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Of course Al Jazeera has a bias, but it's not what most critics think

The Baltimore Sun

Reading some of the nutty coverage of Al Jazeera's purchase of Current TV from Al Gore, I am not sure whether the problem is ideology or ignorance when it comes to the sorry state of media criticism today.

Last week, I explained why I thought Al Jazeera gaining access to 40 million U.S. homes was a good thing. Read that blog post here. Nutshell version: It makes American media a smarter and more diverse mix -- and that makes this a better country.

In that piece, I talked about how impressed I was by a documentary Al Jazeera English did on Baltimore in August and quoted two academic experts on the Qatar-based TV operation as to why it is so outrageous that Al Jazeera English was kept off cable TV in the vast majority of cities.

I also talked about the bias of Al Jazeera English, even as I praised and insisted that it should be available to tens of millions of U.S. viewers as it will now be.

So, to those who wrote in response to my piece last week asking if I understood how biased Al Jazeera is. The answer is yes, and I wrote about it in August. You can read it below, along with two experts' analyses of that point of view.

But you should know it's not the kind of bias some fools are talking about when they recklessly throw around words like "terrorist" and "terrorism."

The bias is toward a geographic orientation or consequent set of narratives described as "Global South." And given U.S. history, it is one we desperately need to understand and think about if we are truly going to function globally in the new world order.

In some ways, it is a reaction to the history of "Global North" colonialism, which is the underpinning of the structure and the orientation of the BBC. Think of it as a counterbalance to that bias, particularly in the Middle East.

Here's what I wrote in August about the journalism of Al Jazeera English:

Philip Seib, a University of Southern California professor and author of "The Al Jazeera Effect: How the New Global Media Are Reshaping World Politics," gives the channel high grades for its journalism.

"It's good journalism," he says. "When things go crazy in the Middle East, Al Jazeera English is where you go unless you speak Arabic. The television sets throughout the U.S. government last year, when the Arab revolutions were getting under way, were all tuned to Al Jazeera English."

But like all TV news operations, from MSNBC to Fox News, there are certain narratives Al Jazeera English favors. And that also helps explain why Baltimore, with its seemingly endless backdrop of boarded-up rowhouses, is a favorite of the channel.

"Their basic approach to narrative is that they favor the interests of what they call the Global South," Seib says, "which has never been the case with the American and European broadcasting giants in the past. They're sensitive to the idea that they are giving voice to and adopting the outlook of parts of the world that in the past were very much just passive recipients and have been condescended to."

The term Global South is geographic, using the equator as a dividing line.

"North is the U.S., Western Europe and Russia, for that matter," Seib says. "South is black Africa, Latin America and South Asia."

Mohammed el-Nawawy, author of "Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism," adds that the channel sees U.S. locations like inner-city Baltimore as just as much a part of the Global South landscape as Asian or African nations that suffered centuries under colonial rule.

"When Al Jazeera English sheds light on the kinds of stories it finds in Baltimore, that for them is Global South right there," says el-Nawawy, the associate professor at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. "And that's more telling for the viewer than the Global South as we traditionally think of it south of the equator, because here you are in a very developed country, you know, in the greatest nation on earth, and you have these stories and you have these situations of people living in these kinds of [dangerous and deprived] situations in Baltimore."

Al Jazeera is up front about its point of view and priorities. "Anatomy of an American City" will debut Tuesday as part of the channel's "Fault Lines" series, which is similar to "Frontline" on PBS. The mission statement says: "Fault Lines takes you behind the U.S. headlines, putting a face to those who are falling through the cracks of society while holding the powerful to account."

It would be nice if U.S. cable channels were as upfront about their orientation instead of lying about being "fair and balanced."

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