction; it’s the best chance it has at building an audience. And if it does, there is nothing to be scared of.

Even if the channel’s reporting is slightly leavened with its particular political perspective — what Kaplan calls a “middle of the road, developing world viewpoint” — this won’t be a bad thing. After all, wrapping news up in a point of view is exactly what Fox News and MSNBC already do quite successfully. If done responsibly, Al-Jazeera could introduce the possibility that other narratives exist to challenge our orthodoxies, those tired old categories. If we are really interested in America having an open marketplace of ideas, each jostling against the other, with the best ideas prevailing on their own merit — a notion O’Reilly and Foxman would surely support — then what would be so worrisome about throwing Al-Jazeera into the mix?

Gal Beckerman, the Forward’s opinion editor, writes a monthly column about the media. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @galbeckerman


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