Monday, June 21, 2004

Audi Partem Alterum

On Al-Jazeera

Having just seen "Control Room" last night, the discussion that followed is fresh in my mind. Is Al-Jazeera's reporting fundamentally biased?

The cheap, obvious answer is yes. Any educated person has opinions, and thus bias. The real question is, do journalists let these opinions influence their work?Obviously they do to some degree or another, and equally obviously, not to the same degree. Can one say that entire institutions are more biased than others? Given a lack of objective truth in many of the areas in which bias is said to shape reporting, it's hard to say, but probably some are less disciplined than others.

One way to monitor bias is to examine processes, another to examine output. On neither can most of us speak authoritatively, as to be able to do so would require far more hours of watching television news than anyone would choose to do. Yet, at least based on this movie (and the comments made by non-al-Jazeera personnel) it seems like the processes compare reasonably with US media best-practices. Certainly Fox News has a poor record of giving open mics to those they criticize.

Making a judgment based on output is far more difficult, as one seldom can separate one's own biases from one's attempt to evaluate said output. Does Al-Jazeera report fairly on the Israel-Palestine conflict? My perspective is no, they do not. They are blinded by the rhetoric of the times, and probably are influenced by the preconceptions of their audience. They focus on one small portion of the overall issue and allow that to dominate their coverage.

I am not Arab. (nor Jewish or Israeli, for that matter) I can't feel the emotional tug of either side of the issue. The bombings in Israel I cannot internalize, nor the horror of having one's home bulldozed. I have neither America's lingering guilt from not doing more in the 40s, nor Europe's guilt over its imperial excesses, now redirected against Israel, whom they and the Arabs see as the last vestige of colonial enterprise. Even so, I am probably biased, shaped by the books I have read, the coverage I have heard, and perhaps even the Muslim imperial legacy in India. If I, so uninvolved with the issue, cannot be objective, who can really say that they can? The point is, al-Jazeera is biased. I am biased. CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, BBC are all biased. Everyone has their conscious axe to grind, their subconscious cognitive dissonance to avoid, and their hapless indoctrination by the society and media around them.

The reader will no doubt point out that the above is all well and good, but comparative levels of spin, and the specific decision to editorialize in news reporting is a whole different issue than normal conditioning of the reporter. This is true, but impossible to arbitrate.

Al-Jazeera showed images of wounded and dead Iraqis. Coalition authorities accused them of soliciting an emotional response. They then showed images of wounded and dead Americans. The Coalition accused them of "violating the Geneva conventions" (which they couldn't do, not being a nation-state.) It is possible that Al-Jazeera in both cases was trying to undermine the Coalition's ability to govern. It is likely that in both cases the Coalition was trying to undermine their credibility. A fan of Al-Jazeera may argue that they were being fair, and simply reporting on the costs of the war. A critic might say that al-Jazeera's actions both times attacked the Coalition's presence in Iraq, and therefore was irredeemably slanted.

In truth, there is no real resolution to this except to say, demand the ideal, expect the worst. Journalism should be sober, rational reporting of the facts, and like all creations of man, will never live up to that charge.

On "Control Room" itself

A fantastic movie, well worth watching. It is a special treat to watch it with a liberal crowd, and hear the audience snigger when Rumsfeld accuses the network of being a mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda, immediately followed by Al-Qaeda condemning them for being a mouthpiece for American Imperialism.

There are many revelations, and a dry sense of humor. The capstone, in my view, was President Bush going on international TV to demand that the Iraqi insurgents who had captured US troops obey the Geneva conventions and follow the US example in treating prisoners in a humane fashion. To our Bible-obsessed president I wish I could say "Matthew 7:4".

Some movie reviews:
New York Times
Washington Post
"Islam Online"
Culture Vulture
Film Threat
New York Post (owned by Murdoch)


At 11:33 AM, [REDACTED] said...

Other highlights of the film:

It might not be news to you, but I was suprised to hear that for many Arab people the Iraq war and the Israel-Palenstine conflict are the same issue. It makes sense. Many voices from that night's discussion (and a few Americans in the film too) said that this view was flat out wrong. However, from one perspective it does appear to be the issue of the West imposing its will upon the Middle East again, and again. Agree or disagree, in that respect... It isn't that hard to see where the idea is coming from.

I personally respect Al-Jazeera for taking criticism on all sides. They have a somewhat different perspective on media, but examples of wanting to always all sides on an issue is something worth praising, not trashing.

At 12:53 PM, [REDACTED] said...

Kate, I don't think the Palestine-Israel conflict is fairly characterized as "the West imposing its will on the Middle East" for a variety of reasons.
Israel isn't a Western creation. It was created by a universal sentiment that a people who had suffered for millenia without a nation deserved one (a sentiment that I hope will someday allow for a Kurdistan, too). In the United Nations vote on partitioning the UK's Palestine Mandate, only one non-Arab country, Cuba, voted against based on arguments (Greece had a substantial population of their nationals in Egypt and bowed to threats of retribution). The whole non-Arab world, West, East, and South, said with one voice "This is a moral imperative." So Israel's existence is not an imposition on the Middle East, and particularly not one foisted thereon by the West.
I also don't think blaming Israel for the conflict (that is, seeing the conflict as imposed by Israel as some sort of representative of the West) is particularly productive. As in most cases, an even-handed observer can find fault on all sides. I'll just point to a few ways Israel and the Palestinian Authority are different:
- Israel has a free, unfettered Arab political party which can get as much power as it earns in a democratic process. The PA does not.
- Israel elects its leaders regularly. Arafat has not run for reelection since 1996.
- Israel has offered concessions and compromises in return for the legitimacy of its existence being recognized by the Arab world. The PA has offered no compromises, and when Arafat was offered 90% of what he wanted he turned it down without even a counteroffer at Camp David in 2000.
- Israel has never cooperated with anti-American terrorist groups. Arafat, of course, has.
- Israel gives millions of dollars a year in economic aid to the PA. The PA does not give millions of dollars a year in economic aid to its own people.

Ther's a host of other stuff - Israel doesn't teach in its schools or print in its state newspapers that Arabs drink the blood of Christian babies, for instance - but the point is this: It is tempting to root for underdogs. It is tempting to sympathize with the less powerful, to assume that the meek are as a result virtuous. It is not, however, always correct, and in this case it certainly isn't.

At 8:54 PM, [REDACTED] said...

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