Just Before Midnight at Al-Jazeera

I’m back from a long weekend in Doha, Qatar, an Arab Gulf country that’s best known in the West as the host of the Al-Jazeera satellite television station. The occasion: a conference on “U.S. Relations with the Islamic World,” sponsored by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar.

On Sunday night, a producer from Al-Jazeera asked me to come down and appear on the 11:00 o’clock evening news program, “Harvest of the Day” (Hasad al-Yawm), which I did. (My bow to 35 million Arab viewers.) The subject: the American pursuit of UN resolutions on Iraq. I didn’t have any especially interesting insights on the subject, but I found plenty of interest in watching the famous Al-Jazeera in action. My host, a Jordanian senior producer, took me into just about every room in the place, and I learned a lot.

Al-Jazeera became famous during and after 9/11, and it’s had mountains of press since then. (Most notably, Fouad Ajami wrote a critical piece about it for the New York Times Magazine.) The U.S. government has been particularly peeved that Al-Jazeera provides a platform for every kind of anti-American extremist, including Osama bin Laden. “Al-Jazeera’s virulent anti-American bias undercuts all of its virtues,” wrote Ajami. “It is, in the final analysis, a dangerous force.” I confess that I’m not a daily viewer of Al-Jazeera, so I won’t venture my own comment on its content. But here are a few observations on the look and feel of the operation.

Al-Jazeera operates out of a matchbox of a building, within the compound of Qatari state broadcasting. Qatar is a place of monumental architecture—the shining white palace of the Emir, brash glass hotels, big shopping malls. Al-Jazeera, in contrast, is located in a modest, low-slung white building, surrounded by a dirt parking lot and a bank of satellite dishes. The newsroom and studios are small and cramped. There must be hundreds of local American television stations with more spacious quarters than Al-Jazeera. (And there isn’t much in the way of facilities for in-studio guests. For example, no one bothered to make me up—standard procedure in any television studio. Of course, very few people are interviewed in Doha, especially as Al-Jazeera doesn’t cover Qatar. The vast majority of interviews are feeds from the station’s bureaus elsewhere.)

There is talk of a new and larger building, which would take years to build. In the meantime, as someone pointed out to me, the whole thing could be taken down in a day. As long as it remains that way, one imagines that under the wrong circumstances, that might happen.

But the station is marvelously appointed with the best equipment. They’ve got everything they need to produce the tightly edited segments and the slick graphics that give the final product a professional look. The newsroom is like a trading room of information. It’s dominated by a wall of screens displaying the output of all possible competitors, and computer work centers feeding every kind of media via the web.

After my segment, I hung around the newsroom, chatting with various journalists, presenters, and producers. Even at midnight, the newsroom was hopping—it’s a round-the-clock operation, and many of the staff pull twelve-hour shifts. They shared with me various bits of Al-Jazeera lore, some of it with an Israeli angle. For instance, just before the Israeli elections in February 2001, Ehud Barak called Al-Jazeera and asked to be interviewed. He wanted another shot at addressing the Israeli Arab voter. Ariel Sharon balked on a scheduled interview last March, because he insisted that it be conducted face-to-face, and not through an earpiece. And so on. The bottom line of all the stories is that Al-Jazeera, despite its dimunitive quarters, is too big to be ignored—or manipulated.

It’s no surprise that the station has an aura of new-style pan-Arabism. The staff comes from everywhere in the Arab world. I met journalists from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, even Mauritania. (There is only one Qatari journalist.) They’re a young crowd, who seem to thoroughly enjoy their notoriety. As one of them put it, the strategy of Al-Jazeera is to provoke people, and they revel in their roles as journalistic gadflies.

As I went briskly through the offices of this boutique operation, I remembered the last time I visited an Arab newsroom—in Cairo a couple of years back, when an editor of Al-Ahram took me through the vast, cavernous, densely populated and peeling halls of Egypt’s great press empire. Al-Ahram operates out of a ministry-sized building. The VIP dining room there is bigger than the newsroom of Al-Jazeera. I don’t pretend to know whether the future of the Arab media belongs to lean upstarts like Al-Jazeera, but there is every reason for the established media to feel threatened. I was told that Husni Mubarak also visited Al-Jazeera on a visit to Qatar, and I can’t imagine that he didn’t head home and ask his media bureaucrats why he’s getting less for more.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the United States government found itself compelled to deal with Al-Jazeera, in order to get its message across to the Arab world. Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador and Arabic-speaker, made several appearances on the station, to mixed reviews. But my hosts told me quite explicitly that their audiences are eager to hear people like Ross explain U.S. policy, even if the Arabic isn’t perfect, or the interviewee has to be translated. Just as important, they were completely dismissive of Arab-Americans as spokespersons for U.S. policy. The Arab viewer, they claim, immediately discounts the Arab-American. They want what they regard as the “real article.”

That’s something to ponder as the United States builds up its public diplomacy reserves for the next big crisis. It completely contradicts the notion, expounded by a Council on Foreign Relations task force, that Arab-Americans should be preferred as messengers for U.S. policy. If the pros at Al-Jazeera are right, it’s just not so. One of them pointed out that when Al-Jazeera’s Moscow bureau needs someone to explain Russian policy, they have a list of several hundred fluent Russian Arabic-speakers. When the Arab viewer sees an Igor or an Ivan, he’s sure that he’s getting the inside story. If the United States is serious about public diplomacy, it will need a lot more people with names like Chris who are willing and able to do Al-Jazeera, and to do it well.

Could the United States ever create its own alternative to Al-Jazeera? I somehow doubt it, and in any case, it won’t be done before any prospective American move against Saddam. Al-Jazeera will have seven correspondents scattered around Iraq, in the hope of glimpsing the first American troops. It’s going to be Al-Jazeera’s war—again.