Ralph D. Berenger
Miles, Hugh. Al
Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That is Challenging
the West. New York: Grove Press, 2005. Hard cover. 438 pages.
ISBN: 0802117899. $1632.
Mohammed and Iskandar, Adel. Al-Jazeera: The Story of the
Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism.
Cambridge, MA: Westview, 2003. Paperback. 240 pages. ISBN: 0813341493.
Oliver (Ed.) Beyond Borders: Research for International Broadcasting
2003, Vol. 2. Bonn, Germany: Conference of International
Broadcasters' Audience Research Services, 2004. Paperback. 168
Pages. ISBN 3-932872-11-8. Free as stock allows.
Some critics have wrongly perceived Hugh Miles' book on Al Jazeera
as a regurgitation of already-published information about the
transnational broadcasting channel. Instead Miles' Inside
Story should be viewed as a continuing quest to understand
why the world's most-watched news channel is so appealing to
its audience, and so perplexing to its critics.
In his erudite ethnography, Miles draws on his skills as a reporter
trained in the Western media tradition to explain how differences
in perspective guide the Arabic channel on its mission to provide
"the opinion and the other opinion." What has rankled
Western governmental policymakers has been how successful Al
Jazeera has been in carrying out its mission by practicing "contextual
objectivity." More on that later.
Despite vilification from Western policymakers and skepticism
by some viewers in the Arab world that the station in Qatar
is an instrument of the US government, or worse, the Israelis,
Al Jazeera has built a global audience of between 35 and 50
million viewers. Miles journalistically wades into the disparate
-- if not contradictory -- viewpoints without offering his own
conclusions. At times, however, you could almost visualize the
writer shaking his head in amazement over statements, like those
made by a Jordanian family, that Al Jazeera was part of a Zionist
plot to control the Middle East. Or at the equally preposterous
statement from Israelis that Al Jazeera promotes terrorism.
An academic curiosity
Of course, none of these claims is new to scholars of Al Jazeera,
who have followed the station's development from a largely regional
satellite in 1996, to a major international media player in
2003. Along the way, Al Jazeera has managed, in varying degrees,
to invoke the official ire of nearly every Arab (and many non-Arab)
countries in which it maintains bureaus. There's an old newspaperman's
saying that if both sides of an issue are angry about the balance
of your news coverage, you were probably reporting the story
accurately. At least that is what they are saying in Al Jazeera's
Few television channels, with the possible exception of CNN,
have received so much attention as Al Jazeera in so many different
forms: newspaper and magazine articles, academic journals and
conference papers, book chapters, news documentaries, and even
a full-length feature documentary (Control Room, see TBS 12
for reviews), and, of course books. The books listed here are
only a fraction of those that have been published concerning
Al Jazeera. Mohamed Zayani edits many TBS contributors in a
new one published this spring, The Al Jazeera Phenomenon:
Critical Perspectives on New Arab Media (London: Paradigm,
2005). That book will be reviewed in the next issue of TBS
As an Arabic-speaker who grew up in the region (his father,
Oliver, a critic of the 2003 Iraq war, was once the UK's ambassador
to Libya), Miles made inroads into a society normally reticent
around foreign journalists. One of the strengths of this book
is Miles' willingness to travel around the Middle East and go
as far as the Detroit suburbs in the US to interview ordinary
viewers of Al Jazeera and sample their opinions on what kind
of job it is doing.
Making a serious effort to transcend language barriers and cultural
divides, Miles clearly demonstrates professional kinship for
Al Jazeera and its many journalists around the world. Even though
the author is sympathetic to his subject, he slightly misses
shedding light on why Al Jazeera remains so popular with viewers
despite the brick-bats from the West and ham-handed Arab government
critics in the Middle East. In that regard, an earlier work
by Mohammed el-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar hits closer to the mark
by offering the concept of contextual objectivity as an explanation
for why viewers find Al Jazeera so credible.
However, it must be understood that these are two different
books intended for two different audiences. Both succeed in
their objective of explaining the Al Jazeera phenomenon, and
why Al Jazeera dominates the field of would-be successors.
Al Jazeera's broad
How influential is television, and Al Jazeera, in the Middle
East? The Conference for International Broadcaster's Audience
Research Services (CIBAR) offers some clues.
According to Mark Rhoads and Carole Chapelier's 2003 examination
of Middle East media, reported in Zöllner's book, satellite
television "is the most popular entertainment and information
medium" in the Middle East. No surprise there, though its
growth exceeds any rate found elsewhere in the world. Television
beats radio as the media of choice by two to one in Egypt and
Daily television viewership exceeds 75 percent in most countries,
the study shows, with penetration highest in Morocco (89 percent)
and Kuwait (86 percent) and lowest in Jordan (67 percent) and
Egypt (75 percent). "News consumers tend to be skeptics
who recognize the form and content of propaganda. They are not
inclined to believe claims to 'objectivity' and instead seek
'balance,' a report that examines an event from diverse angles,"
Kuwait leads the way with satellite dish installation with 97
percent of the 7,056 of the survey respondents saying they own
or have access to satellite, followed by the United Arab Emirates
(UAE) (82 percent) and Qatar (81 percent). The fewest dishes
were in Egypt (12 percent), Jordan (50 percent), and Morocco
Although Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) is the most
highly watched channel in the UAE for entertainment (at 42 percent),
Al Jazeera pulls down a whopping 57 percent of the viewers seeking
news. Not only that but 61 percent of the viewers rated Al Jazeera
as the most credible.
