In Defense of Al Jazeera: A Response to Marc Ginsberg

Former Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg (during the Years of Lead, it should be noted) has penned a piece for the Huffington Post asking if Qatar-based Al Jazeera has fueled “Tunisteria” (that is, stoked the already-burning fires spreading across the Middle East toward the direction of intifada).

It’s a valid question–that is, if we lived in a vacuum where all media were viewed equally and all peoples and countries viewed along the same plane.  But we don’t and they’re not.  The Arab world is viewed with suspicion and distrust by most Americans, including diplomats sent to work in the region (as we’ve seen from WikiLeaks cables), and its dictators long supported–whether quietly or outright–out of fear of Islamist uprising.  Democracy in the Middle East is paid lip service, but never truly supported.

In a sense, then–and putting aside the fact that their reporting of events on the ground in Tunisia has been truly excellent–Al Jazeera can be seen as taking care of their own, in the same way the US media does.  Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged that on the Charlie Rose Show last fall, in the midst of praise for the channel:

“I watch Al Jazeera every day…because it’s news.  I’m not interested in what Lindsay Lohan is doing…I’m interested in news…they’re still reporting news.  Do they have a slant?  Yeah, I think I’m round enough where I can realize what the slant is, but as I said, I’m not interested in the rehabilitation of Lindsay Lohan.”

Ginsberg on the other hand, who is no slouch when it comes to Arab media (he speaks the language fluently and is president of the–pretty cool–Layalina Productions), writes:

Americans should not underestimate the role that the ever popular Arab news channel Al Jazeera plays in challenging the Arab world’s status quo, using events in Tunisia to fuel its favorite political pastime of disgorging its anti-authoritarian editorial bias across all of its media platforms — much to the anger and hostility of most Arab rulers, particularly those Al Jazeera views as too pro-western (Al Jazeera gives quite a pass to the despotic Syrian regime as well as to its Qatari benefactors).

Key phrase: “Anti-authoritarian editorial bias.”  In another universe, or a country far far away, one might call that a “pro-democracy editorial bias,” or in other words, something possessed by every single mainstream American channel.  To put it bluntly, can you imagine MSNBC or CNN (the two “reasonable” and “mainstream” US news stations) ever taking a non-democratic stance?  No, you probably can’t.  On the other hand, why isn’t Ginsberg criticizing his own country’s Fox News, which surely throws gasoline on the fire of right-wing (American and otherwise) politics on a daily basis?  And have any major US stations ever reported fairly on the Middle East?  Do they criticize Hosni Mubarak or Ben Ali?  Or, for that matter, Israel?  The answer is an emphatic “no.”

It’s also worth noting here that Ginsberg is stretching the facts when he claims that Al Jazeera gives Syria a pass: Syrian opposition leaders are regularly hosted, with at least one individual, Habib Issa, arrested after appearing on the channel.  More recently, tensions between Al Jazeera and Syria grew after the station gave an appearance to Mohammed Riyadh Shaqafi, of Syria’s banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Ginsberg also notes that “Al Jazeera’s editorial and opinion commentators are having a field day mesmerizing how a similar spectacle could unfold across other Arab states.”  While I can’t help but note the truth in this, it’s not without good reason: Following the Tunisian uprising, no fewer than six youth self-immolated in countries across the Maghreb, from Mauritania to Egypt.  Social media–which may not have overthrown the Tunisian regime, but which certainly assisted the media’s coverage, perhaps more than ever before–is abuzz with talk of who’s next.  The “Arab street” is indeed talking about change, but should Al Jazeera really get the credit for that?  It’s not as if anti-authoritarianism is something that emerged in the past month.

Despite Ginsberg’s pedigree, it should be noted that he’s also a major AIPAC player, something most reasonable people would see as a conflict of interest to democratic ideals in the Arab world.  After all, staunch Israel supporters have little interest in disrupting the status quo, particularly in neighboring (and friendly) Egypt and Jordan.

All things considered, it would be irresponsible not to consider Ginsberg’s closing argument:

Let’s hope that Al Jazeera’s penchant for regional anarchy is tempered by cooler heads within Arab democratic dissident ranks who have far more to lose than audience share if they prematurely swallow Al Jazeera’s bait.

