The violence network

It's biased, gruesome, and totally compelling. How Al-Jazeera makes one American think differently about war

By Eric Calderwood
January 18, 2009
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DAMASCUS - This morning, while I made my coffee and eggs, I tuned in to the best show on television. When I went next door to buy my milk, the owner of the Rawda Grocery Store was already watching it, and down in the Sha'alan neighborhood, at the restaurant where I ate breakfast yesterday, customers are sitting over their bowls of fava bean soup, eyes glued to the screen. Millions across the region are following it along with us.

The show is the conflict in Gaza. On Al-Jazeera. Israel has restricted international reporters and camera crews from Gaza, so the Qatari network is one of the few international media outlets to have a full, working bureau inside Gaza City.

Even if CNN could sneak a camera crew through the checkpoints, it's hard to imagine they would produce anything like what's on Al-Jazeera - an all-day, ever-shifting drama that throws war in your face with all its gruesome cruelty. It is openly partisan, almost never showing Israeli deaths or injuries. It is also provocative and upsetting in a way that looks nothing like news in the West. Their broadcasts routinely feature mutilated corpses being pulled from the scene of an explosion, or hospital interviews with maimed children, who bemoan the loss of their siblings or their parents - often killed in front of their eyes. Al-Jazeera splices archival footage into the live shots, weaving interviews and expertly produced montages into a devastating narrative you can follow from the comfort of your own home.

This is news without even the pretense of impartiality. After several days of following the Al-Jazeera coverage of Gaza, I've never seen a live interview with an Israeli, neither a politician nor a civilian. In the Al-Jazeera version, the Gaza conflict has only two participants: the Israeli army - an impersonal force represented as tanks and planes on the map - and the Palestinian civilians, often shown entering the hospital on makeshift stretchers. There are few Hamas rockets and no Israeli families. It's not hard to see why Al-Jazeera is accused of deliberately inflaming regional enmity and instability.

But in a larger sense, Al-Jazeera's graphic response to CNN-style "bloodless war journalism" is a stinging rebuke to the way we now see and talk about war in the United States. It suggests that bloodless coverage of war is the privilege of a country far from conflict. Al-Jazeera's brand of news - you could call it "blood journalism" - takes war for what it is: a brutal loss of human life. The images they show put you in visceral contact with the violence of war in a way statistics never could.

For an American, to watch Al-Jazeera's coverage of Gaza is to realize that you've become alienated not just from war, but even from the representation of war as a real thing. As Americans, we're used to hearing the sound of heavy artillery, machine guns, and bombs in action films and video games. Yet here on the news, they seem strangely out of place. You could argue that Al-Jazeera uses images of civilian violence to foment public outrage against Israel. This might well be true. At the same time, these images acknowledge human suffering and civilian death and stand strongly against them - and in doing so, foment outrage against war itself.

Whether you are a fan or a critic of the network's presentation of the news, it's hard to deny that Al-Jazeera is, first and foremost, excellent television. The network's command of the form is one reason why it has resisted being marginalized, and even gained in prestige, despite acrimonious criticism from the American government and from many Western media sources. Watching its sounds and images, day after day, has a powerful effect totally outside the framework of the conflict it's covering.

Al-Jazeera choreographs its Gaza coverage with a sophistication that goes well beyond the dramatic representation of violence. To watch the war on Al-Jazeera is to be captured in a new rendering of time, and to become part of an "imagined community" defined by it. The network uses a ticker-tape format, with a constant flow of text underneath the main image. To the left is a small box that counts the days of the war in red and white fonts. Thus, while watching the news, you're introduced to a new calendar, in which the beginning of the war is the beginning of time. The ticker tape at the bottom of the screen includes a running count of the human cost of the war, steadily tolling the number of wounded and dead.

The network's producers seem to have learned a lot from American reality television, where real footage is crafted and spliced into a compelling narrative with characters, personal conflict, and a dramatic arc. Each day, viewers here in Syria and across the Arab world tune into a new "episode." Each day, the war's narrative builds and folds back on itself, reinforcing the audience's familiarity with the cast of characters: Hamas, the scrappy rebel; Israel, the regional bully; the civilians of Gaza - and, in particular, the wounded children - caught in the middle of the conflict. The "international community" is a bloviating model of inefficacy, tied up in innumerable committees and summits. Through it all stride the Al-Jazeera correspondents, decked out in blue bulletproof vests.

Al-Jazeera often goes live to the correspondent in Gaza City right at the beginning of the daily three-hour cease-fire, when the Israeli army is supposed to put down its arms to allow the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. During this shot, the correspondent inevitably "catches" live footage of the Israelis continuing to bomb well into the cease-fire period, and inevitably expresses surprise and dismay at what he is seeing, even though he is essentially replaying a scene he framed the same way the day before, and the day before that.

The staged suspense, the protestations of surprise - they smack of cynical theater. But it's hard to argue with the footage itself: There have been several independent reports of Israeli attacks and raids during the daily cease-fire. However they choose to frame it, Al-Jazeera correspondents are capturing events that other networks cannot. At that basic level, what they're doing is irreplaceable as journalism.

