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Z on TV
Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV
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Al Jazeera America excels in covering killings of Middle East teens

IsraelWest BankAl Jazeera Media NetworkTelevision IndustryNews AgencyJournalismArmed Conflicts

The grisly discovery Monday of the bodies of three Israeli teens who had been abducted June 12 as they hitchhiked home from a West Bank settlement yeshiva set off a week of mounting violence in the region.

Israel blamed Hamas and promised and delivered retribution in the West Bank, blowing up the homes of the alleged murderers and launching dozens of air strikes. Hamas threatened back, saying that “the gates of hell would open” if Israel went too far.

On Wednesday, a Palestinian teen was abducted and killed, and a Palestinian official blamed “extremist Jewish settlers” as Arabs and Israelis battled in the streets of East Jerusalem.

It was a complex and highly emotional story, and no one on American TV did a better job of telling it than Al Jazeera America, the new kid on the cable news block that will celebrate its first anniversary next month.

It has been a rough year for the organization, with lower ratings than even some of its harshest critics predicted and layoffs in April. But if anyone with an open mind was looking for evidence as to how the presence of Al Jazeera America enriches the landscape of broadcast news and offers viewers the chance to be better informed about the Middle East, it was on display last week.

Al Jazeera America’s coverage was in full swing by 8 p.m. Monday, hours after the bodies were found. It featured correspondent Nick Schifrin reporting from Gaza City on the retaliatory air strikes by the Israeli Air Force. As always, the Al Jazeera cameras gave viewers a sense of being in the street as close to the action as anyone would want to be.

At 11 p.m., anchor David Shuster broadened the coverage via stateside interviews with Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general to the U.S., and Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada website. Talk about balanced: The segment ran 12 minutes and 2 seconds. Pinkas got exactly 6 minutes and 1 second, while Abunimah got the same.

And while some critics of the larger Al Jazeera news organization have characterized the Qatar-based operation as being pro-Arab and anti-Israel, there was none of that in either of Shuster’s segments.

In fact, his interview with Abunimah was by far the more contentious of the two, with Shuster consistently challenging the Palestinian-American journalist on his “facts.”

The former MSNBC anchor opened by asking Abunimah for his reaction to what Pinkas had said.

But instead of reaction to Pinkas, Abunimah went off on Al Jazeera America for what he sees as its pro-Israel bias.

“I think it’s interesting that we’re here having this conversation after three Israeli youths were killed,” he said. “But no one called me to talk about the cold-blooded murder of two Palestinian teenagers shot dead by snipers on May 15.”

“Ali, to be fair,” Shuster said, cutting him off, “Al Jazeera America did cover that story extensively. Just because we didn’t have you on ….”

“OK, point taken,” Abunimah said. “My point is that six Palestinian children have been killed this year.”

And back and forth it went.

As outraged as I was by the death of the three teens, I still wanted to hear what someone with Abunimah’s point of view had to say. I don’t want discussions on TV limited to the extent that only one point of view can be heard. But I do want talking heads fact-checked as much as possible in a live interview — just as Shuster did.

“We did an incredible research effort Monday afternoon and into Monday evening,” Shuster said in a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun last week. “And once we had the guests booked, we spent a lot of time looking at their previous interviews. Alon Pinkas had been on Al Jazeera … and I watched that, thinking, ‘What can I do to sort of move the ball forward and break some news?’ And the same thing with Ali.”

According to Shuster, the Abunimah interview took a different turn than he had expected when “Ali started saying something that wasn’t true.”

“I have a standard practice that I try to follow in interviews that we don’t give people a platform to say things that are false,” Shuster explained. “And so I felt like, OK, I needed to stop him. … I corrected him there. And it sort of just continued.”

Beyond the preparation, Shuster stressed the experience and expertise Al Jazeera America brings to such coverage. Schifrin came to the channel from ABC News, where he covered Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shuster has been working in cable news since 1990, when he started as an assignment editor in CNN’s Washington bureau. In addition to CNN and MSNBC, he’s also worked as a correspondent and anchor for Fox and Current TV, including a year in the Middle East.

Not that Al Jazeera America totally owned the story. It got there first with the most. And it had insights that I saw nowhere else — like an explanation of an “arrangement” Hamas and Israel allegedly had that they would fire rockets and launch air strikes mostly into empty lots and vacant training grounds before getting really serious about going at each other.

Israel was not at that point yet, according to Pinkas, who said that he did not believe Israel would go there. The “gates of hell” warning was a threat from hamas about what would happen if Israel did.

By Wednesday, other news organizations were starting to catch up. NBC News offers the most revealing comparison. It had Ayman Mohyeldin, formerly of CNN and Al Jazeera, as its correspondent on the story.

Mohyeldin’s work for Al Jazeera English in Egypt in 2011 covering the fall of Hosni Mubarak was as good as it gets. He seemed to be first everywhere — every time the story took a new turn.

So it was with some disappointment that I watched his report from Jerusalem on the “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” clock in Tuesday night at only 73 seconds — and some of that was taken up by Williams’ introduction. The tremendous emotion of the teenagers’ funerals was all but drained from the report by the ridiculous time constraints placed on it.

But under the heading, “You can’t keep a good reporter down forever,” Mohyeldin and his crew got so close to the street fighting in East Jerusalem on Wednesday that they came under fire of stun grenades and rubber bullets from Israeli forces.

The video of NBC crew members holding up a camera and screaming the word “journalists” in English, Arabic and Hebrew made for gripping TV journalism — and it is right out of the Al Jazeera playbook with everything shot from street level and so deeply embedded in the middle of things that it feels as if you can smell the gunpowder.

Mohyeldin’s report — which was exemplary in efficiency, clarity and vividness — earned all of 2 minutes and 30 seconds on Wednesday’s “Nightly News,” with 20 of those seconds taken up by substitute anchor Lester Holt’s introduction. (To get a more complete sense of what Mohyeldin is seeing and reporting, follow him on Twitter at @AymanM.)

Mohyeldin notwithstanding, for context and multiple points of view it has been Al Jazeera all the way. And it frustrates me that, according to the most recently published ratings, only about 15,000 viewers are watching this channel in prime time on any given weeknight.

Al Jazeera America President Kate O’Brian says that if the channel does good journalism, the viewers will come.

“We plan to stay true to our values — by doing high-quality, deep-dive journalism, telling compelling stories, which the news consumer is not seeing anywhere else,” she said in a statement to The Sun. “The more people recognize that, the more they’ll come to us. We’re trending in the right direction.”

But top-notch coverage might not be enough. I believe the main reason for that small audience is the way members of the George W. Bush administration labeled Al Jazeera, which is financed by the emir of Qatar, as a “terrorist network.” Their primary “evidence” was Al Jazeera airing audio and video tapes released by Osama bin Laden to the news organization between 2001 and 2011.

It was a nasty bit of branding, given how vulnerable the national psyche was to such fear-fueled, black-and-white notions of good and evil in a post-9/11 world.

It’s frustrating to me not just because it’s false and unfair, but also because in the end, we in the viewing and voting public are the real victims.

The world is getting more and more complicated, and the majority of us get 73-second explanations of it — minus ego time for Brian Williams.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik
 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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IsraelWest BankAl Jazeera Media NetworkTelevision IndustryNews AgencyJournalismArmed Conflicts
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