Though I think “penchant for regional anarchy” is a wee bit of a stretch (okay, an enormous stretch), but Ginsberg is not wrong to wish for “cooler heads” over the next few months, given the real risk in such protests (ask Tunisians if they really thought this would be the time it worked).  Nevertheless, take or leave Al Jazeera, it won’t be what gets Jordanians, Egyptians, or Libyans out in the street, the conditions of their countries–and the degree to which their regimes have become despotic–will be.

9 replies on “In Defense of Al Jazeera: A Response to Marc Ginsberg”


Read the comments section of Ginsberg’s piece, when challenged to name a station to be trusted as a more professional source of news, his answer was “Alarabiya.” My point is that the ex Ambassador didn’t do his homework on the MENA landscape, and as a result his opinion is more bias than facts.

Saw that, though do you really think it’s a result of not doing his homework? Ginsberg is, though perhaps outmoded, one of the more equipped diplomats (compare him to other unnamed ambassadors to Morocco who speak French but not Arabic). I’d be surprised if this were about lack of knowledge, as opposed to being about his own political leanings.

I ended up cross-pubbing on HuffPost, btw (

Jillian –

Thank you for a great rebuttal. Like Armitage, I wish our own news stations would take an “anti-authoritarian” stance. Isn’t it a journalist’s job, after all, to challenge those in power?


I chose to view the ex ambassador’s choice of alternative station as a misunderstanding by him of Arab media landscape to avoid being too harsh on him. He put himself in a position that makes it very hard to rationalize his remarks; he speaks Arabic, he spent time in the region. For him not to know that Alarabiya is the mouthpiece of the Saudi royal family is staggering. But again, I guess that his choice could be plausibly viewed as an endorsement of Alarabiya’s agenda i.e an endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s policies.

He seems less disturbed by Alarabiya’s long record of sectarian incitement against shi’a, demonization of anyone who criticizes Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human rights practices. More damning even, is that he ultimately endorses a tyrannical, medieval regime . Censorship also is part of the Saudi media diet as well, that is why his piece is ultimately an exercise in cultural relativism.

Good response especially the point you make about the unwillingness of American media to criticise Israel and Mubarak and the regional effect of events in Tunisia – Ginsberg really underestimates the power of revolt.

He also paints a rather disingenuous image of Al Jazeera, as though it were the Arab version of Faux News, but it’s not. He fails to acknowledge that it was one of the few major news corps that covered the Tunisia story and had these news sources not been covering this story, how would people around the world have known what was going on in Tunisia? Who, if not Al Jazeera will challenge the myth that Arabs are incapable of democracy and of telling their own stories that they need an American-backed UN mission to mediate and CNN to film the proceedings? The fact that he ignores Alarabiya and goes in on AJ and the fact that he doesn’t proportionately dish out blame between fire fanners; Al Jazeera, Wikileaks, social media and most of all the Tunisians (without their resistance there’d be no story) makes me think he has a personal gripe with AJ.

Al-Jazeera is to the Middle East as CNN was to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Why is that hard to understand?

And yes, it has interests, and yes it is biased, even so.

And what a curious notion, the idea that “the U.S. media doesn’t criticize Israel”. The U.S. media isn’t monolithic, and Americans have a much larger choice for a media diet than people in some countries where the Internet and sat TV are blocked.

Pick any story MSNBC does on Israel, and you will see that it reports the news and reflects criticism, i.e.

Go to Fox News, and you’ll find critical reporting on the news as well:

It’s an unthinking and rigid leftist meme to caricature Fox and other TV as somehow not reporting news or not reporting it critically. In reality, what people really mean by that claim much of the time is a talk show they don’t agree with, such as that of Glenn Beck. So, um, turn on Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! if you need to feel good and reinforce your own beliefs.

So…What is it exactly you could find wrong here? If Fox News *commentary* takes a different slant, what of it? It’s not as if Fox is the only television to watch.

I think what you really mean to say is that you want that criticism to be as shrill as Noam Chomsky or as hysterical and obsessive as the hard left everywhere.

As for the question of whether Al Jazeera is biased on Syria, I’d have to study it and hear the experts, and I’d love to hear what Ginzburg says in response to your claims. I don’t trust your take on the situation seeing how you handle criticism, and I also don’t trust Al Jazeera seeing how they have covered some subjects like Sudan with faux moral equivalency and over-obsessiveness on the U.S. I can say that while still appreciating the role Al-Jazeera plays as an alternative news source in the Middle East.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.