Watch for bias with Al Jazeera affiliate
For those of us who believe the American public needs to know much more about the rest of the world, the arrival of a television network determined to focus on hard news should be cause for celebration. But when that network is Al Jazeera, we all need to take a few steps back and prepare before we start watching.
The just-launched Al Jazeera America is, like the other Al Jazeera channels, owned by the royal family of Qatar. Al Jazeera is an arm of the Qatari government and an instrument of Qatari foreign policy.
(Full disclosure: I spent many years on staff at CNN, a competitor of Al Jazeera, and am now a paid contributor to CNN.com.)
Qatar's foreign policy was to promote the rise of the Brotherhood, and the main devices to exert Doha's power were Al Jazeera and billions of dollars in Qatari funding to Brotherhood groups in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere.
Al Jazeera America, based in New York, promises to focus sharply on "fact-based, in-depth stories of U.S. and international news." Sounds great, as long as the network refrains from the practices that have tainted its journalism on other Al Jazeera networks.
Al Jazeera employs many friends and former colleagues of mine, whose individual integrity and talent I do not question. And much of what I have seen on Al Jazeera English (AJE) - a separate network from Al Jazeera America (AJAM) - is of excellent quality, with high journalistic standards.
That, however, is not enough to ignore the red flags that go up when you say the words Al Jazeera.
When Al Jazeera began in 1996, it shook the Arab world, where the news had featured only state-owned, kiss-up-to-the-ruler reporting. Qatar became a force to be reckoned with, sending AJ reporters to expose corruption and injustice. Nobody had seen anything like it.
But, as Fouad Ajami reported in 2001, Al Jazeera's coverage was driven by "an aggressive mix of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism." The network specialized in close-ups of dead bodies and crying and wounded children, with ominous sound tracks designed to heighten emotions.
The Arabic and English channels used two different approaches. In Arabic, coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as documented by, among others, the Middle East Institute in Washington, portrayed Israel as the enemy. Palestinians are often referred to as "resisters" and "martyrs," while Israelis are frequently called the "occupiers." The English channel's wording is more careful.
When the network began, its principal U.S. anchor, David Marash, went on a promotional tour guaranteeing that journalists in the United States would have full editorial independence. He eventually resigned, charging that editorial control had gradually but steadily reverted to Qatar. Al Jazeera's top executive in Doha is a member of the ruling family.
The longtime emir of Qatar recently stepped down, handing power to his son. The emirate's foreign policy of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, believing the group would sweep to power in the Middle East, now looks like a disastrous bet, so policy may change.
For Americans watching Al Jazeera America, it's important to watch out for subtle biases in content. And it would be interesting to compare any deviation from objectivity and balance against Qatar's interests. It's a challenge for viewers, who need strong, unbiased, responsible journalism.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for the Miami Herald. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.