A few years back I was interviewed about some development in the Middle East by a reporter from Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned television news channel. Afterwards, we sat for a while and talked journalism. He mentioned that he had previously worked for Al Jazeera. I asked why he had left. “Too many Islamists,” he said. “They made me uncomfortable.”
It’s bizarre: We used to know a lot about Al Jazeera. At what point did amnesia set in? The station was launched in November 1996. Two months after al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington, Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-born American scholar, analyzed its product in the pages of The New York Times Magazine. Al Jazeera, he wrote, “may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel, but he is clearly its star . . . The channel’s graphics assign him a lead role: there is bin Laden seated on a mat, his submachine gun on his lap; there is bin Laden on horseback in Afghanistan, the brave knight of the Arab world. A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden’s silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, the capital city of Qatar.”
Ajami added: “Although Al Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one. Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.”
Five years later Al Jazeera launched an English-language version. To be fair, it is editorially distinct from AJ Arabic. But, also to be fair, two questions must be asked: Are there serious disagreements between these sister stations? Or do they have what Ayman Mohyeldin, once AJ English’s Cairo correspondent (and now a reporter at NBC), called a “shared vision,” with the Al Jazeera Network’s owners understanding their various audiences and what is required to influence each of them?
Al Jazeera English’s first Washington anchor was Dave Marash, a veteran reporter who had been a substitute host for Ted Koppel at ABC’s Nightline, for many years one of the best news programs on television. He quit after two years, explaining to the Columbia Journalism Review that as “the American face of the channel” he had, in effect, “vouched for its credibility and value,” and that he could not continue to do that because, while he considered much of AJ English’s reporting high-quality, its anti-American bias had become all too obvious.