How State-Funded TV Stations Covered the Osama News

A look at Russia Today, Press TV, France 24, and others

Around the world, state-funded satellite TV stations—like Russia Today (RT), Iran’s Press TV, China’s CCTV, France 24 and Al Jazeera—are broadcasting world news as they see it. That means that millions are hearing stories from new perspectives, and stories like the death of Osama Bin Laden can vary dramatically, depending on which channel you’re watching.

So let’s say that, on Sunday night, you were watching Russia’s RT. As Barack Obama was making his “Osama is dead” announcement in the East Room, RT was airing its news talk show Cross Talk with host Peter Lavelle: The subject: the Republican field of U.S. presidential candidates, with a special emphasis on Donald Trump. There was no interruption to bring you the actual president, announcing his momentous news. There were no cameras showing the celebratory scene outside the White House. There was nothing at all to indicate that RT’s U.S. headquarters are located in Washington, D.C., just blocks from Lafayette Square.

It was not until shortly after midnight that RT viewers saw a ticker appear on screen announcing what was by then old news: Osama Bin Laden was dead.

The next day RT lent its peculiar brand of skepticism to coverage of the story. The channel’s main message was that America’s war on terror was not over, and that Bin Laden’s death was “irrelevant.” One RT guest said Al Qaeda’s membership numbered in no more than the hundreds—a movement too small to execute attacks as sophisticated as the bombings carried out in recent years in Moscow’s subway and main airport.

“The bigger question,” said Washington correspondent Gayenne Chichakayene, “is how much terror has the war (on terror) instigated ever since it started.”

There was more. Guest Christoph Horstel—identified by RT as a business and political consultant, and a self-identified “old Afghan hand”—called the burial of Bin Laden’s body a “mafia-style” dump. The U.S., he said, presented very little evidence that Bin Laden had actually been killed, echoing an earlier comment from Chichakayene that “no credible image” had been released to show Bin Laden was dead.

Of course, the photographic evidence point has also been raised in U.S. media, and by many others around the world. But there’s a difference between a healthy skepticism and the more cynical, not-so-subtle anti-American take you so often hear on RT. In fact, as my fellow students and I learned in reporting this spring on the proliferation of state-funded, twenty-four-hour global TV news channels, global news has become something of a “buyer beware” market.

Our Global Media Wars report on five of those channels concludes that, while there are some strong new offerings—Al Jazeera English in particular—some are just simply not worth watching. And there’s nothing like the big, global story of Bin Laden’s death to illustrate that.

On Sunday night, for example, RT was not alone in moving slowly to report the news. Iran’s Press TV was running a piece about a computer game festival in Tehran while other channels reported live on what had been learned about Bin Laden. When it did report on the death, Press TV—fully funded and controlled by the Iranian government—offered analysis from guests such as Webster Tarpley, author of 9/11: Synthetic Terror, who said that Bin Laden had been killed years ago. The U.S. was only announcing it now in order to bolster the popularity of Obama and initiate conflict “in the collapse phase” of the U.S. empire.

“I’m afraid,” said Tarpley, “that the door to a false flag terror operation staged by the U.S, the British, and NATO…is wide open. It will simply be attributed to Al Qaeda…it will be explained as promoted by Pakistan or some other country the U.S. wishes to target.”

Not all channels questioned the president’s credibility. China’s CCTV, a global channel all in English, was quick to accept that U.S. forces had efficiently used “facial recognition techniques” to identify Bin Laden, and called his death a “major accomplishment for President Obama and his national security team.”

What CCTV lacked was any coverage of the global discussion around Bin Laden’s death.

France 24, one of the newest of the government-funded channels, did cover reactions on Twitter and Facebook, mostly from users in North Africa hailing Bin Laden’s death. They also used Google maps to profile Abbottabad, and discussed the story of the Twitter user who had unwittingly live blogged the operation on Bin Laden’s compound.

However, France 24’s effort to take viewers to Bin Laden’s compound digitally were trumped by Al Jazeera’s on-the-ground reporting. By the time Americans on the east coast woke up Monday morning, Al Jazeera had an eyewitness account of the raid from Abottabad local Ali Sikander.

Al Jazeera also had analysis from Beirut-based journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent in London, who had met Bin Laden three times during his career.

Fisk drove home the main theme in Al Jazeera’s reporting: The Arab awakening of the last few months had already politically defeated Bin Laden. It showed that Arabs rejected the Islamic Caliphate that Bin Laden had advocated, preferring instead transparent, democratic governments.

Not to say that Al Jazeera did not recognize that Bin Laden’s death was a momentous event with potentially brutal consequences. As reporter Tarek Bazley said at the conclusion of an Al Jazeera profile of Bin Laden, “Al Qaeda has now lost its figurehead, but many will argue that this will have little effect on the group whose followers have sworn to see his vision through to the end.” That vision remains clear. What seems to be getting blurrier is the global media landscape.

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Linette Lopez is a M.S. candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Tags: , , , , ,