Sunday, March 30, 2003

Keeping up with the war means using many sources


When bombs light up the night sky over Baghdad, American TV viewers have found themselves watching Al-Jazeera, once denounced as "Osama Television" by the Bush administration.

CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and other American networks have been using video from several Arabic TV services - Al-

Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV, Al Arabiya, Dubai TV and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. - which provide pictures from inside Iraq not available anywhere else.

Except for Al-Jazeera, which has broadcast Iraqi state video of dead U.S. soldiers and Osama bin Laden tapes, most Americans probably hadn't heard much about these Arabic networks.

So here's a tour of the global village, to help you understand the war coverage you're watching:

Al-Jazeera: Launched in 1996 by Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Kfalifa al-Thani. Reportedly reaches 35 million people. Banned in Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Algiers, Syria, Kuwait and other nations. The New York Stock Exchange revoked credentials for two Al-Jazeera reporters on Monday.

Al Arabiya: Began operation in late February. Based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Bankrolled by investors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Lebanon. Operating from the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) owned by the brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.

Abu Dhabi TV: Based in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. Operated by Emirates Media Inc. (EMI), the largest diversified media company in the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai TV: Operated by the Dubai Department of Information, United Arab Emirates.

Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.: Founded in 1985 as Lebanon's first private TV station. Launched a free satellite channel in 1996.

• The U.S. networks have the same view of the Baghdad skyline because ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC (and sister MSNBC) are sharing two "pool" cameras mounted on the Ministry of Information roof.

"It's one of the very few places where you can broadcast live in Baghdad," explains Matt Furman, a CNN spokesman.

• U.S. networks rely on video from Al-Jazeera and other Arabic news channels because of the restrictions on U.S. reporters in Baghdad.

With the expulsion of CNN's staff a week ago, American TV networks have only two reporters in Baghdad: Peter Arnett, 68, for NBC, MSNBC and MSNBC's National Geographic Explorer series, and Richard Engel, 29, a freelancer for ABC-TV and radio. (NPR also has correspondent Anne Garrels in Baghdad.)

Arab networks have telecast daily pictures from Iraqi hospitals, where men, women and children attribute their injuires to U.S. missiles, according to wire reports.

"Arab networks largely are permitted to work elsewhere in Baghdad. They have freedom of movement, so they can do taped reports, and broadcast those tapes," Furman says.

Seconds after the "shock and awe" bombing began, CNN split the screen four ways to air video from the two rooftop pool cameras, Al-Jazeera and Dubai TV. Within 15 minutes, MSNBC and Fox News copied CNN.

• If a U.S. network does a split-screen picture from Baghdad from the Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya channels, American viewers don't realize that it's a huge coup for the lesser-known rival.

Al-Jazeera, launched in 1996 by the Qatar government, reportedly reaches 35 million people. Al Arabiya, based in the United Arab Emirates, didn't begin operation until late February, and didn't start around-the-clock service until earlier this month.

Al-Arabiya is positioning itself as "a wise and balanced alternative to maverick Al-Jazeera, which has offended virtually every regime in the Middle East by taking political taboos and other issues head on," according to the Khaleej Times, the daily English-language newspaper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

• It may surprise many Americans to learn that many people in Arabic countries don't watch Al-Jazeera - because they can't.

Kuwait officials threw out Al-Jazeera in November, charging that the satellite TV network was "not objective," the Associated Press reported. "Many Kuwaitis feel it is biased toward the Iraqi leadership," the story said.

Al-Jazeera also is banned in Jordan, Libya, Syria, Algiers - and Iraq - according to Adeed Dawisha, an Iraqi-born political science professor at Miami University.

"It's ironic that Iraq has banned Al-Jazeera, because it's almost a propaganda arm of the Iraq government. It's very anti-American, and very pro-Iraqi," said Dawisha, who has been watching Arabic channels and the U.S. networks on his satellite dish.

(Al-Jazeera is available on the Dish Network as part of an Arabic TV package; is not offered by DirecTV or Time Warner Cable.)

News reporting on Abu Dhabi TV and Dubai TV, both from the United Arab Emirates, "seems to be able to criticize the government, and say some things that other (Arab channels) can't," Dawisha said.

Many Arabs also seek multiple sources of information - TV, the Internet and newspapers - and don't rely solely on the Arabic satellite channels, said Elizabeth Frierson, a Middle Eastern history expert and University of Cincinnati assistant professor.

"They don't trust one source of information. They know that if the source of some information is the government, they're suspect. They're serious multi-taskers," Frierson said.

• If not Al-Jazeera, then what network has the biggest Arab audience?

That would be CNN International, launched in 1985, and reaching 170 million households. That doesn't include CNN/US, available in 86 million American households, plus 890,000 hotel rooms, according to a CNN publicist.

CNN claims a total audience of 1 billion in 212 countries for all of its "branded network services," including; CNN Radio; CNN Headline News; the CNN Airport Network; Spanish-, Turkish- and German-language networks; and the CNN Newsource serving 680 U.S.-affiliated stations and more than 200 international affiliates.

Among CNN's affiliates are four Arabic services: Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. (LBC) and Al Arabiya.

"Al-Jazeera has been an affiliate of ours since before Sept. 11 (2001), and they're just one of our 250 international affiliates," Furman said.

CNN's affiliates range from China state television network and Germany's N-TV service to all four Cincinnati TV newsrooms.

"It's important to stress that they (affiliates) have no editorial input on CNN," Furman says. "They pay us money - not the other way around - whether it's state-run or not."

• After 10 days, it's clear that the best way to keep up on the war is to check a variety of sources - all of the TV news channels; newspapers (local and Internet sites); other related Web sites; and radio reports, particulary Garrels' accounts on NPR from Baghdad.

Often you'll be rewarded by learning some of the biggest stories from "embedded" broadcast and print correspondents traveling with troops, such as the 1,000 Army paratroops that landed in northern Iraq Wednesday night.

Yes, that's often just a "slice" of the total war picture, as Pentagon officials repeatedly have cautioned.

But the first 10 days have proved that TV reports from the embedded reporters have provided details hours before official confirmation by the Allies' Central Command in Qatar.

It's been amazing and historic reality TV.


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