Mubarak TV: It's Al Jazeera, then everyone else

Correspondents and anchors on all the U.S. cable channels talked endlessly about the music and dancing in the streets of Egypt Friday following the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. But Al Jazeera is the one channel on which I actually heard the music.

And after 24 hours of looking at images from Egypt until they all started to blur, it was hearing the wild, carefree, soaring sound of a driving Middle Eastern melody being played in Liberation Square that gave me the best, truly concrete sense of the energy, excitement and perhaps even ecstasy of the multitudes in Cairo.


It is not overstatement to say Al Jazeera owned this story the last 18 days. The Qatar-based broadcaster's coverage was so clearly superior that I kept it up on my laptop screen almost non-stop as I channel-hopped all the other coverage on TV.

As I said in yesterday's post, the simulcasting of CNN and CNN International was a wise choice and made for a more focused and authoritative news product -- no doubt about it. But CNN also had its problems Thursday night in at first over-emphasizing an interview with the Egyptian ambassador who was trying to use the channel to sell a false message --  and then losing its momentum when the deadly duo of "Parker-Spitzer" and Piers Morgan hit the airwaves in the heart of prime time.


It was fascinating Friday to watch how closely CNN seemed to be tracking or imitating -- or maybe simply chasing -- Al Jazeera.

(Al Jazeera photo of crowds celebrating in Cairo)

In the immediate wake of Mubarak's resignation, the U.S. channels seemed to be content to mostly show images of Liberation Square while anchors and correspondents kept using the adjectives "historic," "remarkable" and "extraordinary" to tell us what we already knew.

But on Al Jazeera, the producers and correspondents were trying to gather and present new bits and pieces of the breaking story. Al Jazeera was the first to report that Swiss banks had frozen all of Mubarak's assets. About 25 minutes later, I saw the same news reported on CNN.

Even more interesting was the way CNN seemed to be trying to match Al Jazeera's imagery -- shot for shot at some points. During some stretches, CNN actually had the same camera shot as Al Jazeera -- only a few seconds later. I don't know if they were tracking and imitating -- or it they were sharing a feed at certain times of the day, and there was a satellite delay in CNN's reception and broadcast of the images.

Last week, I wrote about the core difference between the point of view and news images on U.S. cable versus Al Jazeera. On U.S. TV, it always seems as if you are looking down on the protests from an almost omniscient point of view. On Al Jazeera, you are in the middle of the action, on the street, eye level with those in the crowd.

All of the U.S. cable channels this week did a better job of moving off the locked-in, non-stop omniscient point of view and getting their viewers on the ground to the extent that some of the energy in the crowd could be felt.

But Al Jazeera's cameras actually made one feel  as they were part of the crowd in the square, and none of its U.S. competitors ever matched them in taking viewers inside the revolution and onto the streets that way Al Jazeera did.


This is a small thing, but it suggests how frozen in place U.S. cameras were. In all the viewing I did the last two weeks of that square in Cairo, I never knew anything about the shops and streets surrounding it until Al Jazeera informed me Thursday night that many of the people in Tahrir Square were heading for coffee shops just off the square late in the evening to watch Mubarak's speech. Al Jazeera showed me some of those shops.

I have to also say how refreshing it was to see Al Jazeera's reaction to President Obama's speech Friday. Hoda Hamid, one of the channel's correspondents in Cairo, was not letting herself get carried away by the "arc of history bends toward justice" language. She was more focused on the ever-shifting and always-a-day-late reaction of "Washington" to the revolution in Cairo.

She said that at various times during the last two weeks, the people who were celebrating in the street Friday were "angry" at Obama and America. One of those points was Thursday night after Mubarak didn't step down.

"If Washington doesn't back us now, Washington will lose 85 million Arabs to keep one in power," she said, paraphrasing the mood on the streets of Cairo late Thursday.

I did not hear that kind of analysis anywhere on American TV Friday. But on Al Jazeera, no one was forgetting that the Obama administration was describing Egypt as "stable" last week, and was still expressing a preference for stability over change.

I did hear criticism of Obama on Fox News, but it was from a talking head identified as a "former CIA operative" -- and I have to say that his analysis of the Middle East sounded so off the wall you could only say a prayer of thanks that he was now a "former" member of the intelligence community.