When the Ferguson protests look like Intifada in Middle East
By By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun|
Aug 21, 2014 | 10:23 AM
The term "Al Jazeera effect" was coined to describe the way the Qatar-based channel and new media were changing politics and power dynamics in the Middle East the last decade. But I believe we have been seeing a variation of it in Ferguson, Mo., the past week with a similar shift in American perception as a result.
The first images of nighttime clashes between police and protesters out of Ferguson struck me by how much they looked like images of Intifada and Arab Spring in the Middle East that had been burned into my brain.
This was true of both still and video photography shot at ground level, often from the point of view of the protesters or just slightly off to the side.
While the police looked like a faceless military machine advancing down the street under a halo of flares, smoke and explosions, the protesters were generally depicted in these confrontations as young men (some wearing scarves or masks over their mouths) racing forward to throw back a tear gas canister or hurl other objects toward the police before retreating into the darkness.
(As I type this at 12:17 p.m. Monday, I am looking at a series of terrific still photographs on CNN showing exactly what I was describing. They are being displayed in a gallery-like fashion behind Don Lemon as he reports live from the streets of Ferguson.)
This is the way Al Jazeera has been covering confrontations in the Middle East -- and winning widespread praise among news professionals at least since Arab Spring came to Egypt in 2011.
Such in-the-streets coverage is far more immediate and gripping for viewers than the kind of overhead or distantly-behind-police-lines photography that had been the norm. It's simply better television, and it is in perfect synch with new digital technology that beg to be used this way.
And while it has been directly exported in some cases, such as NBC News hiring Ayman Mohyeldin from Al Jazeera, it is now being widely imitated by news executives across the cable and network landscape.
While I applaud Al Jazeera's excellent coverage, understand that when you film from the point of view of the protesters, there is a built-in visual bias and that you are depicting the police as "the other."
No one is likely to feel much sympathy for the police in Ferguson, who, before the command takeover of the Missouri Highway Patrol, seemed to embrace the role of "the other" with their over-the-top military gear and covered faces.
Still, we need to understand how the view on our TV screens has changed in coverage of this domestic event -- mimicking Al Jazeera coverage in the Middle East.
I don't know how many American commentators I heard say some variation of, "It looks like something from the Third World," in describing the police-protester clashes.
As I have written before, Al Jazeera freely acknowledges a sympathy toward Global South populations, or those it sees as victims of colonialism. African-Americans fit that definition from the Al Jazeera point of view.
I was appalled when I saw video of the Ferguson police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at an Al Jazeera America news crew as it tried to broadcast from the streets of Ferguson during a confrontation last week. (See it here.)
While most of the press coverage went to the Washington Post and Huffington Post reporters detained by police that night, I thought this was far more dangerous and revealing. It reminded me Al Jazeera executives alleging that Israel forces shot real bullets into the offices of Al Jazeera in Gaza last month.
(By the way, the term "Al Jazeera Effect" is generally credited to my good friend, University of Southern California professor Philip Seib, from his 2008 book, "The Al Jazeera Effect." That is certainly where I first read it.)