Book Review: Mission Al-Jazeera

By Jim Miles

Mission Al-Jazeera. Josh Rushing. Palgrave MacMillan (St. Martin’s Press). New York, 2007.

Just about every day I scan various internet websites to see what is happening in world events. At the bottom of my list of ‘favourites’ – which is where I start and work my way up – is al-Jazeera English, the English internet print version of the al-Jazeera networks. It always contains stories that I would not have read about in the Canadian press, and it carries many stories that receive no information from American television media, which contains some of the worst, most biased and ill-informed ‘news’ of any available. From there I work my way to other global internet sites, some more even keeled than others, but none carry the effective weight of al-Jazeera nor the accuracy of various viewpoints that al-Jazeera does.

This morning for the first time I watched the internet broadcast of the al-Jazeera English global news station, prompted by my reading of Josh Rushing’s significant and revealing anecdotal tale “Mission Al Jazeera”. In the short span of half an hour I journeyed from East Timor through Chad/Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, Turkey, Switzerland, the EU- Arab League summit, Russia/Ukraine, Spain, England, South Korea and finally into Mexico.

Topics varied: the poverty in Chad in relation to the oil wealth, the dictatorship of the government, Exxon, French troops and insurgents, the burning of the Oil Ministry offices by the citizens (reminds one of Nigeria, Iraq and other oil rich areas); on to Pakistan and the capture of Mansour Dadullah, described as having been “dismissed” by the Taliban, so maybe not such a big catch after all; through Turkey and the proposed constitutional change to not ban headscarves on campuses; EU-Arab discussions on climate change, security, and migration with a focussed question on climate change, Europe has the technology, Arab countries the resources; into South Korea where a significant national treasure, the 600 year old Namdaemun gate, burned completely; an art heist in Zurich; and finally into a longer segment on poverty in Mexico and in particular Mexico city where a sector of the global 1 billion urban squatters tries to settle.

These were not sound bites. They offered – at least by American standards – significant story time to each sector so that a more valuable and varied picture was presented. There were no commercials, no corporate slop served up every few minutes to subconsciously tell the audience what they were really there for, consuming a corporate product. Instead, it was almost over-whelming in the breadth of news covered in that short time span.

“Mission Al Jazeera” provides an autobiographical anecdotal account of Josh Rushing’s journey through the U.S. Marines and into the world of English al-Jazeera. It is an easily accessible work, written without jargon, revealing a perspective that is unusual, significantly different than what one comes to expect from American sources, in particular one with such a strong military background. It is not that there are not other journeys out there similar to Rushing’s in their honesty about looking at the double standards and contradictions of U.S. policy, but his has achieved a global reach with al-Jazeera, dubbed the “Terror Network” by some American pundits.

The one ever-returning theme is that of the media, those very media pundits who choose to accept the bias and hubris of American sources at face value and are unwilling to look at a broader perspective. That in Rushing’s view is one part of the great harm of American corporate broadcasting – its failure to truly report news in context and provide alternate arguments to the officially accepted lines. Alternately he argues that if the American public, the American bureaucracy (military. business, government et al), and the American people, were to effectively interact with al-Jazeera, then a different view of America could emerge in the rest of the world.

That view as seen by Rushing is one of attraction – to the advertised freedoms and consumptive wealth – and hatred – for the all too obvious destructive use of military force around the world. He sees al-Jazeera as a chance to engage with the rest of the world, to let them see that America, in spite of its current fiascos, is still a country with opportunities to present and positive ideals to promote. That of course is a difficult sell when what is seen on the ground is so contradictory – a polar opposite – to the verbal ideals espoused by the American bureaucracy.

While discussing freedom of the press Rushing sees that “in reality, the United States has lost ground on these freedoms” while “tiptoeing around some issues for fear that American audiences will not stomach tough questions about foreign policy or the administration during a time of war, even the possibly endless war on terror.” The first part is obvious as press freedom in the U.S. is greatly limited by the corporate ownership of the majority of media formats while al-Jazeera has promoted copy cat versions around the world who are much more likely now to question the authorities.

