[Marxism] The violence network (Boston Globe)

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sun Jan 18 06:02:19 MST 2009

The violence network
It's biased, gruesome, and totally compelling. How Al-Jazeera makes one
American think differently about war
By Eric Calderwood  |  January 18, 2009
DAMASCUS - This morning, while I made my coffee and eggs, I tuned in to
the best show on television. When I went next door to buy my milk, the
owner of the Rawda Grocery Store was already watching it, and down in the
Sha'alan neighborhood, at the restaurant where I ate breakfast yesterday,
customers are sitting over their bowls of fava bean soup, eyes glued to
the screen. Millions across the region are following it along with us.
The show is the conflict in Gaza. On Al-Jazeera. Israel has restricted
international reporters and camera crews from Gaza, so the Qatari network
is one of the few international media outlets to have a full, working
bureau inside Gaza City.
Even if CNN could sneak a camera crew through the checkpoints, it's hard
to imagine they would produce anything like what's on Al-Jazeera - an
all-day, ever-shifting drama that throws war in your face with all its
gruesome cruelty. It is openly partisan, almost never showing Israeli
deaths or injuries. It is also provocative and upsetting in a way that
looks nothing like news in the West. Their broadcasts routinely feature
mutilated corpses being pulled from the scene of an explosion, or
hospital interviews with maimed children, who bemoan the loss of their
siblings or their parents - often killed in front of their eyes.
Al-Jazeera splices archival footage into the live shots, weaving
interviews and expertly produced montages into a devastating narrative
you can follow from the comfort of your own home.
This is news without even the pretense of impartiality. After several
days of following the Al-Jazeera coverage of Gaza, I've never seen a live
interview with an Israeli, neither a politician nor a civilian. In the
Al-Jazeera version, the Gaza conflict has only two participants: the
Israeli army - an impersonal force represented as tanks and planes on the
map - and the Palestinian civilians, often shown entering the hospital on
makeshift stretchers. There are few Hamas rockets and no Israeli
families. It's not hard to see why Al-Jazeera is accused of deliberately
inflaming regional enmity and instability.
But in a larger sense, Al-Jazeera's graphic response to CNN-style
"bloodless war journalism" is a stinging rebuke to the way we now see and
talk about war in the United States. It suggests that bloodless coverage
of war is the privilege of a country far from conflict. Al-Jazeera's
brand of news - you could call it "blood journalism" - takes war for what
it is: a brutal loss of human life. The images they show put you in
visceral contact with the violence of war in a way statistics never
For an American, to watch Al-Jazeera's coverage of Gaza is to realize
that you've become alienated not just from war, but even from the
representation of war as a real thing. As Americans, we're used to
hearing the sound of heavy artillery, machine guns, and bombs in action
films and video games. Yet here on the news, they seem strangely out of
place. You could argue that Al-Jazeera uses images of civilian violence
to foment public outrage against Israel. This might well be true. At the
same time, these images acknowledge human suffering and civilian death
and stand strongly against them - and in doing so, foment outrage against
war itself.
Whether you are a fan or a critic of the network's presentation of the
news, it's hard to deny that Al-Jazeera is, first and foremost, excellent
television. The network's command of the form is one reason why it has
resisted being marginalized, and even gained in prestige, despite
acrimonious criticism from the American government and from many Western
media sources. Watching its sounds and images, day after day, has a
powerful effect totally outside the framework of the conflict it's
Al-Jazeera choreographs its Gaza coverage with a sophistication that goes
well beyond the dramatic representation of violence. To watch the war on
Al-Jazeera is to be captured in a new rendering of time, and to become
part of an "imagined community" defined by it. The network uses a
ticker-tape format, with a constant flow of text underneath the main
image. To the left is a small box that counts the days of the war in red
and white fonts. Thus, while watching the news, you're introduced to a
new calendar, in which the beginning of the war is the beginning of time.
The ticker tape at the bottom of the screen includes a running count of
the human cost of the war, steadily tolling the number of wounded and
The network's producers seem to have learned a lot from American reality
television, where real footage is crafted and spliced into a compelling
narrative with characters, personal conflict, and a dramatic arc. Each
day, viewers here in Syria and across the Arab world tune into a new
"episode." Each day, the war's narrative builds and folds back on itself,
reinforcing the audience's familiarity with the cast of characters:
Hamas, the scrappy rebel; Israel, the regional bully; the civilians of
Gaza - and, in particular, the wounded children - caught in the middle of
the conflict. The "international community" is a bloviating model of
inefficacy, tied up in innumerable committees and summits. Through it all
stride the Al-Jazeera correspondents, decked out in blue bulletproof
Al-Jazeera often goes live to the correspondent in Gaza City right at the
beginning of the daily three-hour cease-fire, when the Israeli army is
supposed to put down its arms to allow the entry of humanitarian aid into
Gaza. During this shot, the correspondent inevitably "catches" live
footage of the Israelis continuing to bomb well into the cease-fire
period, and inevitably expresses surprise and dismay at what he is
seeing, even though he is essentially replaying a scene he framed the
same way the day before, and the day before that.
The staged suspense, the protestations of surprise - they smack of
cynical theater. But it's hard to argue with the footage itself: There
have been several independent reports of Israeli attacks and raids during
the daily cease-fire. However they choose to frame it, Al-Jazeera
