Al Jazeera Bureau chief offers alternative perspective on war coverage

Covering this story earned me a paid summer internship with Al Jazeera English. The Journalism School invited Will Stebbins, the network’s Washington D.C. bureau chief, to speak to students about the Middle East-based network and how it covers the global events. It was one of my favorite interviews as I love discussing international politics and Mr. Stebbins is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.

The United States’ presence in the Middle East has prompted an ethical debate about how American news organizations should cover the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Will Stebbins, bureau chief for Al Jazeera English, visited the University of Kansas yesterday to explain the difference between how Western media and Al Jazeera have covered these conflicts.

Linda Lee, associate professor of journalism who attended the lecture, said Stebbins’ visit was an opportunity for students to hear from a news source that wasn’t Western.

“Too many U.S. students and citizens are satisfied with Western sources of news and don’t realize these sources are reporting through a cultural filter,” Lee said. “Having Will here raises our awareness about these cultural filters.”

Al Jazeera established itself as the first independent, international news organization in the Middle East about 11 years ago. On Nov. 15, 2006, it branched out and launched Al Jazeera English. Before Al Jazeera, Stebbins said, media in the Middle East were nothing more than tools used by government leaders to push their political agendas.

“What Al Jazeera did was provide the first democratic platform for independent ideas,” Stebbins said. “For the first time, marginalized voices were heard on a global public forum.”

At first, Al Jazeera had a good relationship with the United States, Stebbins said, but after Sept. 11 that relationship took a turn for the worse.

As the U.S. began its military campaign against terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida, Stebbins said, Al Jazeera was offering a much different perspective than what was offered by U.S. officials and media organizations.

“The West was reporting its perspective from where the missiles took off while we were reporting our perspective from where the missiles landed,” Stebbins said. “Al Jazeera would show the bloody aftermath, which was quite messy.”

As the war trudged on and American and Iraqi deaths piled up, U.S. officials began identifying Al Jazeera as a strategic threat, Stebbins said.

“Washington thought that showing the wounded was misrepresenting and undermining the war in Afghanistan,” Stebbins said. “They accused Al Jazeera of only providing one perspective when in reality, it was only a different perspective.”

The Bush administration, he said, launched a campaign aimed at delegitimizing Al Jazeera, and many cable companies refused to broadcast the news organization because they feared the potential political backlash.

Today, Stebbins said, Washington cooperates well with Al Jazeera, as U.S. officials have begun to use the international news organization as a way to promote its message to people across the Middle East and repair its image around the world.

Stebbins’ goal through the newly established Al Jazeera English Channel is to provide the rest of the world with an inside look at America.

“While the United States doesn’t understand the rest of the world, the rest of the world doesn’t understand the United States either,” he said. “Our role is to represent the complexity that is the United States.”

The three American issues that are currently receiving the most worldwide attention are the 2008 presidential election, the U.S. policy toward the war in Iraq and the treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

“The primary process in the U.S. is fascinating to the rest of the world,” Stebbins said. “It shows how democratic the process really is.”

— Edited by Patrick De Oliveira

Published in the University Daily Kansan on Feb. 20, 2008

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