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May 03, 2005

US Media In Partnership With Al-Jazeera?

Last week I examined the role of the US media in covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Referring to Dorrance Smith's piece in the WSJ (which I quoted last week) James Pinkerton picks up the question, asking "is the U.S. media a 'partner' with Al-Jazeera?":

In U.S. journalism, murky arrangements between reporters and criminals are common enough. Reporters make deals to go "inside" a street gang or a drug ring; they run the story, and then refuse to cooperate with police. Indeed, many states have enacted "shield" laws to protect pressies from being forced to disclose their sources. Some say these deals make journalists complicit in illegal activities. Others say, such deals are essential to the public's right to know.

These arrangements are oftentimes queasy to consider on the homefront, but they are much queasier to consider on the war front.

But Smith went further. He argued that American news networks, including Fox News (where I'm a contributor), are "strong partners" with Al-Jazeera in this hearts-and-minds struggle that America, he believes, is losing. Smith is a serious man making a serious charge, made all the more pertinent after yet another weekend of televised mayhem in Iraq.

That is exactly what many of us object to, and Pinkerton proceeds to make Smith's argument for him, albeit unintentionally:

First, he suggests that American networks boycott such footage. Sometimes such voluntary blackouts can work. Nude "streaking," for example, was a bizarre kind of performance art at athletic events in the '70s, but when sportscasters stopped devoting television time to streakers, the phenomenon faded away.

Smith pointed out in his WSJ piece that the terrorists are taping these kidnappings to put pressure on coalition governments and also to get both ransom money and money from networks. They would get neither if the networks refused to air the tapes. End of problem. Pinkerton goes on:

But the war in Iraq is not a prank. What happens there is news. Should the American media not cover the fighting in Iraq as it is being fought? Is that a good precedent for the future? And if one media outlet were to break ranks and continue to air Al-Jazeera footage - would viewers migrate to that ornery outlet? Let's face it, Americans enjoy watching violence.

Smith never argued for a cessation of wartime journalism - that's a straw man. And saying that you will not stop an immoral practice unless you can be guaranteed that no one, anywhere, will ever engage in that practice is incredibly shallow. Sometimes someone has to step forward and do the right thing. It's call moral courage.

And by the way, Mr. Pinkerton, "Let's face it, Americans enjoy watching violence" is not the most compelling argument I've ever heard. Perhaps that's one reason Americans have lost respect for the media.

Second, Smith suggests that the United States use political pressure to minimize, or even eliminate, Al-Jazeera as a media enterprise. But in fact Al-Jazeera has already been kicked out of Iraq, and yet the network still manages to get its hands on provocative images. So even if the United States were further to play against Al-Jazeera, chasing it all the way back to its home base of operations in the country of Qatar, there's the danger of backlash and unintended consequences.

Al-Jazeera is still functioning because it receives money from the networks and $100 million a year from Qatar. If we were able to cut off that money, it would have a hard time continuing. The unpalatable truth is that American networks are subsidizing a network that broadcasts anti-US propaganda during time of war and funnels money to our enemies. If that doesn't bother you, Mr. Pinkerton, it should.

Posted by Cassandra at May 3, 2005 09:19 AM

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