correspondents are capturing events that other networks cannot. At that
basic level, what they're doing is irreplaceable as journalism.
As perverse as it may sound, Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war satisfies,
in the same way that a sitcom or serialized drama satisfies. It's not so
much surprise that keeps bringing you back, but rather your familiarity
with the characters' flaws and faults. And you know that your experience
of the drama is not individual but rather collective. Walk into any cafe,
grocery store, or dry cleaner in Damascus, and you are almost certain to
find a TV tuned to Al-Jazeera's around-the-clock coverage of the war in
Gaza. There is solidarity and also a certain comfort in watching the grim
reality of war en masse.
It is impossible for me to imagine American viewers caring this much
about a war they were not fighting themselves, especially one presented
CNN-style, as an intermittent report of statistics, diplomacy, and
military briefings. Al-Jazeera's critics would argue that the network has
a lot to learn from the objectivity prized and upheld by well-regarded
Western media outlets. But the American media has something to learn,
too: Showing the actual violence of war is how you get the public to
grasp the nature of war. Our networks' squeamishness about violence lets
us keep human death and suffering at a distance, an abstract consequence
of policy. If what you are worried about is individuals, then to look
away from violence is not a neutral position.
The most compelling refrain of Al-Jazeera's Gaza coverage is not,
however, its news reports, but rather a short montage titled "The War on
Gaza," which the channel intersperses between news segments. The montage
reassembles itself each day, incorporating new images and reorganizing
old ones, oscillating between images of the war and images of
international protests against the war.
The images change each day, but two appear every time. First, there is a
young girl, face covered in blood, crying amid the smoke of a recent
explosion. A phantom adult arm is carrying the girl from the scene. The
adult body is cropped off, and all you see is the girl's face frozen in
anguish and pain. The second recurring image is the one that closes each
edition of the montage: Scenes of pro-Palestine street protests from
around the world, ending in a close-up of a tall, defiant poster with the
words, in English, "Stop the Holocaust in Gaza." The montage then fades
to a red background, in which you can discern the image of a wounded
child whose moribund eyes are turned skyward. The montage creates an
impression, renewed every day, of mass outrage against the war, not only
in the Arab world, but also in Europe. Yet here in Damascus, even the
street demonstrations I've seen don't seem to carry the heat of people's
mass absorption with the TV coverage of the war.
That word "Holocaust" on that poster (in Arabic, mihraqa) is also a
provocation, and it's only part of the very deliberate lexicon used on
Al-Jazeera to describe the Gaza War: "aggression" ('udwan), "occupation"
(ihtilal), and "genocide" (ibada). If objectivity is your yardstick, the
entire way the network's newscasters discuss the war disqualifies them as
journalists. But this is also how my Syrian neighbors see American
journalism, which lumps any number of Arabs and Islamists and political
rebels together as "terrorists."
Here in Damascus the ethical stakes of this war of words are very real.
Yesterday, I went down to a popular shopping district a few blocks south
of my house to buy groceries. On the main commercial strip, I noticed
that a number of the stores had put up anti-Israeli propaganda posters.
Many of them featured a burning American flag with a Star of David and a
swastika in the middle. On many thresholds, shop owners had painted the
Israeli flag so that their customers could step on it. In one storefront,
the owner had placed a poster that said: "Americans not welcome."
Ironically, this shop owner is also the landlord of some of my best
American friends in Damascus.
I can understand why many people strongly believe that Al-Jazeera itself
contributes to these regional hatreds. But after months of watching the
network intensely, I can honestly say that I've never heard their
newscasters frame an argument or a story in anti-Semitic or anti-American
terms. And Al-Jazeera hosts one of the most ecumenical news programs I
have ever seen on TV, anywhere: A morning spot called the "Press Tour,"
which shows images of newspapers from the United States, Europe, the Arab
world, and (notably) Israel, and translates excerpts of the most
important articles. Since the start of the current Gaza conflict,
Al-Jazeera has expanded its coverage of the Israeli press into an entire
nightly segment in which a newscaster reviews the lead articles in the
major Israeli newspapers, with readable images of the Hebrew text they
are translating. Many of them openly support the war and condemn Hamas,
and some of them even condemn Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war. To think
about how remarkable this is, imagine an American news anchor simply
reading article after article from newspapers in Tehran, or Mosul, or
even Paris.
In a way, that's the paradox of Al-Jazeera's war journalism: It is
flagrantly political, but accompanied by a real curiosity about other
perspectives. It also makes me wish for something else: A TV network with
the bravery to show the war imagery you can see on Al-Jazeera, but the
integrity to do it in the service of peace, rather than the service of a
side. Its violent imagery, however unpleasant, would be a strong stand
for the individual against violence, and for human compassion against
easily fanned hatreds.
Maybe then, the next time I go shopping for vegetables in my neighborhood
in Damascus, I wouldn't see swastikas or burning American flags, but
rather pictures of wounded civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian.
Unfortunately, right now, the view from my living room doesn't look
Eric Calderwood, a Harvard University PhD student living in Syria,
researches Muslim-Christian relations in the medieval Mediterranean
Click here for free info on Graduate Degrees.

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