Jon B. Alterman
Jazeera's new English-language service is not about to take
the United States by storm, but it could have a major effect
on Muslim communities around the globe. Its greatest impact,
however, may be on Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts.
As veterans of the
American media environment know, US audiences are growing increasingly
segmented. Hundreds of cable and satellite television channels
compete for attention with radio (and more recently, satellite
radio), the Internet, newspapers, and a slew of other information
streams. Venerable outlets have not only seen their audiences
shrinking in absolute numbers, but consumers are devoting shrinking
amounts of time to each individual outlet. While Americans are
increasingly voracious consumers of information, they have also
become more omnivorous, and the competition for attention is
Into this environment
will step Al Jazeera's new English-language service, a still
somewhat ill-defined effort to provide an alternative viewpoint
for global viewers. The hope of its sponsors is that it will
play into the desires of channel-surfing viewers looking for
alternative news streams. For at least a small and elite segment
of the television-watching public in the United States, Al Jazeera
will fill that niche.
Americans have given every indication that they want to be comforted
by the news, not challenged by it. The Fox News juggernaut uses
overt patriotism to win viewer loyalty, and it stands as the
only news operation in the country that is gaining viewers.
Al Jazeera International
could be seen, perhaps, as the "anti-Fox News." Its
backers insist that it will be truly international, utilizing
its own native English-speaking staff around the world operating
out of studios in Malaysia, Qatar, the UK, and the United States.
But what will the Al Jazeera brand come to represent? The brand's
prominence in the Arab world has been built on unifying issues
like Palestine, Bin Laden, and Iraq. In each case, Al Jazeera's
coverage has pushed the boundaries of knowledge, built massive
audiences, and helped unite Arabs in a community of concern.
Is there such a community
of concern in the United States, or around the globe? The answer
is probably not. Certainly there are issues -- and Palestine,
Iraq, and terrorism are among them -- which are of wide concern.
Yet, it is far harder to forge a common perspective on these
issues and build a similar broad constituency. Part of the success
of Al Jazeera's Arabic service is that it addressed a group
of people who already believed they constituted a community
on some level, and it made that community real. Despite all
of the talk of "global citizenship," an Indonesian
Muslim likely relates in a fundamentally different way to what
is happening in Palestine than does a Dutch Protestant, and
each does so differently than a Palestinian or a Jordanian.
One potential community
that Al Jazeera International can bring together is English-speaking
Muslims. Sweeping from Muslim minorities in Europe through Africa,
to the South Asian subcontinent and into Southeast Asia, they
constitute a community -- the Umma -- that is feeling increasingly
connected because of ease of travel and information technology.
Al Jazeera's English-language programming can play a significant
role furthering that integration, putting forward a news source
that is commonly shared among that audience.
The vitality of English
within the Umma should not be underestimated. A mind-boggling
range of Islamic books and articles appear in English, and many
Islamic Web sites have robust English-language sections. If
English is not the first language of many Muslim populations,
it is often their lingua franca, and Al Jazeera's new English
news stream can address them.
Al Jazeera will face
a steep challenge in doing so, however. The challenge of running
a 24-hour news operation with multiple headquarters and a global
audience is a daunting one, and Al Jazeera's English-language
broadcasting will be subject to a far higher level of scrutiny
than its Arabic programming. Analysts will immediately evaluate
Al Jazeera International's broadcasts for issues of balance
and bias, especially by groups already disposed to doubt the
fairness of the station's coverage. Governments and journalists'
associations around the globe will no doubt swiftly complain
if they believe that the programming has departed from established
Al Jazeera International
will almost certainly not refer to "so-called terrorism"
or refer to "martyrdom-seeking operations," or profess
uncertainty as to who carried out the attacks of September 11.
To do so would not suggest the channel's impartiality, but instead
reinforce charges of bias.
Some might suspect
that Al Jazeera International is a ruse, offering fair and judicious
broadcasting in easily accessible English, and hoping the new
channel's reputation for journalistic vigor rubs off on its
less disciplined Arabic cousin. However, Al Jazeera's English
service is likely to fuel the global debate about ethics and
standards rather than end it, and it will do little to blunt
the zeal of those who believe Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts
are poisoning the Arab world against cooperation with the West.
Yet, it will be from
the discipline necessary to run a credible English-language
service that the most fundamental effects of the new channel
on Al Jazeera are likely to come. While critics complain that
Al Jazeera's current broadcasts are biased in favor of Islamist,
pan-Arab causes, the nub of the problem appears to be a lack
of strict coordination and standards rather than a concerted
plan emanating from Doha. Al Jazeera's code of ethics is a single
page, compared to the books issued by Western news organizations.
If Al Jazeera intends
to be a global player in English, it will need to think through
the rules by which their journalists must live. The station
will need not only to create a substantial document, but also
to create enforcement mechanisms to implement it.
Once that process
has gotten underway for the English-language staff, it is only
a matter of time before some of those processes begin for the
Arabic staff. It is through that internal process that Al Jazeera
International may have its greatest impact.
Jon Alterman is director of the Middle East Program
at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington,
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