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Al Jazeera's Edge

The American media has an almost fetishistic interest in Al Jazeera and its correspondents—not least of all because the Arabic broadcaster learned its best tricks from American TV.

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Everybody loves Al Jazeera.

Even though we’ve bombed them (in Baghdad and before that in Kabul), we love them.

There were three Al Jaz guys in the satellite channel’s little office at the CENTCOM media center in Doha—a brooding Moroccan, a suave Sudanese, a smoldering Lebanese—handing out Sprites one afternoon following the three-o’clock briefing. Other reporters shyly hovered at the door.

It was like a college-dorm room. This was the great bull session at CENTCOM. The Al Jazeera guys were definitely the BMOCs—Al Jazeera, I suppose, was Animal House to the Pentagon’s Deke—and everybody was dying to get near them.

They were very laid-back, very sit-down-have-a-beer (or a Sprite). They were obviously not very riled by all the shocked, shocked stuff about what their network was showing—the corpses, the sea of blood, the POWs’ faces (“Since when is a television network governed by the Geneva Conventions?” was the line they all delivered). They were cool. They were enjoying it. They were bright, didactic philosophy students who, pleased with themselves, were confidently turning the free-press argument on the free press itself.

What’s more, Al Jazeera, being another of the weird creations of the weird state of Qatar, had the home-court advantage. So while the U.S. media was here in this U.S. military establishment, with everybody’s first reaction being Why are they here?—nearly the enemy, like Vichy practically—it soon became obvious that in many ways Al Jazeera was the host. It was their media nation we were invading (Al Jazeera correspondents and technicians were gracious translators and pronunciation tutors for the non-Arabic-speaking media).

Al Jazeerians didn’t really seem like Arabs, even—at least not like the Qatarians in white dishdashas. The Al Jazeera guys (and even sometimes women) were polyglot, urbane, sexy in a radical-chic sort of way. Omar al-Issawi, the smoldering Lebanese correspondent, was the most-sought-after figure at CENTCOM, with reporters filing dispatches about his wardrobe. (“Omar, Omar . . .” were among each day’s frequently heard words.)

But most of all, of course, the media was in love with Al Jazeera because it was the hit station of the war.

Indeed, while the results of Gulf II remain entirely uncertain, it is clear that, along with Saddam Hussein being over with, Al Jazeera is going to be very big—big to an extent and at a scale that is just dawning on the Al Jazeera folk themselves. The network is being transformed the way Gulf I transformed CNN—but then, CNN’s audience has rarely exceeded more than a few million, whereas Al Jazeera already speaks to a good 35 million every day.

“By the time this whole thing is over,” I said to the three correspondents, “you’ll be far and away the dominant media organization in the region—one of the largest in the world!”

They clearly knew this but did not seem, for reasons of modesty or coolness, to want to quite claim it.

“I mean,” I said, “you could end up being Time Warner Al Jazeera.”

“Al Jazeera Time Warner,” said Omar.


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