World and America watching different wars
CNN vs. Al Jazeera: Seeing is often believing
CAIRO, EGYPT — The Hamouda family is gathered around the TV, sipping sugary tea and glued to the pictures of captured US soldiers being interrogated by Iraqis on the popular Qatar-based satellite station Al Jazeera.
"What's your name?" A terrified young female POW is asked. "How old are you?" The camera moves to her feet, which are bloody and bare.
"Yieee!," cheers eldest son Ahmed, knocking over a fake geranium plant as he shoots up from the couch in excitement. "Show it how it is!"
It is not that they are happy to see suffering, says Hellmy, the father, somewhat apologetically, as the camera weaves between several bodies. "But the other side of the story needs to be told."
The gruesome video shown Sunday on Al Jazeera - reaching 35 million Arab-speakers worldwide, including about 20 percent of the Egyptian population - will probably never be seen by the average American TV viewer.
In fact, American audiences are seeing and reading about a different war than the rest of the world. The news coverage in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, reflects and defines the widening perception gap about the motives for this war. Surveys show that an increasing number of Americans believe this is a just war, while most of the world's Arabs and Muslims see it as a war of aggression. Media coverage does not necessarily create these leanings, say analysts, but it works to cement them.
"The difference in coverage between the US and the rest of the world helped contribute to the situation that we're in now,'' says Kim Spencer, president of WorldLink TV, a US satellite channel devoted to airing foreign news. "Americans have been unable to see how they're perceived."
For example, most Americans, watching CNN, Fox, or the US television networks, are not seeing as much coverage of injured Iraqi citizens, or being given more than a glimpse of the antiwar protests now raging in the Muslim world and beyond.
In the Middle East, Europe, and parts of Asia, by comparison, the rapid progress made by US led troops has been played down. And many aspects of the conflict being highlighted in the US - such as the large number of Iraqi troops surrendering, the cooperation between US-led forces and various Gulf states, commentary on America's superior weapons technology, and the human interest angles on soldier life in the desert - are almost totally absent from coverage outside the US.
"Sure, the news we get in the Arab world is slanted," admits Hussein Amin, chair of the department of journalism and mass communication at Cairo's American University. "In the same way the news received in the US is biased."
Some analysts note that European press ownership is less concentrated than its counterparts in the US, and is seen as providing more perspectives than either the Arab or American outlets. In Frankfurt, for example, readers have access to 16 different German language newspapers - many of which present different vantage points, which makes for a more lively and varied debate.
European journalists also seem to ask different, more skeptical, questions of this war, often being the ones at White House and Pentagon press conferences to ask whether the invasion of Iraq has turned up any of the weapons of mass destruction that used to justify the invasion - even as their American counterparts repeatedly focus on such questions as whether Saddam Hussein is alive or dead.
Media watchers say the European press has tended to be more balanced than the US media in dealing with the war, in part because Europe is so much closer to the Muslim world. John Schmidt, a former reporter for the International Herald Tribune, who has just returned from Europe, notes that in Marseille, France, 30 percent of the population is Muslim. In Berlin, the biggest minority population is the Turks.
"These are countries in Europe that live cheek by jowl with Islamic people, they know how deep the dislike for the West can be, they know how sensitively some of these issues have to be transmitted," says Mr. Schmidt, who is now an economics writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"There are really two stories unfolding here, one is the war and its progress and the second one is the progress of world opinion," says Tom Patterson, a media expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "That second dimension is there in the American press, but it's clearly way underreported."
For instance, American media outlets may report on the demonstrations in other countries, particularly if there are violent clashes. But they don't devote as many resources to covering in depth the growing anti-American sentiment - even among American allies - or its implications for the future, says Professor Patterson.
Back in his Cairo living room, the elder Mr. Hamouda flips to CNN for a moment, over cries of protest from the rest of the family. It is vaguely possible to make out US troop maneuvers on a grainy green screen. In the corner there is a small photo of a middle-aged man in an Army jacket.
