I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Time for Al Jazeera

Many years ago when I was producing the news at CBC Toronto I found myself in a typically ferocious friendly argument with one of the smartest people on my staff, a man who was a close friend then and remains so to this day. He was very upset that I was planning to have Ernst Zundel on one of our programs. Zundel, of course, was one of Canada’s leading Nazi supporters and Holocaust deniers. My friend argued that we were giving a platform to a dangerous point of view and that hate speech had no place on Canadian airwaves.

I believed that exposing Zundel’s remarks to the public would do more to shine a light on his inane points of view and stupidity that this man represented than censoring him. I pointed out that the Nazi’s were banned in Germany in the ‘20s and look how well that worked out.

The irony was that my friend is Christian and I am Jewish, although to be fair, neither of us is particularly religious.

I tell this story because of the fight over whether Al Jazeera should be allowed to enter Canada as a cable and satellite station. I cannot say I know much more than what I have read about the network. I have heard groups argue for and against Al Jazeera’s availability to Canadians.

Those against are quick to point out the anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli rhetoric they say is a hallmark of Al Jazeera in Arabic. I have never heard the same said about their English language service. I suspect it is pro-Palestinian, pro-Arab and pro-Muslim, but we allow U.S. news into Canada and I don’t believe Fox news is any less slanted and unfair, probably it’s a lot more biased.

Those for Al Jazeera are quick to point out that Tony Burman, the former head of CBC News, a Canadian, is running Al Jazeera, so how bad can it be. Tony was responsible for some pretty bad newscasts in Canada, but that’s not what the proponents are saying. They believe a Canadian at the helm of Al Jazeera proves it is not unfair, anti-West and irresponsible. Having seen some Middle East coverage from CBC under Tony Burman it’s not an argument I would be comfortable with. In any case who cares? Since when is balance and fairness in news coverage a requirement for getting on the air in Canada? I have already mentioned Fox, but the coverage of the Iraq War by ABC, NBC and CBS was egregious. It could have been written and reported by the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Coverage of the Separatist Movement in Canada was no better, at least on the English side, and the War in Afghanistan seems a-ok with our three top television networks, see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. You know them better as CBC, CTV and Global.

What most folks are really saying is that you can be unfair and unbalanced so long as we agree with the side you are taking.

All these years after my Ernst Zundel debate I have not changed my mind. I think the best way for Canadians to understand where other people are coming from is to hear their points of view. I don’t have to agree. But I certainly cannot agree or disagree if I don’t know what they are saying. The Arab viewpoint is sorely lacking in Canada. All we get is coverage of the coverage. I would like to see what Al Jazeera is saying about Obama, Israel, terrorism, the troubles in Pakistan and perhaps even Canadian Middle East policy under Stephen Harper.

Most of the rest of the world already gets Al Jazeera either in English or Arabic. Heck, Israeli’s can watch the network. What are we afraid of? Are our beliefs and opinions that fragile? If Al Jazeera were to say that Jews control U.S. foreign policy and the International Monetary Fund, as I have read they have reported in Arabic, will well educated Canadians automatically believe it? I think not. Some bigots may use Al Jazeera to bolster their beliefs but they will find their path to bigotry whether Al Jazeera is available or not.

I am told that, in fact, quite a few Jewish journalists work for the English Al Jazeera network. I don’t know whether this is true. I do know that many Israeli politicians have gone on Al Jazeera to try to get their viewpoints across to Arabs.

Let’s grow up as a country and live up to the standards we say we believe in. Freedom of speech is always a good thing. Knowledge is always a good thing. Understanding your enemies as well as your friends is always important. A diversity of opinion in a land as diverse as our own should be a given. If Al Jazeera screws up there will be plenty of Canadian voices willing to point out their failures. If they break our libel or hate laws we can prosecute them. But muzzling them hurts us more than it hurts them, it’s time, bring on Al Jazeera.

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Filed under: Media Commentary, Political Commentary, , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. A Lev says:

    I tend to agree with Howard Bernstein’s argument about Al Gazeera’s English division.
    If this network is available in Israel, why has it been denied form Canadians?
    My problem is not with Al Jazeera’s English edition.
    I have some doubt how much knowledge Tony Burman and Avi Lewis have in Arabic.
    As respectable Canadian journalist, I wonder what do they know about the journalistic standards and practices in the biggest network that catering to the Arabic speaking nations. The so-called reporters at Al Jazeera’s Arabic division, sounds more like they graduated at “Goebbels’s school of journalism”.
    I guess they are not far from meeting Zundel’s standards.

  2. Al Jazeera English is also now being seen on cable in the Washington, DC area (among other parts of the US), so it’s probably about to be seen in Canada. Burman has told me that the problems at AJE are not much different than they are at any other television network – inside politics, cultural tribalism (e.g., the Middle East desk fighting for airtime vs the European desk) and general disquiet over whether tv is information or entertainment. The usual stuff. There is no question that AJE is having a powerful effect on the willingness of its audience in the Middle East to question authority and political correctness. It ain’t perfect (which tv news is?) But for that reason alone, it’s worth watching, at least to shake Canadians out of their assumptions about the Middle East.

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