Richard Gizbert hosts the weekly The Listening Post on Al-Jazeera English, highlighting how news is handled across the world’s media, including newspapers, television, blogs, and radio. He had previously worked for Canada’s CJOH-TV, then ABC News for eleven years, until he was fired in 2004 for refusing to cover the Iraq war, after having covered the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Somalia, and Rwanda. He sat down with The Daily Star Egypt during the Literacy Challenges in the Arab Region Conference in Doha last week, where he was invited to speak about the importance of media literacy. Why is Al-Jazeera in English important? It s important because it s different. It s the first global English-language news channel not based in the West, and that s a powerful idea. One of their executives talks about if you stand in a room and you look at it from one side of the room, then you move to the other side, the room looks a little bit different. It s an oversimplification but it s a valid notion. Why didn’t you think American networks would be interested in the show? They re just not interested in critical self-examination. Why would you be? When you re a corporate entity there to institutionally protect shareholder value, why would you invite somebody to inspect your dirty laundry? Regarding blogs, which your show frequently deals with, do you think there will be a generation or segment of people who will grow dependent on blogs as their sole source of news? I don t think anyone will be exclusively blog-dependent for all their information . But, will people grow more dependent on bloggers and alternative sources of information? No question . I think bloggers are going to become essential, especially in places like Egypt, regardless of [the Kareem Amer indictment], and I think they re going to be critically important in the West but in a different way.
In Egypt what you re already seeing is that bloggers are acting as enablers for mainstream media. Reporters who want to get certain stories into print but know that they can t report it flat-out, wait to see it in a blog, then attribute it to the blog. The blog provides them with a cover. Sometimes a reporter will call a blogger, give them a piece of info, wait for it to get posted, and get it into the paper that way. Assuming that blogs force official news sources to admit more, would it be useful to integrate blog-creation into the education system? Maybe, but it’s not necessary . I think what s mMore importantly and what makes me kind of crazy is that I don t understand why we don t have more media programs taught in schools, anywhere. How many people have been to Iraq? [Media] is our source and we re not teaching our children how to interpret, we re not teaching what filters are in place, what affiliations are there that might be coloring what they re reading. I think it s a gaping hole of most educational curricula around the world. What inspires “The Listening Post ? As a journalist, what we have to believe is that the more people are exposed to what other people are saying on the other side of the divide, the better off we are . I believe that. I believe Tthe more exposure people have to the opposite point of view, the better off we are, the greater the level of understanding, and presumably, tolerance will ensue. That’s the basis of the show. I believe the failure of the US media to do the job post-9/11 in the run up to the Iraq war was the biggest media story there has ever been. I don’t think there has ever been media failing people with greater consequences than this. I think all the casualties of the Iraq war, the mess, all the stuff that is yet to come, I really believe that had the US media done it’s job to the standard that we have come to expect from them when they look at domestic issues, rather than hide behind the skirt of national security, then the war would have never happened. That kind of premise also goes into the broadcast media. Let’s make sure that never ever happens again. Why do you think the media didn t do its job? I think it was self-censorship going on. The US media when doing its job is the best, most thorough, painstaking media in the history of the planet . but once you introduce the national security element, everything changes.
So what you have is 9/11, an anger management problem, a national security threat perception, and the media put down its tools, and this is well-documented. The more conscienced, responsible members of the media have since apologized for failing to do their job. What also enters into it is commercial aspects. You have to sell advertising money. Add that all up and what you have is the biggest, baddest media in the world failing to do it s job at a critical time, and thousand and thousands of lives have been lost as a result of that. What stories have you particularly enjoyed covering?
The Kareem Amer story was a very important story, obviously because of the implications. We think Egypt is a very big story that we need to watch and I don’t think that country gets enough coverage regardless of what aspect you’re talking about. We’ve looked at Fox News’ attack on Barack Obama where there was that piece of misinformation . about Obama allegedly attending a madrasa when he was young in Indonesia that was just nonsense, but Fox and to a lesser extent CNN, both went with that story in order to put the boots on Obama because he scares them. We did a story that I thought was very important on how Jimmy Carter was being treated on his US book tour. He was not only under attack for what he said but was going around in the US media saying look, the issues that I’m raising here that are considered taboo in the US are debated every day in Israeli media . His book was reviewed in the Washington Post by a Jewish American who had made aliyah, and had served in the IDF [Israeli Defense Force]. The Washington Post did not disclose that but I was surprised that the review was a negative one. News coverage is nothing without context.
This was an American president . and he was a victim of character assassination in the US media for raising issues about Israel that the Israelis are happy to talk about. It s lunacy if you think about it. What countries’ press censorship, or freedom, would surprise people? I don t have an answer but I ll just throw this at you. I was in Chechnya in 94 and I was struck by how terrific the Russia media was down there. They were in the early days of their freedom, they were intoxicated by their new responsibilities and freedoms, and they took enormous risks in bringing that story to Russia, and since Putin’s come along, well before Putin but especially since Putin, all that’s gone away . they did a great job but now those freedoms have all gone away.
With Israel . the irony is that you have Bush complaining about Al-Jazeera, how it hates Israel, and Canadians knocking it off the air because it hates Israel, and Al-Jazeera English on the main cable package on the primary Israeli cable system . Where the Americans part company with Israelis is in what they’re willing to tolerate in terms of debate regarding Israel.
Issues that the American media refuse to deal with, topics that are absolutely taboo, Israeli media deals with every day . This drives Israelis bonkers because if you are a moderate Israeli and you know how much of an impact US support is to whatever government is in place, you want America to be having an open debate because if America continues to back the really hard-core Israeli positions, then the moderate Israelis feel that they’ve been abandoned.
What do you hope to accomplish with the show? I believe if I can get some people in Ohio to read an editorial from Al Sharq Al Awsat that gives them a view they won t get in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, or similarly if I can get somebody in Beirut . to understand that the New York Times is not Fox news, that there are shades of opinion in US media, and that you don t have 300 million Cheneys in that country, then maybe we will have accomplished something.
it the answer? No but it s a start. People these days are heading to the echo-chambers, and want to have their own views reinforced; not enough are book-marking sites that .challenge their views. If we can deliver television which gives a different perspective, a different view of the room, it can t be a bad thing.