The second part is arguable. Is it the audience that cannot handle the tough question? Or is it the bureaucracy that cannot take it? He continues on to say that the “U.S. networks allows…the audience to shape the medium.” Again, this is highly arguable, with all the self-censorship that operates within the media (as recognized by Rushing) and the identified general ignorance of the American audience, satisfied with seemingly interminable Hollywood stories and NASCAR. It is not so much that the audience shapes the media as the media shapes the audience – it should be, as identified by Rushing himself, that the media present both sides of arguments, that the audience be well educated, if not by the school system, at least then by the press.

Double standards are readily brought forward by Rushing: the “liberation” of Iraq from a dictator, when various dictators in the same region remain firmly entrenched in power, along with many other dictators world-wide; the “democracy” rhetoric that supports the new Iraqi government, but yet gives no credibility to Hamas (I must admit this latter point impressed me – that a U.S. Marine can recognize the democratic legitimacy of the Hamas election says that all hope is not lost); the negative American audience reaction when dead Americans are shown, and the lack of reaction when Iraqi dead are shown; the acceptance by al-Jazeera of Israeli commentators and Palestinian commentators, whereas the American stations simply parrot the Israeli publicity; the distribution of al-Qaeda tapes, that al-Jazeera uses but does not show beheadings whereas Fox describes them repetitively as beheading tapes and talks about them endlessly long after al-Jazeera has moved on to other news.

Objectivity and context are also sub-themes to this work. While it is in my perspective impossible to be objective because of the subjective human nature of interpreting the world and the over-whelming number of ‘facts’ available to choose from, some objectivity can be obtained by presenting conflicting viewpoints in comparison to what is seen and heard. Further objectivity can enter when the information involved is placed into context, ‘embedded’ as it were within other relevant information that might significantly change its emphasis and meaning. For Rushing, al-Jazeera does this while the American media fails miserably.

It is on this last point where I cannot let Rushing get away with a few minor comments that he made, mostly in passing, but also revealing. The honest look Rushing takes of American actions and words is coloured negatively by his belief that “the United States was (and is) not an empire,” citing in reference The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language. Their definition is of a “political unit having an extensive territory or comprising a number of territories or nations and ruled by a single supreme authority.” He uses the one example of Germany who did not participate in the invasion of Iraq as an example of not being a ‘single supreme authority’. The Oxford English Dictionary (I’m guessing, probably the one al-Jazeera uses as final resource on definitions judging by its cast of ex-patriot British broadcasters) provides a simple version: “Supreme and extensive (political) dominion.” Both leave room for argument, but if one includes actions by a supreme military (with “full spectrum dominance”), a global economy that suits mostly western and thus American corporate interests of gathering wealth from the hinterland (the world) to the heartland (America – or more precisely its corporations), a political reach that extends into that very same corporate world through institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, the OECD, and the WTO, and even more military control with the now edgy NATO alliance (headed by two four star American Generals), and I would have to argue that yes, America is an empire, albeit a failing one.

Another single point of concern is his lack of definition of al-Qaeda and its origins within the U.S. effort to give the Soviet Union its “Vietnam” in Afghanistan. By using the Pakistani secret service, supporting the madrassas, by providing money and arms to the mujahideen, America could be viewed as one of the originators of that group. In another out of context view he says that Hezbollah was “a non-governmental organization that has just invited death and destruction into their country” without putting the capturing of the border guards into the broader perspective of how Hezbollah originated in defence of Lebanese territory after the original Israeli invasion in 1982. Finally, an almost fully innocent comment about an Arab associate who was fulfilling his own dreams in America to the extent that “I’ve kind of forgotten what is going on in the rest of the world.” Ah, yes, the American dream, at the expense of the rest of the world. When all the power and wealth is centred in one area, the hinterland that is exploited hardly matters anymore.

These points, including my earlier argument about the media, while obviously important, do not take away from Rushing’s more important and obvious message, that of communication. He sees English al-Jazeera as a means of broadening perspectives on both sides of just about any issue. And, if he is as open to argument as he says he is, I would like to think that the criticisms offered above will be well considered by him, something to investigate further.

“Mission Al Jazeera” is well worth reading. The anecdotal style of writing is both entertaining and informative, producing a good view of the author’s character, his positive intentions, and his belief that al-Jazeera could be the model for a renewed global media perspective.

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications. He contributed this article to PalestineChrnicle.com.

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