As perverse as it may sound, Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war satisfies, in the same way that a sitcom or serialized drama satisfies. It's not so much surprise that keeps bringing you back, but rather your familiarity with the characters' flaws and faults. And you know that your experience of the drama is not individual but rather collective. Walk into any cafe, grocery store, or dry cleaner in Damascus, and you are almost certain to find a TV tuned to Al-Jazeera's around-the-clock coverage of the war in Gaza. There is solidarity and also a certain comfort in watching the grim reality of war en masse.

It is impossible for me to imagine American viewers caring this much about a war they were not fighting themselves, especially one presented CNN-style, as an intermittent report of statistics, diplomacy, and military briefings. Al-Jazeera's critics would argue that the network has a lot to learn from the objectivity prized and upheld by well-regarded Western media outlets. But the American media has something to learn, too: Showing the actual violence of war is how you get the public to grasp the nature of war. Our networks' squeamishness about violence lets us keep human death and suffering at a distance, an abstract consequence of policy. If what you are worried about is individuals, then to look away from violence is not a neutral position.

The most compelling refrain of Al-Jazeera's Gaza coverage is not, however, its news reports, but rather a short montage titled "The War on Gaza," which the channel intersperses between news segments. The montage reassembles itself each day, incorporating new images and reorganizing old ones, oscillating between images of the war and images of international protests against the war.

The images change each day, but two appear every time. First, there is a young girl, face covered in blood, crying amid the smoke of a recent explosion. A phantom adult arm is carrying the girl from the scene. The adult body is cropped off, and all you see is the girl's face frozen in anguish and pain. The second recurring image is the one that closes each edition of the montage: Scenes of pro-Palestine street protests from around the world, ending in a close-up of a tall, defiant poster with the words, in English, "Stop the Holocaust in Gaza." The montage then fades to a red background, in which you can discern the image of a wounded child whose moribund eyes are turned skyward. The montage creates an impression, renewed every day, of mass outrage against the war, not only in the Arab world, but also in Europe. Yet here in Damascus, even the street demonstrations I've seen don't seem to carry the heat of people's mass absorption with the TV coverage of the war.

That word "Holocaust" on that poster (in Arabic, mihraqa) is also a provocation, and it's only part of the very deliberate lexicon used on Al-Jazeera to describe the Gaza War: "aggression" ('udwan), "occupation" (ihtilal), and "genocide" (ibada). If objectivity is your yardstick, the entire way the network's newscasters discuss the war disqualifies them as journalists. But this is also how my Syrian neighbors see American journalism, which lumps any number of Arabs and Islamists and political rebels together as "terrorists."

Here in Damascus the ethical stakes of this war of words are very real. Yesterday, I went down to a popular shopping district a few blocks south of my house to buy groceries. On the main commercial strip, I noticed that a number of the stores had put up anti-Israeli propaganda posters. Many of them featured a burning American flag with a Star of David and a swastika in the middle. On many thresholds, shop owners had painted the Israeli flag so that their customers could step on it. In one storefront, the owner had placed a poster that said: "Americans not welcome." Ironically, this shop owner is also the landlord of some of my best American friends in Damascus.

I can understand why many people strongly believe that Al-Jazeera itself contributes to these regional hatreds. But after months of watching the network intensely, I can honestly say that I've never heard their newscasters frame an argument or a story in anti-Semitic or anti-American terms. And Al-Jazeera hosts one of the most ecumenical news programs I have ever seen on TV, anywhere: A morning spot called the "Press Tour," which shows images of newspapers from the United States, Europe, the Arab world, and (notably) Israel, and translates excerpts of the most important articles. Since the start of the current Gaza conflict, Al-Jazeera has expanded its coverage of the Israeli press into an entire nightly segment in which a newscaster reviews the lead articles in the major Israeli newspapers, with readable images of the Hebrew text they are translating. Many of them openly support the war and condemn Hamas, and some of them even condemn Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war. To think about how remarkable this is, imagine an American news anchor simply reading article after article from newspapers in Tehran, or Mosul, or even Paris.

In a way, that's the paradox of Al-Jazeera's war journalism: It is flagrantly political, but accompanied by a real curiosity about other perspectives. It also makes me wish for something else: A TV network with the bravery to show the war imagery you can see on Al-Jazeera, but the integrity to do it in the service of peace, rather than the service of a side. Its violent imagery, however unpleasant, would be a strong stand for the individual against violence, and for human compassion against easily fanned hatreds.

Maybe then, the next time I go shopping for vegetables in my neighborhood in Damascus, I wouldn't see swastikas or burning American flags, but rather pictures of wounded civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian. Unfortunately, right now, the view from my living room doesn't look promising.

Eric Calderwood, a Harvard University PhD student living in Syria, researches Muslim-Christian relations in the medieval Mediterranean.

An image from the video 'Day of wrath in Gaza against Israel' from Al-Jazeera. An image from the video "Day of wrath in Gaza against Israel" from Al-Jazeera.
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