The White House vs. Al-Jazeera

Published January 31, 2005 1:42PM (EST)

We're sure to hear a bit more about the march of freedom when George W. Bush delivers his State of the Union address Wednesday night. But in all that liberty spreading and freedom advancing the Bush administration likes to promote, there seems to be at least one right that the White House isn't much interested in exporting to other countries: freedom of the press.

As the New York Times reports it, the administration is pressuring the government of Qatar to sell Al-Jazeera, and administration officials are apparently in deep debate with themselves over whether they should try to "shut down" the network altogether. That's not the kind of thing freedom marchers usually do, but the administration is apparently worried that, even if Qatar sells Al-Jazeera to private owners, the network still might not be to its liking.

And what is the administration's grievance with Al-Jazeera, exactly? The Times says that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell have all "complained heatedly to Qatari leaders that Al-Jazeera's broadcasts have been inflammatory, misleading, and occasionally false, especially on Iraq." Of course, one might also argue that the statements of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell have been "inflammatory, misleading and occasionally false" -- especially on Iraq.

But putting all that aside -- and that's what we're supposed to do now, isn't it, Sen. Lieberman? -- can the administration articulate a complaint about Al-Jazeera that wouldn't apply with equal force to, say, Fox News? Well, no, at least not if the Times' report is any indication.

Fox clearly has the "inflammatory, misleading and occasionally false" part down pat. As for the administration's other complaints about Al-Jazeera? The Times says that the White House is unhappy about Al-Jazeera's "repeated showings of taped messages by Osama bin Laden" and its emphasis on "civilian casualties" in Iraq. Fox may not be guilty of these wrongs, exactly -- although we could have sworn that we've seen bin Laden on Fox now and then -- but it certainly has engaged in its pro-war analogues. How many times did Fox replay the tape of that plane hitting the World Trade Center, of the towers falling, or of the hole in the side of the Pentagon? And just how does Fox dole out its airtime when there's a choice between highlighting the civilian casualties in Iraq and paying tribute to U.S. soldiers who have died there?

We're not saying that Al-Jazeera makes a better set of editorial choices than Fox does, or that the citizens of the world ought to be watching one of the networks rather than the other. We're just saying that we agree with a speaker we heard on Jan. 20, a fellow who said that the institutions of free countries "may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own," and that America's role should be to "help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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