When reviewing a cross-section of recent articles about the war in Iraq from CNN and al-Jazeera, several trends in the networks’ respective coverage appear. Both media outlets take the same generally pessimistic approach to the situation on the ground in Iraq, but they differ in terms of what specific elements of that situation they choose to stress. In general, CNN reports the failure to secure Iraq as being predominantly contingent upon the failings of the Iraqi government, while al-Jazeera focuses more on the inability of the United States military to provide the security that Iraq needs if its fragile government is to be able to govern the country effectively.
Both CNN and al-Jazeera cover the deadliest attacks in Iraq, with a discernible difference of focus between the two. In one typical article, al-Jazeera reports that the crowd that gathered after a suicide bombing was chanting anti-American slogans. There is no focus, however, on the attackers. Throughout the al-Jazeera articles, car bombings targeting Iraqi civilians are reported as if they happen spontaneously; there is no explicit acknowledgment that most violence in Iraq is carried out by Iraqis against other Iraqis.
When al-Jazeera does refer to individuals that carry out attacks against Iraqi civilians and the Iraqi government, they are referred to simply as “fighters” or “armed groups”. In an article documenting the death of several American soldiers, al-Jazeera reports that “armed groups” are fighting the “Shia-led government” and “US soldiers”. Al-Jazeera’s use of language is not simply a semantic nuance; it speaks to the worldview of the organization. When a terrorist group attacks the democratically-elected government of Iraq, that government is referred to by al-Jazeera as the “Shia-led government”. This is indicative of the hostility of much of the predominantly Sunni Arab world against the newly-empowered Shia of Iraq. To refer to the government as “Shia-led” overshadows the fact that the Shia are a majority in Iraq and that the government they lead was elected by the Iraqi people. To refer to insurgents attacking an elected government as “armed groups” gives these groups more credibility than they should be granted by objective media.
While CNN refrains from using the term “terrorist” in their reports about suicide attackers in Iraq, usually referring to them as “insurgents”, al-Jazeera uses the morally neutral word “group”. Al-Jazeera puts the events in Iraq in a context of “American” failure to protect a “Shia” government. A recent article about Iraq’s oil laws states that the laws would enable American companies to “take control of Iraq’s oil”. The law is also portrayed as leading to the breakup of Iraq as a state. The oil law is not referred to as a policy of the democratically-elected Iraqi government, but as an American power grab that will lead to the end of Iraq. In this article, the Kurds are portrayed as the beneficiaries of such a plan. The portrayal of non-Arab Kurds as American allies, along with the non-Sunni Shia, speak volumes about al-Jazeera’s Sunni Arab bias.
The story that was reported in essentially the same way by CNN and al-Jazeera was the recent report issued by the American military about the pervasiveness of post-traumatic stress among Iraq combat veterans. While both outlets relayed the study’s findings, the headline that al-Jazeera used is indicative of what it felt to be the study’s most important finding: “US Troop Admit Abusing Iraqis”.
The CNN article, while acknowledging the same findings as the al-Jazeera article, chose a different focus for its headline: “Study: Anxiety, Depression, Acute Stress in Combat Troops”. The two different headlines used for essentially the same article is perhaps the most indicative example of how the personal and professional biases of these two professional news agencies inevitably are reflected in even the most objective reports.
While CNN and al-Jazeera reflect the same general premise of pessimism about the situation in Iraq, the language that CNN employs is considerably different from that of al-Jazeera. CNN refers to “the coalition” far more often than al-Jazeera, which usually refers to “American troops”. This closely reflects the American government’s position that the United States is only one member of a broad international coalition working with the Iraqi government.
When the coalition is involved in combat, CNN calls its enemies “gunmen”, “militia”, or “insurgents”, rather than al-Jazeera’s politically and morally neutral “fighters”. CNN’s reports illustrate more closely the American position; American soldiers are fighting alongside the legitimate government of Iraq against insurgent forces that aim to overthrow that elected government by force.
Aside from the semantic issues of fighter versus insurgent or American versus coalition or Iraqi government versus Shia-led government, there is another great dividing line between CNN and al-Jazeera reports, and that centers on who is primarily responsible for the violence in Iraq. While many Americans who support the war may feel that CNN and other similar media are far too critical of American soldiers, when compared with al-Jazeera’s reports CNN is far more willing to blame the Iraqis themselves for the chaos.
For example, CNN reports that Iraqi troops are under qualified and lacking the sufficient motivation to secure their country. The article notes that Iraqi soldiers are given one week off per month, hardly the conduct of an army that is supposedly fighting for its survival. The role assigned to American troops is that of a superior force trying in vain to train and motivate a reluctant and sometimes ungrateful native force.
Along with the sense that Iraqis are not yet willing or able to defend their country is the widespread assertion in CNN’s reports that most experts agree that total chaos would be the inevitable result of an American withdrawal from Iraq. While al-Jazeera notes America’s inability to stop attacks, CNN asserts that there would be even more such attacks if America were to leave.
