As the last of the Israeli Defense Forces left the Gaza Strip this week, we wondered how coverage by Al Jazeera might look through the eyes of a Westerner. Eric Calderwood, a Harvard graduate student living in Syria, wrote in the Boston Globe recently that, as an American, he was accustomed to “bloodless war journalism,” the kind you see on CNN. And so he was shocked by the unflinching, often gruesome footage he saw in Damascus.
Burned By The Christians
BOB GARFIELD: As the last of the Israeli Defense Forces left the Gaza Strip this week, we wondered how the coverage, broadcast around the clock by one of the only TV news outlets in Gaza, Al-Jazeera, looked through the eyes of a Westerner. Eric Calderwood, a Harvard graduate student living in Syria, wrote in The Boston Globe recently that as an American he was accustomed to, quote, “bloodless war journalism, the kind you see on CNN.” And so he was shocked by the unflinching, very gruesome footage he saw on Al-Jazeera. He knew it was manipulative, but it was more than that.
ERIC CALDERWOOD: It’s very difficult to see an image, for example, of a maimed child in a hospital bemoaning the loss of a parent, often killed in front of his own eyes, and not feel really bad. At the same time, I think that it’s wrong to think that not showing images of violence is somehow neutral, is somehow not manipulative. You know, I think it’s – I wouldn't say a shame, but I think it’s a mistake that networks like CNN don't show you corpses, don't show you dead bodies, don't show you the wounded, don't show you real visual images of the human toll of war.
BOB GARFIELD: So that, in fact, when you watch this footage, you discover that apart from political conflict, the central issue of war maybe is war itself. I want to play this piece of tape from an Al-Jazeera broadcast.
[CLIP IN ARABIC/END CLIP] What we've just listened to is a man holding one child and showing a camera crew two of his other children, who are dead. It’s vivid footage. And I gather there was a lot of this kind of stuff during the course of the war.
ERIC CALDERWOOD: Yes, virtually all the time, but not only in the news segments themselves. I mean, I think something very powerful that Al-Jazeera does is that it uses these very highly-edited montages as sort of segues between each news segment. And there’s one in particular called The War on Gaza that was playing throughout the 22-day war, and this War on Gaza one basically was a bunch of spliced images sort of moving back and forth between civilian suffering and, most specifically, children who were either wounded or dead, and then images of pro-Palestinian street demonstrations from around the world. And so, it gave you the sense not only of how gruesome the war was but also it gave you a sense that the war was sort of causing outrage across the world, that this was the only thing going on and we were all sort of suffering collectively because of it.
BOB GARFIELD: You sit there, you watch, you know, heavily-biased coverage all day long, and then there’s a show called The Press Tour which goes out of its way to show how the rest of the world is covering the story. Describe that show.
ERIC CALDERWOOD: Basically what it is, for 30 to 45 minutes a newscaster moves from country to country and selects two or three of the major newspapers, shows you an image of the front page and reads and translates excerpts from the major articles, which are both news coverage and also editorials. The countries covered in this Press Tour show are the United States, all the major European newspapers, certainly the Arab newspapers and also, most interestingly, the Israeli press. And during the Gaza war they actually extended this morning segment into an entire nightly news show that was dedicated exclusively to the Israeli press that was called From Israel. And in From Israel they were basically just covering Israeli editorial responses from all sides of the political spectrum. They would be reading very openly articles that were condemning Hamas, that were condemning the war. Some, they were even condemning the Arab press and Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the war. I mean, the motto of the network is “The Opinion and the Other Opinion,” and I think that that sort of dialectic mode of telling you the news is really what they're all about. Rather than trying to blend “The Opinion and the Other Opinion” into one story, they put them out there as two different stories, which are always biased, always politicized, and, in some sense, they do let the viewer choose.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any idea from talking to Syrians how they process all of this?
ERIC CALDERWOOD: All throughout the Al-Jazeera coverage they had this calendar, this sort of countdown that would be the beginning of each news segment in which they would say, today marks the X day of the war in Gaza. They would say it in Fusha, which is sort of standard Arabic, wherein most people speak in dialect. And you'd hear people saying this to each other on the streets. In fact, a woman who comes once a week to my house to clean the house came over and I asked her about the war, because her family’s actually Palestinian. And she responded, though she normally speaks in dialect, in standard classical Arabic and said, today marks the 15th day of the war on Gaza. It was just this really incredible moment in which the Al-Jazeera coverage was shaping people’s sense of time. Point zero was the beginning of the war in Gaza.
BOB GARFIELD: From a political point of view, though, is Al-Jazeera’s position on Hamas clear from the 23 days of full-on coverage of the war?
ERIC CALDERWOOD: No, Al-Jazeera’s position on Hamas is not clear. They do give voice to Hamas in the sense that they definitely televise the press conferences of the different Hamas leaders, but they also pay a lot of attention to the PA in the West Bank and to other Arab leaders, a lot of whom have a real bone to pick with Hamas. You know, I think that another major issue that’s getting a lot of coverage now that the war’s over is the sort of fallout in the Arab League, because there’s a lot of infighting, in particular between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, about what the meaning of that war is and why the Arab League wasn't able to get together with a unified response. The only real clear sympathy you get from Al-Jazeera, I think, is with civilian death.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there anything else from watching Al-Jazeera that was kind of counterintuitive that you'd like to share?
ERIC CALDERWOOD: [SIGHS] Something that I'm still trying to figure out about my experience having watched all the coverage is just how engrossing I found it. It sort of took over my life. I was supposed to be doing research and preparing for class, and I just couldn't turn off the television. And I think that they've really learned a lot about the use of news as entertainment. I'm not under any illusion that there is an objective version of the news, but there’s something sort of perverse and hideous about the idea that I would be so engaged with this war coverage, as if I were tuning into a serialized drama that developed over many days. It had a cast of characters that you could follow and whose flaws and strengths you could predict. I guess I would just end that on a very conflicted note. I mean, I think that something very strong about Al-Jazeera is how satisfying it is to watch, how hard it is to turn off. I think that’s probably something very problematic about it and dangerous about it as well.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric, thank you very much.
ERIC CALDERWOOD: Thanks so much for talking to me.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Calderwood is a Harvard Ph.D. student researching Muslim/Christian relations in the medieval Mediterranean.