Al Jazeera: Ideology or Profit?

by Laura Snedeker

The highlight of the Washington Post’s Style section today was “Al-Jazeera’s English Face,” an article on David Marash, a former Nightline correspondent who is now the Washington anchor for al-Jazeera English (AJE). He’s been roundly criticized by conservatives for what they see as something practically amounting to treason.

Criticism of al-Jazeera is always cast in ideological terms: "Al-Jazeera is a terrorist network. Al-Jazeera broadcasts hateful anti-Western propaganda to Muslims around the world." And it does frequently air the tapes of senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden and more recently Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But that doesn’t make it a “terrorist network” any more than an American network showing a speech by the president makes that network “pro-American.” American networks often show bias in other ways, but the simple airing of a speech isn’t necessarily a show of support for its content. This argument is also difficult to understand given that a new al-Qaeda tape is always the top story in the United States, from the moment it’s discovered right through its verification by the CIA.

The real problem with al-Jazeera is that it brings not only a different viewpoint but a different set of facts to Muslims across the Middle East and around the world. The executives at CNN aren’t necessarily worried that if a Muslim in Indonesia sees footage of American soldiers killing Muslims in Iraq that he might strap on a suicide vest and blow himself up in front of the American embassy. They’re worried he might turn off CNN.

And now that an English-language network will be delivering news from a non-Western viewpoint to English-speaking Muslims, they’re even more worried. What happens to CNN’s profits (or FOX’s or the BBC’s) if people identify more with the viewpoint and stories presented by al-Jazeera English?

It’s quite fortunate for the major American networks that the major cable and satellite services refuse to carry it in the United States, however it’s unfortunate for Americans -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It would be enlightening for many people to be able to watch a network that broadcasts something other than Western news from a Western viewpoint, especially given that the majority of American TV news and newspapers give scant coverage to international events that do not directly concern Americans.

For those who are interested, however, AJE will begin streaming over the Internet. Hopefully, if gains in popularity and is able to overcome the stigma associated with al-Jazeera, it can open the door for other foreign networks in the United States. If cable and satellite companies see a potential market in non-Western media, then they may reconsider. It’s only worthwhile to corporations to refuse a product on an ideological basis when it’s not making a profit.

(For a sample of al Jazeera English's first day of broadcasting, please check below.)

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