Finally, we have an interesting divergence in who the two organizations feel that the average Iraqi assigns blame for the violence to. In an al-Jazeera report of a car bombing, on lookers are quoted as blaming America for failure to provide security. In coverage of a similar attack, of which there is no shortage, CNN reports that Iraqi onlookers threw stones at local police, blaming them for the lack of security. It seems safe to assume that there are plenty of Iraqis who would blame either the United States or the Iraqi government for the lack of security; it also seems safe to assume that CNN and al-Jazeera are attracted to certain specific assignments of that blame.
The treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis by the two organizations can also be expected to betray some sense of bias. The United States is Israel’s preeminent supporter, but CNN and al-Jazeera’s coverage of this issue is actually quite similar. One can assume that, if Americans were being killed daily in the area, this might not be the case, but the reporting was fundamentally similar.
As in Iraq, CNN is far more willing than al-Jazeera to employ terms such as “extremist” or “militant” rather than simply “fighter”. This is surely indicative of the widespread conviction in the Arab world that armed resistance to Israel is totally justified and must not be undermined by equating it with random violence or terrorism.
CNN’s reports acknowledge the human tolls of Israeli actions in a way which is lacking in its reporting on Iraq. When reporting of the pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign, CNN took care to mention the number of Lebanese civilian deaths in the recent war, a fact that was not necessarily relevant to the specific criticism of Olmert being offered by Israelis at the time.
In terms of its reporting on specific Palestinian groups, CNN’s objectivity takes a bit of a step back. Keeping in line with the mantra of the American government, Mahmoud Abbas is described as a “moderate”, while the “militant” group Hamas is seen to be “spoiling for a fight”. Hamas is portrayed as having broken a truce for no better reason than that it is “spoiling for a fight”, while the more rational “moderate” element watches helplessly from the sidelines.
CNN must be applauded for not reporting the recent end of the truce from a totally one-sided perspective, however. Another recent headline states that “Hamas Urges Attacks on Israel After 9 Palestinians Killed”. This is a sense of cause and effect which is often missing in American media, which is given to portraying Palestinian actions as emanating from a purely irrational hatred rather than specific actions taken against them. This article acknowledges the linkage between events without descending into the counter-productive and unwinnable “who started it” debate.
The trends that emerge in al-Jazeera’s reporting on this issue are somewhat similar to those in its Iraq coverage. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for example, are referred to simply as “groups”. The coverage, however, is extremely even-handed by the standards of other media in the Middle East. For example, al-Jazeera’s reports refer to “violations by both sides”, a tacit acknowledgement that this is a complicated issue with plenty of blame to go around. In addition, al-Jazeera refers to “Israelis” rather than “Jews”, acknowledging that there are many Arab citizens of the “Jewish” state.
The biggest divergence between CNN and al-Jazeera coverage is to be found in the treatment of the occupation. The CNN reports paint a picture of Palestinians attacking Israel from Palestinian territories; they do not stress the fact that Israel is occupying Palestinian land. While al-Jazeera acknowledges that both sides have committed “violations”, they are also much more focused on the reality of the Israeli occupation and its effect on Palestinian civilians than is CNN.
“The Misery of Palestinian Children” is a case in point. This article points out that 400 Palestinian children are currently in Israeli custody, a fact lacking from CNN reports which are more oriented towards the view that Israel has a respect for rule of law and individual rights that is absent in the rest of the Middle East.
Another al-Jazeera article of the sort that is exceedingly rare from CNN is “Illegal West Bank Homes for US Jews”. This headline carries great weight. Firstly, it brings attention to the issue that CNN’s reports all too often omit: the Israeli occupation and settlements. As noted above, CNN’s reports make little mention of the primary grievance of Palestinians. Israel is occupying, and building settlements on, Palestinian land. Both of these actions are illegal under international law, as noted in the headline. Also, the use of the word Jews here should not be seen as inflammatory; it draws attention to the fact that the Israeli government is wooing very specific people to settle the West Bank, and non-Jews need not apply.
There are several trends in CNN and al-Jazeera’s reporting on Iraq and Israel / Palestine that we can see as being functions of the cultures and interests that created and support them. Al-Jazeera is funded primarily by the government of Qatar, a member of the Sunni Arab autocracies which dominate the Arab world.
This Sunni Arab orientation is manifested in the reporting on Iraq. The legitimate government of Iraq is referred to as a “Shia-led” government. The violence being used against the government daily is carried out by “fighters” rather than insurgents. The lack of security in Iraq is a function of the American presence there, rather than the product of a nihilistic terrorist onslaught that targets civilians in an attempt to disgust the American public into abandoning Iraq.
CNN has its own bias on Iraq. Reflecting American public sentiment, it sees the war as essentially lost. The role of American troops, however, is a benevolent one, and there is wide agreement that if America were too leave, Iraq would be much worse off. The insecurity in Iraq is the fault of both the insurgents and the less-than-cooperative democratic government. America is seen as a stabilizing force in this equation.
