Al-Jazeera is "breaking in with something we think is unique, and are confident, with our guts and some research, that the American people are looking for," according to its America's president Kate O'Brian. If she is claiming "guts" and "research" are among the qualities sought by American viewers, she may be right, although what puts Al-Jazeera uniquely in a position to provide either is unclear. In a Time.com article, Al-Jazeera political analyst Marwan Bishara worried that it would become "too American," with too many American accents and "watered down" journalism – hardly the stuff of unique "guts."
The real concern for American viewers is not the quality of the product on the screen, but rather two mostly hidden issues: the government behind the network, and the difference between Al-Jazeera's Arabic and English versions.
To Americans, Al-Jazeera purports to be the equivalent of CNN or Fox or MSNBC – an independent purveyor of news. Yes, Americans know that most media leans left and a little bit of it leans right, but the networks themselves are generally free of government manipulation. Al-Jazeera, however, is a wholly owned arm of the Government of Qatar. The State Department describes Qatar as "an hereditary constitutional monarchy governed by the ruling Al Thani family in consultation with a council of ministers, an appointed advisory council, and an elected municipal council." [In other words, a dictatorship, and the switch from the elder Al Thani last month to his son this month may be no change at all.]
This is not CNN, but Pravda; not Fox, but Izvestia. When Americans watched Soviet propaganda masquerading as news during the Cold War, they were aware of its source and aware of its biases toward communism and against free markets and free systems. The British government openly and proudly owns the BBC, and while the corporation's mandate is "to provide impartial public service broadcasting," viewers know what they're measuring against.
What should viewers know about Qatar that might impact how Al-Jazeera covers news?
First, Qatar is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The elder Emir was the first head of state to visit Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood and an entry on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. While there, he offered Hamas $450 million. Separately, Qatar announced a $1 billion "Heritage Fund" to "protect the Arabic and Islamic heritage of Jerusalem." Apparently there is no Jewish heritage in the city needing "protection." Qatar funded Libyan rebels, many of whom were al Qaeda-related and who followed battle in Libya with the war in Mali. Qatar, in conjunction with Brotherhood-leaning Turkey, has spent $1-3 billion on Syrian rebels, with concerns that some part of more than 70 plane-loads of Qatari-supplied weapons found their way into the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra as well as Muslim Brotherhood forces.
Crucially, during the Egyptian upheaval, Al-Jazeera has been understood to be on the Brotherhood's side against the al-Sisi government. In July, 22 Al-Jazeera Cairo staff members quit, accusing the station of "airing lies and misleading viewers." Former anchor Karem Mahmoud said there was "biased coverage" and "the management in Doha provokes sedition among the Egyptian people and has an agenda against Egypt and other Arab countries." He added that the channel's management instructed the staff to favor the Brotherhood.
To make its own preferred political point, Al-Jazeera has stooped to the sort of phony journalism that has characterized coverage of supposed Hamas injuries in Gaza. On Tuesday, Al-Jazeera ran a clip of a Morsi supporter with a bandage around his head and a blood-soaked compress on his stomach. The "patient," however, forgot to let the local medic in on the scam, and as the bloody gauze is taken away and the bloody shirt lifted to treat the wound, there simply is no wound. The "patient" then lifts his leg and shoves the attendant away, irritated. The clip has more than 2.2 million hits on YouTube.
The second problem is that Al-Jazeera in English is not Al-Jazeera in Arabic. Historian Harold Rhode explains:
They… have completely separate staffs and editorial policies. Al-Jazeera in English is not particularly anti-Western and has interesting content. Al-Jazeera in Arabic is viciously anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and incites its viewers to fight the West. Al-Jazeera English was created to pacify Western governments, who are lulled into believing that since both stations have the same name, they must air the same material.
After 9-11, Fouad Ajami wrote, "Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage." Anti-Semitic cartoons on the network would not pass muster anywhere in the United States.
This may seem less weighty than the issue of state ownership, but it goes to the core of journalistic integrity – of which Al-Jazeera has none. Americans generally do not speak Arabic and will not watch the Arabic version. It is a lie by omission to let Americans think that the harmless – or even interesting – programming they see is the same that is seen by millions of Arabic speakers, when in fact, Al-Jazeera promotes calumnies and hatreds against us and against our friends, and promotes incitement to terror.
Journalist Oren Kessler, postulated the network in English would have three choices:
To continue its present gambit of declaring a common "vision" with its parent channel while hoping the latter's indiscretions somehow do not reflect poorly on itself… to pressure that same out-of-control kin to pull its act together, lest it once again cast doubt on the character of both… (or) to categorically and unequivocally cut its own cord.
Unfortunately, there is a fourth. Al-Jazeera may simply continue to be the two-faced propaganda organ of a dictator who supports the Muslim Brotherhood, telling lies in Arabic and another story in English; increasing its anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-Semitic view of the world, and fomenting violence in the Middle East and the Arab world.
Only the level of American viewership will determine Al-Jazeera's future.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.