Al Jazeera’s Edge

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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It’s pretty hard to adequately describe the level of bloodiness during an average Al Jazeera newscast. It’s mesmerizing bloodiness. It’s not just red but gooey. There’s no cutaway. They hold the shot for the full viscous effect. It’s vastly grislier than anything that’s ever been shown on television before. It’s snuff-film caliber.

“What are those things?” asked the British officer with whom I was watching the Al Jazeera broadcast one evening. We were trying to decipher the pictures narrated in Arabic: A weeping man was tending some palm-size, brownish, shell-like objects.

“I’m afraid that’s his son’s skull, sir,” said the British officer’s aide.

It’s this unfiltered chronicle of mayhem, in the Israeli view, that’s been a key provocation during the most recent intifada and the reoccupation of the West Bank. Certainly, many have made the case that the launch of Al Jazeera in 1996 and the ensuing years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not coincidental. While government TV in Arab countries has been no less anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, that was, in the end, just government TV—dull and predictable bureaucratic talking heads. Whereas Al Jazeera, being first and foremost a commercial franchise, was able to reanimate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its blood-soaked living-room war.

The Al Jazeera correspondents seem a little sheepish about their network’s over-the-topness. In that way, they’re not unlike American correspondents, who are most of the time embarrassed by their own networks. “We have to speak to our audience,” said Hassan Rachidi, the Al Jazeera reporter from Sudan, shrugging.

The way the network speaks to its audience is evidently pitch-perfect. Al Jazeera has become, practically, the Arab street. In my brief attempt to locate this fabled boulevard, I ended up, one afternoon, in a Doha teahouse with a water pipe and a few dozen coach-potato Arab men looking wordlessly at the Al Jazeera evening news.

It’s a propaganda tool is the thing you always hear. But relatively speaking, it’s the opposite of propaganda—nobody is being force-fed. Rather, the audience gets what the audience wants. It’s a ratings thing. A media rather than an ideological thing. Money rather than blood. Or money from blood.

And it’s a Qatar thing. While most of the Middle East has been in a long downward economic spiral, the oil emirates, with vast per capita wealth (the streets of Doha are lined with newly built McMansions), have been busy preparing for when the oil runs out. Almost everybody in Qatar can quote you a date when the oil and natural gas will have been exhausted a generation or two in the future. The emir of Qatar deposed his own father at least in part because he wasn’t developing new revenue sources fast enough and investing heavily enough in the infrastructure of economic modernity.

Now the emir and his hugely extended family (as much shareholders as anything else) control not only the oil wealth but, among many other investments, a multinational media business as well.

People are always saying that there is something weird about Al Jazeera—that it isn’t what it seems. That its provenance, no less its mission, is suspect. This ranges from Arabs convinced it’s been funded by the CIA and the Mossad and the Carlyle Group (even U.S. networks have wondered if Al Jazeera—which has had remarkable access throughout the war—didn’t have some special, advantageous relationship with the U.S. government) to Israelis who think it is the ultimate Pan-Arab cabal.

I’m having a drink at the Doha Ritz with Jihad Ali Ballout, the marketing-and-PR head of Al Jazeera (before Al Jazeera, he was with Philip Morris). Ballout, whom everybody in the American press has gotten to know, is generally thought to be the coolest gray-flannel-slacks-and-tasseled-loafers dude in Doha. Now, it’s possible he’s part of some great propaganda conspiracy, but there is just something so commercially avaricious about him, something so professionally pleased with himself, that it suggests that Ballout—and Al Jazeera—is much more about tv than about politics.

The business plan, which Ballout spells out, is precise: Dominate the region, and then, with English-language broadcasts and other international partnerships, extend the brand throughout the world (the coming event of the Doha social season is the launch party, at the end of the month, for Al Jazeera’s English-language Website).

So far, Al Jazeera, says Ballout, has been built on the emirate’s investment of $150 million (the Al Jazeera books, of course, are not public). The plan was to be self-financing in five years. “We’re almost there,” says Ballout, with the smile and eye flutter of the only slightly dissembling flack. But alas: “There is an economic embargo by regional powers that has convinced major advertisers to utilize less viable media.”

Which is the heart of the matter: Al Jazeera, if it is to be a real media business, needs advertising. That’s a problem in a region of the world where governments control businesses (why would you want to support someone else’s power base?). Still, Ballout understands his unique and inevitably attractive selling proposition: “Stakeholders in the region’s companies are beginning to realize they’re missing out. You have to go”—he smiles Cheshire-cat-like—“where your customers are.” (No matter how bloody the show.)

It is not hard to conclude that a new Iraq, awash in redevelopment capital and programs, and with a Western-free-enterprise tilt, will greatly benefit both the cause of free speech and the fortunes of Al Jazeera.

While for many American journalists the Al Jazeerians seem heroic—finally, the argument is being made, the horrors of war are not being hidden—you don’t have to look too closely to find that Al Jazeera also inhabits the far side of the ideological moon and is as responsible for the region’s departures from reality as anyone.

Late last fall, for instance, you had Ku Klux Klanner David Duke—Dr. David Duke, as he was described—appearing on the Al Jazeera talk show Without Borders, authoritatively explaining that the Mossad knew of plans to destroy the World Trade Center and had warned Israelis to get out before the planes hit.

This particular morsel was supplied to me by a bigwig in a major U.S. Jewish organization—more than a little concerned about the American media’s big crush on Al Jazeera. He wanted me to see “further evidence on Al Jazeera’s insidious nature.”

He’s right, of course: The better Al Jazeera does, the angrier the Arabs become. The freer Al Jazeera is, the more blood it shows. The more anti-U.S. and anti-Israel, the higher ratings it gets. But is this insidious, or is this television?

David Duke is, after all, I argued to the unhappy Jewish-organization official, a creation of American television. Television has always been about kooks. And obviously, television has always been about violence. Indeed, Al Jazeera is nothing so much as television the American way. Accordingly, Al Jazeera’s most important function—if it is to flourish—will be to turn angry Arabs into eager consumers.

It’s all foretold. Even the sexy, hip Al Jazeera correspondents at CENTCOM will soon enough turn into televisiony plastic people.

Indeed, Al Jazeera, like so much else in the region, becomes part of an Americanization machine.

Or not. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve overestimated the power of the American idea—and encountered some rough beast that is untameable.

Al Jazeera’s Edge