In terms of Israel, CNN’s reports acknowledge that Israel is responsible for many civilian deaths and that there are moderate elements in the Palestinian leadership, but the reports are largely devoid of any mention of the Israeli occupation of Arab land, which is the issue for the Arab world. This lack of context leaves the reader with the image of Arabs who attack Israel for no rational reason.
As for al-Jazeera, their reports acknowledge that both sides have committed violations against laws and treaties, but they focus on the issue of Israeli occupation and specifically Israeli settlements as being the major roadblocks to peace.
“Iraq Car Bomb Kills ‘At Least 16’”. http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/C66E285E-2DF9-
“US Soldiers Killed in Iraq Bombing”. /38A1A773-7819-45C9-95C3-83D1AQ4274EC.htm
“Iraq Group Issues Death Threat”. /1EFAE889-55D4-41CE-B4BA-124D81BED83C.htm
“US to Sell $500 Million of Arms to Iraq”. /67E35537-872F-4504-A074-14936281FA63.htm
“Row Over Iraq Oil Law”. /0D09B919-D28A-4CC4-A79F-0EE500239225.htm
“US Troops Admit Abusing Iraqis”. /C0C73A30-3BE5-4F67-B9F7-829B9F188506.htm
“Deadly Bombings Rock Baghdad”. /8C345BE2-8A29-4F90-9E15-AE2747DBE67E.htm
“Israeli Strike Targets Rocket Squad”. /841D69EF-29A2-4A06-9A22-1B8816E0004D.htm
“Talks Follow Gaza Truce Breakdown”. /D445D1DC-D845-4867-9F67-CD6F1F52904D.htm
“Misery of Palestinian Children”. /4EEE3AAA.CD6C-4E37-BF31-C5D796CO2807.htm
“Illegal West Bank Homes for US Jews”. /F37E2991-79B8-4FDF88B1-CE6BBBFFEBA2.htm
“U.S., Iraqi Forces Find Sadr City Torture Chamber”.
“Study: Anxiety, Depression, Acute Stress in Combat Troops”. /05/04/Iraq.main/index.html
“Iraq Recruits: Underpaid, Undertrained, Under Pressure”.
“At Least 55 Killed in Blast Near Shiite Shrine in Iraq”. /04/28/Iraq.main.ap/index.html
“Iraqi Politicians Say Government is Failing”. /04/24/iraq.main/index.html
“Palestinian Militants Attack School Festival”. /05/06/gaza.school.shooting/index.htm
“Cracks Show in Israeli Cabinet After Report”. /05/01/Israel.cabel.reut/index.html
“Hamas Rockets Break 5-Month Truce”. /04/24/gaza.rockets.ap/index.html
“Hamas Urges Attacks on Israel After 9 Palestinians Killed”.
 “Iraq Car Bomb Kills ‘At Least 16’”. http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/C66E2B5E-2DF9-433E-ADB8-B5D4F7B3287C.htm
 “US Soldiers Killed in Iraq Bombing”. http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/38A1A773-7819-45C9-95C3-83D1AQ1274EC.htm
 “Iraq group issues death threat”. http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/1EFAE889-55D4-41CE-B4BA-124D81BED83C.htm
 “Row Over Iraq Oil Law”. http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/0D09B919-D28A-4CC4-A79F-0EE500239225.htm
 “US Troops Admit Abusing Iraqis”. http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/C0C73A30-3BE5-4F67-B9F7-829B9F188506.htm
“Study: Anxiety, Depression, Acute Stress in Combat Troops”. http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/05/04/iraq.main/index.html
 “US, Iraqi forces find Sadr City Torture Chamber”. http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/05/06/iraq.torture/index.html
 “Iraq Recruits: Underpaid, Undertrained, Under Pressure”. http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/04/30/riminton.iraqtroops/index.htm
 “At Least 55 Killed in Blast Near Shiite Shrine in Iraq”. http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/04/24/iraq.main/index.html
 “Cracks Show in Israeli Cabinet After Report”. http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/meast/archive/05/01/israel.cabel.reut/index.html
 “Hamas Rockets Break 5-Month Truce”. http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/meast/archive/04/24/gaza.rockets.ap/index.html
 “Hamas urges Attacks on Israel After 9 Palestinians Killed”. http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/meast/ /04/22/Israel.palestinians.ap/index.html
 “Israel Strikes Target Rocket Squads” English.aljazeera.net/English/841D69EF-29A2-4A06-9A22/1B8816E0004D.htm
 “Talks Follow Gaza Truce Breakdown” English.aljazeera.net/English/D445D1DC-D845-4867-9F67-CD6F1F52904D.htm
 “Misery of Palestinian Children”. English.aljazeera.net/English/4EEE3AAA-CD6C-4E37-BF31-C5D796CO2807.htm