A very Arab view on very American politics

Hafez Al-Mirazi is waiting for his interview with Peter Jennings when his cellphone rings. It's the Washington Post. They would like to talk to him, too. Add in the interview requests earlier from Variety and a local television station and you have a busy day. And it's only 1 p.m. [Editor's note: In the original version, Hafiz al-Mirazi's name was misspelled.]

Mr. Mirazi is answering questions about Al Jazeera's FleetCenter sign, which was quietly removed, when no one was looking, by someone associated with the Democratic convention and taken to a warehouse in the distant suburbs for "aesthetic reasons." It's OK, he says, not completely sincerely; the sign was about getting the Arab news channel publicity - and considering all the interviews it's been just as effective in absentia.

Mirazi has spent a lot of time talking to journalists lately. As Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, he is as much an interviewer here as he is an interview subject - on a lot more than just his lost sign.

As the head of the 16-person cultural lightning rod that works out of a trailer in the ABC News area near the FleetCenter, his role as spokesman may be more important than his role as journalist.

"It's good that we are here," he says. "It makes it clear to people that we're covering a legitimate story, if there is such a thing as legitimate and illegitimate stories." He smiles. "But it is a bit self-referential. The media covering the media covering the media."

And yes, through one lens Mirazi's press rounds could be the ultimate example of the nation's and the news media's own navel gazing. As foreign coverage, reporting on the world outside our borders, declines, we spend more and more time looking at ourselves, or looking at the world looking at us.

But there are reasons Al Jazeera has grabbed the fascination of the media here. Its coverage, which few of us will watch or understand, may be the most important reporting on this convention and this election.

The US may wish to bring democracy to the Middle East, but as it tries it is Al Jazeera that will probably have the most control over the discussion. The network is the window through which much of the Arabic-speaking world - 40 million viewers, according to the station - sees the US.

The strained relations between the Qatar-based channel and the US are well-known. During the Iraq war, the Bush administration said Al Jazeera had a strong anti-American bias and asked the channel's largest shareholder, Qatar's leader, to intervene. A US bomb hit Al Jazeera's Baghdad headquarters, killing one reporter.

But in 2004, the channel's audience is bringing something new to its viewing, an interest in what is going on in American politics. An interest that extends even to the four days of Up With People going on in the FleetCenter.

"The interest in the election in the US this year is light-years beyond where it was in 2000" when the network covered that presidential race, says chief correspondent Mohammed Alami, who like Mirazi is an American citizen. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have heightened interest in the presidential race. The network's 16 reporters and staff covering the convention here are more than its Arabic-language competitors Al Arabiya and the US-funded Al Hurra, combined.

Since January, Al Jazeera has been broadcasting a weekly one-hour program called "Race for the American Presidency." After initial skepticism within the channel that people would tune in, it has become a success, Mr. Alami says.

The channel is broadcasting 12 hours of the convention this week, not just for the 35 million viewers it claims to have in the Middle East, but also for hundreds of thousands of Arab speakers here in the US who get the channel through the Dish Network.

What does Al Jazeera's political coverage look like? Well, on Tuesday Alami was editing a piece on ... the media covering the convention. And the political stories on the channel's English-language website are relatively standard fare, other than an anti-President Bush slant - or at least a slant focused more on political conflict.

Everyone's favorite theme here, "the Democrats are united and upbeat," isn't the mainstay of Al Jazeera's coverage on the Web. It is, rather, a look at the attacks leveled at the president by the speakers here.

But in truth, Alami says, most Al Jazeera viewers don't believe there is much difference between Bush and John Kerry.

"The margin of allowed movement on the Middle East is so small," he says. "Kerry might not have gone into Iraq, but the US is there now, and that's unlikely to change whoever wins. On this issue I just don't think there is much Kerry can do."

And that means viewers are tuning in for a simple reason: In the last few years the US has become more than just a presence to the people of the Arab world; it's become a presence they want to understand.

"We're trying to explain the political system to our viewers," Mirazi says. "The US is so involved in the Middle East lately it feels like a neighboring country to many. American politics have become domestic politics to Iraqis."

Which brings us back to that Al Jazeera sign and the message sent by its removal. Despite Mirazi's live-and-let-live attitude, some at the station were less sanguine about the Democratic party's motives in removing a sign that some might consider an enemy flag. "It's just very typical," said one staffer. "It's always yes, yes, yes, it is fine and then at the last minute they say no. It's frustrating." It's also bad politics on a large stage.

This week Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie was asked whether his party would allow Al Jazeera to put up its sign at the GOP's New York convention. "I'd have to think about it," he said.

After thinking a while, he might want to say yes.

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