The Belly Of The Beast

Today, I took a trip into the belly of the beast: the headquarters of Al Jazeera, the Arabic cable news channel based in Doha, Qatar. The 24-hour network has been demonized a lot this past week for airing disturbing footage of POWs and dead American and British soldiers. The network's managing director, Mohamed Jasem Al Ali, told me a team of "editorial judges" carefully reviews the truth and newsworthiness of the footage before they decide to show it. But he contends that an old adage holds true, "The job of a journalist is looking for trouble."

It found him while I was sitting in his office. I had come looking for examples of how this young network--founded in 1996--was covering the war and managing the critics. As we talked over Turkish coffee in his simple office lined with awards, he got one of several phone calls. While he worked both his landline and his cell phone, I glanced behind me at his office's large-screen TV. Al Jazeera's Baghdad reporter--one of eight in Iraq--was holding up gruesome photographs of dead bodies, presumably from the carnage on Friday after a bomb exploded in a crowded Baghdad market. (Iraqi officials blamed the incident on a U.S. missile strike, while U.S. officials suggested it may have been a misfired Iraqi missile). The camera did a close-up on the images of a jumble of bodies and then on what looked like a severed head.

All of a sudden, the interview turned into a real-time demonstration of how Al Jazeera is sometimes breaking news by breaking even its own rules of journalism. Apparently, no one had vetted the still photographs being shown early this afternoon. The reporter's enthusiasm got the best of him. The problem wasn't that they were gory--Al Jazeera and like other channels in this part of the world shows plenty of gore--but that they weren't verified. No one knew where the photos came from. Jasem Al Ali personally called the producer in Baghdad and angrily ordered the photos off the air.

In this business, all you have are your contacts and your credibility. Jasem Al Ali definitely has the contacts. He has called on Saddam Hussein personally in one of his palaces. He's been called a "Baathist" for making the visit. "Whether you like him or don't like him, being a good reporter is having good contacts," he says. He paved the way for the extraordinary access Al Jazeera has today in Iraq, but it has been a rocky relationship. The Iraqi government shut the Baghdad operation down for four hours the first day of the war after Al Jazeera reported the precise locations of rocket strikes.

Meanwhile, the White House has been monitoring Al Jazeera back in Washington. Administration aides note that when the United States has something to say it gets translated as a "claim." But Iraqi claims are mostly reported as fact. Thursday, while all the American and British channels (there is a row of television sets in our press center at Central Command) were airing the briefing with Brigadier General Vince Brooks, Al Jazeera was airing an Iraqi news conference. CENTCOM public affairs officers who have been interviewed by the channel have reported back a sampling of the questions they were asked. One example: "The U.N. wrote the Geneva Convention and the U.N. opposes this war, so why should Saddam Hussein go by the Geneva Convention?" As the U.S. Marine was answering, a split screen showed pictures of dead women and children at the Baghdad market.

My personal experience with Al Jazeera's reporters has been anything but sensationalistic. Omar al-Issawi, 36, is the network's main correspondent at CENTCOM. His questions are invariably balanced and calm. And so are his reports. He has quickly become a respected source of information for Western reporters--and a popular interviewee. The White House has been watching al-Issawi closely; administration officials even did some research on him before the war started. Turns out that the reporter, born in Lebanon, was schooled in the United States. He sees his job as tamping down some of the hype. "I try to put the breaks on and say, 'Hold on!'" he says.

That hasn't always gone over so well. Some viewers have called to complain that he seems too pro-U.S. He is a bit of a rebel within Al Jazeera. "I tell it to them straight," he says. He and the Washington bureau chief--who has a balanced two-hour show focused on U.S. affairs (that airs in the middle of the night in the Arab world)-put a credible face on the channel. Al Jazeera is clearly trying to build its international viewership: since the start of the war, subscriptions in Europe have doubled and the network hopes to have an English language broadcast up and running within a year. (Al Jazeera's new English language Web site was hacked this week by pro-U.S. computer geeks). Al Ali knows he must deal with questions about the networks credibility. "We are not pro anyone or anti anyone, we want to tell the truth," he says.

But much of the press team at CENTCOM hear double speak. The channel's image in Washington is one thing, but in the Arab world it's another. Al Jazeera has to compete with the inflammatory Abu Dahbi TV at home. Its pro-Iraq commentators, like the editor of Al Quds, Abdel Bari Atwan, have no counterparts from the other side. While al-Issawi might talk about the chemical suits being discovered at a hospital in An Nasiriyah, in his live shots after the briefings, Al Jazeera's news broadcasts make little mention of such reports. The Bush administration has tried to keep a presence on the network in order to get its point of view across to the Arab world. Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on the channel this week. But Gen. Tommy Franks' top communication aide, Jim Wilkinson, was so infuriated by Al Jazeera's coverage that he won't do interviews with the network. CENTCOM won't kick Al Jazeera out the way the New York Stock Exchange did this week, but the Pentagon may stop cooperating with the network altogether.

On Sunday, when Al Jazeera showed tape of dead U.S. soldiers and interviews with American POWs, no one said a word-except Gen. John Abizaid, of Lebanese descent himself, who took al-Issawi to task from the podium, saying: "You're from Al Jazeera television? I'm very disappointed that you would portray those pictures of our servicemen." But Western reporters--many from the major U.S. networks-had crammed into Al Jazeera's office and started taking notes off the screen. "Nobody posed any ethical question then," says al-Issawi, who ended up giving a lot of interviews that day, many of which he felt were set ups. "If you want to stereotype us, that's not happening," he says. He insists that Al Jazeera showed the footage only three times-not "repeatedly," as his colleagues were reporting. "That's a form of incitement," he says.

Outside Jasen Al Ali's office is an Al Jazeera poster that shows a crowd of Palestinians at a demonstration. It reads: "Blame the media?" He says his network his ruffling feathers from Lebanon to Lubbock, Texas. And that reminds him of another adage that holds true in journalism: "If both sides hate you, you are doing your job."

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