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March 9, 2011

Western media vs. Al Jazeera

The Canadian Charger

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In a clear indication that the Obama Administration and the American media were caught off guard by the unfolding events in the Middle East, Obama and his advisors sat watching Al Jazeera as the protests in Egypt unfolded.

This was, of course, after Al Jazeera had received widespread acclaim for its coverage of the uprising in Tunisia, which was largely ignored by most Western media outlets.

While defending the State Department's budget in front of the U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities Committee recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her department needs money because “we are in an information war and we're losing that war.”

She said other countries and global news outlets were making inroads into places like the Middle East more effectively than the United States; and she cited the quality of channels like Al Jazeera, which was "changing peoples' minds and attitudes,” as a major factor for this phenomenon. “Like it (Al Jazeera) or hate it, it is really effective," Ms. Clinton said, adding that U.S. news was not keeping up.

"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," Ms. Clinton said. "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners."

After criticizing the inadequacies of private media, which she said, “often works at counter purposes to what we truly are as Americans,” she acknowledged that Al Jazeera and other media outlets are becoming more credible sources of information in the world. 

“Al Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English language and multi-language television network. The Russians have opened an English language network. I've seen it in a couple of countries and it's quite instructive.”

In an effort to catch up, Ms. Clinton said she's leading an effort to spread U.S. propaganda through new media with Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi.

However, this may not be what the viewing audience wants. American media is already seen in large parts of the world as too closely aligned with the government and corporations which own it and purchase advertising – its lifeblood.

A glaring example of this is the case of CIA agent Raymond Davis:

On Jan. 27, 36-year-old Raymond Davis was arrested by police in Lahore after he shot and killed two local men who he says were trying to rob him as he drove through the city in a white Honda Civic.

Davis reportedly fired nine times with his Glock and hit the two would-be robbers seven times. Pakistani officials say he shot one of his armed assailants in the back, which justifies a murder charge against him.

In the weeks since his arrest, Davis’s incarceration has touched off a diplomatic showdown between Pakistan and the U.S., and has also stoked a debate over the powerful sway the U.S. government holds over several American media outlets who agreed to scuttle stories that would have disclosed earlier that Davis is a spy.

Davis's link to the C.I.A. wasn't mentioned in the western press until Sunday February 17 when the London Guardian broke the code of silence.  This was after several U.S. news organizations, including a Denver TV channel, the Associated Press and The New York Times, agreed to hold stories about Davis’s shadowy employer because the Obama administration told them to.

Meanwhile, as it has done since its founding in Qatar 15 years ago, Al Jazeera continues to shape a narrative of popular rage against American-backed Arab governments.

“The notion that there is a common struggle across the Arab world is something Al Jazeera helped create,” said Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, who has written extensively on the Arab news media. “They did not cause these events, but it’s almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera.”

Like mainstream western media, which has been criticized for touting the party line to please the corporations that pay to advertise, and the governments which provide a favourable business environment - including tax exemptions and reductions - Al Jazeera is not immune to criticism.

Although Qatar emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani – who founded Al Jazeera in 1996, has influence, the satellite television station still operates with less constraint than most media outlets, making it the most popular channel in the region, and increasing its popularity in the U.S. itself.

Fox News host and Tea Party icon Glenn Beck said:

"You have the Secretary of State of the United States of America saying you cannot get real news here in America.  You can only get it from Al Jazeera and everybody knows it. This is insanity."

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