Media Politics: News or Propaganda?

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by Jonathan Lawson

Hafiz al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief of the Qatar-based satellite news network al-Jazeera, asks of his own channel, are our broadcasts news or propaganda? but he asks the same question of CNN, ABC and other US broadcast networks.

"One man’s news is another man’s propaganda; it depends on your perspective," al-Mirazi observed at the outset of a Seattle talk last month. Reacting to differences between al-Jazeera’s coverage of international affairs and that of US corporate broadcasters such as CNN, commentators and newscasters for the US networks have accused al-Jazeera of being propagandists for one or another Arab state.

Al-Jazeera’s rising viewership among Arabic-speaking audiences around the world has been due to its contrast not with US corporate media, however, but with the government-controlled media in Arab states. Supported financially by the relatively liberal government of Qatar (in a 5-year agreement modeled after the BBC), the network is set up to be independent of outside control.

Al-Mirazi said that, actually, the American criticisms of Jazeera broadcasts as propaganda were quite similar to those made by the government-controlled Arab media. "When we put out something that really challenges a government version of the truth, then we are accused of being anti-Saudi, anti-Egyptian, and after Sept. 11, some people say anti-American."

During the war in Afghanistan, al-Jazeera had an arrangement to share its comprehensive video footage with CNN and ABC. While the networks were eager for Jazeera footage of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, "we found there was no enthusiasm for civilian casualties footage...not kids injured, and bodies from the carpet bombing."

As it turned out, CNN’s chairman had decreed that footage of Afghan civilian casualties was to be avoided; and if aired, it should be "balanced" with reminders of American victims of 9/11. Al-Mirazi criticized the supposed moral equivalency pursued by this policy. "News organizations should not take sides in any conflict, villifying one person or one side, and refusing to air their views." Bush officials had also strongly criticized Jazeera’s decision to run edited video statements by Osama bin Laden, on the grounds that they might contain coded messages. "This is really ridiculous, especially coming from the leader of the free world," said al-Mirazi, who had worked for the Voice of America during the Iran-Contra affair, at which time the National Security Agency was in fact using VOA to send coded messages to Iran concerning illegal arms shipments.

"I think that the news media have a mission: to write both sides of the story," said al-Mirazi, "and not to make themselves the custodian or the guardian of the viewers--it’s up to them to decide which version to believe." Al-Mirazi described how people in rural Egypt gather their news, first tuning in to a local broadcast, then to another broadcast from a neighboring town, then to another originating further away. Listening to each of several different news perspectives, al-Mirazi explained, listeners weigh the relative importance of the stories in each broadcast and sort out conflicting interpretations, in essence each creating their own "newscast." Al-Mirazi suggested that this kind of comparative news-gathering was crucial to getting an accurate picture of international events.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey