By Abdallah Schleifer
Many years ago, when I was a producer-reporter for NBC News based in Beirut, then Cairo, and would lecture at universities in the United States, I would be asked the same question: Why did national TV news coverage – from NBC, CBS, ABC and eventually CNN – resemble each other so much, except for the rare scoop?
The implication was that there might be early morning conspiratorial meetings to determine a common coverage agenda. My answer then was that professional journalists, regardless of personal political views, generally shared a common sense of which events had news value and which did not.
Even in more recent years, with the rise of Fox News and its penchant for editorializing from the right, and then MSNBC from the left, but rarely by ignoring a newsworthy event.
POLARIZED VIEW OF EGYPT
The rise of independently operated private satellite channels had a positive impact in the Arab world from the late 1990s, forcing state-owned channels who were losing audiences to start providing actual coverage from the field and somewhat tone down their partisanship.
That began to change in the last couple of years, when Al-Jazeera’s oldest Arabic-language channel and its local Egyptian satellite operation Al-Jazeera “Mubasher” increased the existing tendency to cheerlead for one side in the Arab Spring upheavals taking place in Syria and Egypt. That bothered me, even though my personal sympathies, tentatively at that time, were in accordance with the station. It should be noted that Al- Jazeera English, however, appeared to operate with considerably more detachment.
Yet there was an increasingly bitter tone in what could be called a polarization in both local print and TV news coverage in the days leading up to the Egyptian army’s intervention, or coup. That polarization collapsed when the military closed down Muslim Brotherhood media and channels sympathetic with it. This caused a crisis at Al-Jazeera Mubasher, where about 20 Egyptian staff had already resigned because of its overt partisanship.
Then something changed, Al-Jazeera English started to diverge from the news values it previously shared with channels broadcast by the likes of the BBC and France 24.
This was mirrored by Al-Jazeera English’s sister Arabic station. I have heard numerous criticisms of the Al Arabiya News Channel for its perceived bias against the Muslim Brotherhood, but the fact remains that Al Arabiya (of which this website is part) stands alongside Sky News Arabia and BBC Arabic in its coverage of Egypt. On the other side of the fence is Al-Jazeera Arabic, alone in its apparent support of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Evidence of this is available by simply turning on one’s TV set and flicking through the above-mentioned channels.
In the days prior to Mursi’s removal and shortly afterwards, Al-Jazeera had correspondents reporting from both Tahrir Square – where opponents of deposed President Mohammed Mursi were based – and at Nasr City, the largest pro-Mursi gathering.
After the military overthrew Mursi, Al-Jazeera English’s field coverage started to shift dramatically. Its reporting either covered only one of two rival events, or ignored the obvious when covering events. For example, last week a presenter said there were two rival demonstrations underway, at Tahrir Square and Nasr City, but there was no coverage from the former location.
Perhaps the crowd at Tahrir, by now distinctly against Al-Jazeera, had chased its crew away, but that would not have prevented the channel from taking footage from TV news agencies or relatively non-competitive channels that are always ready to sell footage to each other. Interviews with anti-Mursi demonstrators would remain rare on Al-Jazeera English in the days to come.
Last Friday, when security forces called on Brotherhood demonstrators to leave a mosque, one gunman on the minaret, and at least one other at a mosque window, fired at the soldiers, who returned fire with great intensity. A Reuters correspondent filed an eye-witness account of gunfire from the minaret.
Other channels had footage of those first shots, then the ensuing exchange of fire and tear gas canisters thrown into the mosque, and troops entering it to clear it. Al Jazeera English made only vague allusions to the charge that gunmen had begun (and quickly lost) the firefight, in contrast to the other pan-Arab and global channels.
Over the past few weeks, popular committees made of local neighborhood men in areas close to Brotherhood rallying points set up barricades to check the identities of unknown persons and prevent Brotherhood marches coming through. As a significant news development, these committees, referred to as “thugs” by Brotherhood spokespeople, have been ignored by Al Jazeera.
Nor have I seen any significant field reports about the nearly 50 churches attacked by pro-Mursi supporters throughout the country. The Brotherhood says it is opposed to attacking churches, but in the weeks leading to Mursi’s ouster, its spokespeople were quoted in their own media verbally attacking the Coptic community for the large number of Copts participating in anti-Mursi demonstrations.
These verbal and physical attacks increased when the Coptic Patriarch stood alongside the head of the army as the latter announced the overthrow of Mursi and the appointment of a transitional government. It is clear that the Brotherhood cannot control radical Salafists within the pro-Mursi ranks, or as a spokesman said last week, some of its own very angry cadre who have lost comrades in the army crackdown.
Several important voices in the anti-Mursi camp have protested the decision to break up the Brotherhood sit-ins by force. They have been unfairly attacked by strident voices as being secret sympathizers or even members of the Brotherhood. These outrageous accusations are perhaps indicative of how both sides and their media have hardened over the last few weeks. This will only increase if the government implements its threat to formally outlaw the Brotherhood.