Perhaps as an effect of transnational broadcasting, the Rhoads-Chapelier
study shows that regional stations, such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya
and Abu Dhabi television, among the other offerings like al-Manar,
MBC and Iqra, are regarded by views as "local" and
dominate international attempts to penetrate the market. (p.78-79).
where they live, Arabs view Al Jazeera as local
The perception of Al Jazeera as a local channel partly explains
its popularity in the Arab World, but why is it so popular in
Europe, Asia, and, increasingly, the US, where of the hundreds
of channels offered Al Jazeera is the preferred channel among
Arabic speakers? What Miles found out -- supporting a uses and
gratifications study by Khaled Al-Jaber, The Credibility
of Arab Broadcasting: The Case of Al Jazeera (see review
in TBS 13) - was that people in the so-called Arab Diaspora
watched Al Jazeera because it gave them a sense of their origin
and kept them informed of cultural events.
Stalled by bureaucratic red tape from distributing its satellite
channel in Canada until mid-2004, the channel is quickly building
a viewership among Arabic speakers there, whose numbers have
swelled since 9/11 in comparison with the less visa-friendly
US. In fact, the prohibition on Al Jazeera was lifted months
before another controversial station, Fox News, was allowed
across the border. Canadian administrators still censor some
of the programs as being too inflammatory or too inaccurate
for the good of the Canadian people. Sounds a lot like the Middle
East, doesn't it?
Indeed, much of the information contained in the hard cover
Miles edition, is well known among the media cognoscenti, a
group not as large as casual readers might suspect. However,
Miles adds more sources to what has already been printed about
the transnational broadcaster and updates readers of the el-Nawawy
and Iskandar book. Like a fine chef Miles collects the known
ingredients, carefully cutting away the unsubstantiated and
unverified, and blends in his personal observations in Qatar,
Jordan, Cairo, and Dearborn, Michigan, to produce a highly palatable
stew that satisfies most cravings of casual readers for information
about the Qatar-based station.
No, there are few surprises or sensational revelations about
the transnational broadcasting leader-its reported 50 million
viewers exceed that of either BBC World or CNN, which Al Jazeera
openly tries to emulate-but what is there to expose? The station's
"hidden agenda," which many Arab and non-Arab critiques
suspect but can not quite figure out? No other satellite broadcaster
in history has been so scrutinized. After all, Al Jazeera operates
under an intensive microscope of the greatest military and economic
power the world has ever seen. If there were direct links to
Al Qa'ida, as has been suggested by the US State Department,
a claim reported by both Miles and his able predecessors, el-Nawawy
and Iskandar, then this information would have come out long
ago. Could it be, Miles suggests, that Al Jazeera is just practicing
the journalist's trade, the same as any other professional news
organization, but within a specific cultural context never before
explored in a global arena?
Academic and profession
Where el-Nawawy and Iskandar presented seminal and scholarly
research, replete with footnotes and bibliography, Miles' book
is a journalistic effort. He is trying to tell a story, not
document a phenomenon. But taken together -- not surprisingly,
Amazon.com has done just that for $27.20 -- these books are
invaluable to the West's understanding of what Al Jazeera is
up to. Or what the writers think it is up to.
There is also the question of timing.
The el-Nawawy and Iskandar edition first came out in 2002 (see
review in TBS 8) and a slightly modified edition came out in
paperback in 2003. The new epilogue updated its earlier version
and added a fresh concept for scholars to mull -- the notion
of contextual objectivity.
Contextual objectivity, a phrase el-Nawawy apparently borrowed
from quantum mechanics, explains how journalistic practices
of truthfulness, fairness, and lack of bias in reporting in
one culture can be as subjective as it wants as long as it's
targeted audiences go along and think they are receiving truthful,
fair, and balanced news about another's culture. Al Jazeera
is not the only international broadcaster to do this: has anyone
caught Fox News on Orbit lately?
While intuition suggests that the raison d'être of any
media is to attract and hold an audience, we can safely assume
the audience gets something out of its investment in time and
energy to watch the channel. A spate of recent academic studies
have found a direct link to the perception of audiences that
their favorite broadcasters appeal directly to them and their
innate wants, desires, wishes, and, yes, biases. Hence, conservatives
enjoy watching Fox News, Liberals enjoy watching CNN, and Arab
audiences stick with Al Jazeera over competitors because its
programming appeals to their worldviews. To some extent, all
of the channels offer their viewers comprehensive and selective
information that reflects the viewers' interests. In short,
they are all contextually objective to one extent or another.
As studies reported in this journal and others have shown, audiences
generally find Al Jazeera believable, even when it makes mistakes
and corrects them at a later time -- just as any Western broadcaster
would do. The challenge for Al Jazeera, the writers would agree,
is to inject some social responsibility into their broadcast
philosophy. Indications exist that this is underway at the Qatari
station, such as the adoption of a code of ethics (see Al
Jazeera Update: More Datelines from Doha and a Code of Ethics
in TBS 13) and its growing reluctance to broadcast images of
individuals kidnapped by jihadist groups.
Both books on Al Jazeera, despite duplicating information at
times -- the Miles book was ever cognizant of that fact and
tried to approach well-known information from a variety of angles
-- are worthy of shelf space in any transnational broadcasting
library. The CIBAR studies are valuable, too, in that they provide
a snapshot of the Middle East mediascape, including not only
information about transnational television viewing habits, but
transnational radio listening patterns as well.