Nadia, the great-grandmother in the family, wonders aloud who CNN correspondent Walter Rogers is and what he is doing with the troops. "He is in bed with them," says an English speaking nephew, laughing at the well-worn joke, a pun on "embedding," in which the Pentagon allows journalists to report from within military units. Nadia has no idea what the boy is talking about. "Turn it back to Al Jazeera," she demands, adjusting her false teeth, "let's see those bodies again."
Across the globe, in Indonesia, student leader and antiwar activist Muhammad Hermawan has seen these same pictures on his local channel, which pirates Al Jazeera's signal and adds simultaneous Indonesian translation. "The more these pictures are shown, the more people will understand America's brutal aggression,'' he says. "People will learn, and we'll see bigger and bigger protests."
Interest in the war has been so high that Indonesia's TV7 began pirating Al Jazeera's signal shortly before the start of the war. The new station carries the Arab-language broadcast with simultaneous Indonesian translation. Though Al Jazeera is only shown from 10 in the evening until 11 in the morning an official at TV7 says the news department is receiving about 100 calls a day from viewers, up from "almost zero" before the US invasion began.
The news broadcasts in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, have been tamer than the news in the Middle East, focusing on protests against the war at home, with official statements against the war from abroad.
But they have also carried some stories sympathetic to US soldiers, including an interview with Anecita Hudson of Alamogordo, Texas. Mrs. Hudson says her son, 23-year-old Army Specialist Joseph Hudson, was one of the prisoners of war shown on Al Jazeera. She said seeing her son captured was "like a bad dream."
Mrs. Hudson didn't see her son on American news outlets. She spotted him on a Filipino cable channel she subscribes to. She is originally from the Philippines.
The pictures of US troops drew condemnation from US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials. "It seems to me that showing a few pictures on the screen, not knowing who they are and being communicated by Al Jazeera, which is not a perfect instrument of communication, obviously is part of Iraqi propaganda," Mr. Rumsfeld told CBS.
"War is ugly by nature and we did not create these pictures - we are only there to reflect reality on the ground,"' says Jihad Ali Ballout, Al Jazeera's media relations head. "Truth is sometimes unpleasant and gruesome, and I feel distressed when people ask me to dress it up."
The Bush administration sees Al Jazeera - the cable news channel made famous for its airing of Osama Bin Laden tapes - as having an anti-American bias. But, since the seven-year-old Al Jazeera has grown from six to 24 hours of daily programming and reaches more than 35 million Arab speakers around the world, including 150,000 in the United States, Washington seems to be attempting to work more closely with the network.
The Pentagon offered Al Jazeera four choice spots for its reporters to be embedded with US military units and assigned it a special media liaison officer and both National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have given extensive interviews to Al Jazeera in recent days. Al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi, two other 24-hour Arab-language stations, have received similar attention from the administration.
Al Jazeera says that it has two of its correspondents "embedded" with US units - but the units in question are in Kuwait. It has no reporters with US troops directly participating in the invasion.
Professor Amin in Cairo argues that while watching this war unfold in the various media outlets is a good example of how bias clearly exists on all sides, there are nonetheless positive signs that international media are collectively moving toward becoming more objective, by force of necessity.
"The fact that the common man has access to different sources Tuesday means that its harder for one source to get away with showing only one side of the story. You can piece together a broader, more accurate story yourself," he says.
There is some awareness in the Hamouda living room that Arab broadcasters may also spread propaganda.
In 1967, four days after Israel had won the war against Egypt, Egyptian radio was still declaring victory, recalls Hellmy Hamouda. "I was in the Suez Canal at the time and I had seen some of the war with my own eyes," he says, "I had a hunch that radio was not telling the truth."
"Tuesday, we can find the better truth by simply changing channels or going on the Internet," says Hamouda. He then flips back to Al Jazeera at the demand of grandma Nadia, "If we want to."
• Special correspondent Dan Murphy in Jakarta, Indonesia, and staff writer Alexandra Marks in New York contributed to this report.