Al Jazeera America excels in covering killings of Middle East teens

Reporting and analysis belie allegations of bias on Israel

  • Al Jazeera America anchor David Shuster interviews Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general to the United States, in the wake of the bodies of three teens being found last week.
Al Jazeera America anchor David Shuster interviews Alon Pinkas,… (Al Jazeera America screengrab )
July 03, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

The grisly discovery Monday of the bodies of three Israeli teens who had been abducted June 12 as they hitchhiked home from a West Bank settlement yeshiva set off a week of mounting violence in the region.

Israel blamed Hamas and promised and delivered retribution in the West Bank, blowing up the homes of the alleged murderers and launching dozens of air strikes. Hamas threatened back, saying that “the gates of hell would open” if Israel went too far.

On Wednesday, a Palestinian teen was abducted and killed, and a Palestinian official blamed “extremist Jewish settlers” as Arabs and Israelis battled in the streets of East Jerusalem.

It was a complex and highly emotional story, and no one on American TV did a better job of telling it than Al Jazeera America, the new kid on the cable news block that will celebrate its first anniversary next month.

It has been a rough year for the organization, with lower ratings than even some of its harshest critics predicted and layoffs in April. But if anyone with an open mind was looking for evidence as to how the presence of Al Jazeera America enriches the landscape of broadcast news and offers viewers the chance to be better informed about the Middle East, it was on display last week.

Al Jazeera America’s coverage was in full swing by 8 p.m. Monday, hours after the bodies were found. It featured correspondent Nick Schifrin reporting from Gaza City on the retaliatory air strikes by the Israeli Air Force. As always, the Al Jazeera cameras gave viewers a sense of being in the street as close to the action as anyone would want to be.

At 11 p.m., anchor David Shuster broadened the coverage via stateside interviews with Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general to the U.S., and Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada website. Talk about balanced: The segment ran 12 minutes and 2 seconds. Pinkas got exactly 6 minutes and 1 second, while Abunimah got the same.

And while some critics of the larger Al Jazeera news organization have characterized the Qatar-based operation as being pro-Arab and anti-Israel, there was none of that in either of Shuster’s segments.

In fact, his interview with Abunimah was by far the more contentious of the two, with Shuster consistently challenging the Palestinian-American journalist on his “facts.”

The former MSNBC anchor opened by asking Abunimah for his reaction to what Pinkas had said.

But instead of reaction to Pinkas, Abunimah went off on Al Jazeera America for what he sees as its pro-Israel bias.

“I think it’s interesting that we’re here having this conversation after three Israeli youths were killed,” he said. “But no one called me to talk about the cold-blooded murder of two Palestinian teenagers shot dead by snipers on May 15.”

“Ali, to be fair,” Shuster said, cutting him off, “Al Jazeera America did cover that story extensively. Just because we didn’t have you on ….”

“OK, point taken,” Abunimah said. “My point is that six Palestinian children have been killed this year.”

And back and forth it went.

As outraged as I was by the death of the three teens, I still wanted to hear what someone with Abunimah’s point of view had to say. I don’t want discussions on TV limited to the extent that only one point of view can be heard. But I do want talking heads fact-checked as much as possible in a live interview — just as Shuster did.

“We did an incredible research effort Monday afternoon and into Monday evening,” Shuster said in a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun last week. “And once we had the guests booked, we spent a lot of time looking at their previous interviews. Alon Pinkas had been on Al Jazeera … and I watched that, thinking, ‘What can I do to sort of move the ball forward and break some news?’ And the same thing with Ali.”

According to Shuster, the Abunimah interview took a different turn than he had expected when “Ali started saying something that wasn’t true.”

“I have a standard practice that I try to follow in interviews that we don’t give people a platform to say things that are false,” Shuster explained. “And so I felt like, OK, I needed to stop him. … I corrected him there. And it sort of just continued.”

Beyond the preparation, Shuster stressed the experience and expertise Al Jazeera America brings to such coverage. Schifrin came to the channel from ABC News, where he covered Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shuster has been working in cable news since 1990, when he started as an assignment editor in CNN’s Washington bureau. In addition to CNN and MSNBC, he’s also worked as a correspondent and anchor for Fox and Current TV, including a year in the Middle East.

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