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The Rage Will Be Televised

Al Jazeera and its imitators cover Gaza like no one else—but at what cost?
January 7, 2009

The scenes of gore are suffocating. On the floor of a Gaza hospital, an open-eyed youngster who looks no older than twelve lies alone and dead. A bereaved farmer holds a dead infant in his arms, mournfully recalling his family’s tragedy at the hands of oncoming Israeli troops. A father bursts into a hospital emergency room, discovers that three of his children who were injured in the bombing have died, then breaks into uncontrollable wails.

Some of the images and stories about Palestinian victims change, but some have been repeated—hour after hour, day after day—on Arab satellite television since the beginning of Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip. Within hours of the start of the assault on the Hamas-led government in Gaza, furious demonstrations erupted across the Arab world, and they haven’t stopped. If ever there has been a conclusive statement about the power of satellite television to capture and mold Arabs’ attention, this is it.

This wouldn’t have happened so quickly and powerfully in the days before Al Jazeera revolutionized Arab television and a string of competitors began copying the Qatari-owned station’s style of breathless, on-the-scene broadcasting. But the narrative being flashed across television screens is likely to produce a higher-than-usual level of outrage throughout the Arab world.

And that is what I worry about.

The battle has become a nonstop television drama largely about unending victimhood: of Arab children killed by shrapnel while playing in Gaza’s streets; of civilians tragically ensnared by the bloody conflict; of exhausted doctors or emergency workers who fall victim to the fighting and bombing. The reporting and analysis almost feels like background music to the images of destruction and death, often shown on a split-screen beside the reporting. These are images seen by few in the West, as there are few foreign journalists inside Gaza.

Yet it is not only the Arab media’s on-the-scene presence that makes the difference, but its willingness to devote hours to covering and discussing the crisis. None more so than Al Jazeera, whose reporters are inside Gaza, on the Egyptian border, in Jerusalem, and in the West Bank. No other station seems capable of producing so many visceral, you-are-there stories, and so much commentary, from across the Arab world. But it is also the way Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel sometimes introduces the news that gets the blood flowing.

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Its two-year-old English-language channel offers almost as complete and compelling a portrait of the situation in Gaza. But there is a difference when Al Jazeera is speaking to the Arab world about Gaza “under fire,” as it titles its coverage. With music that soars to a throbbing crescendo, it is a fast-moving visual drama that segues from dead and dying Palestinians to snips of Arab politicians talking about the crisis to screaming demonstrators across the Arab and Muslim world calling on their leaders to come to the Palestinians’ rescue. The message is clear and very visceral before the announcers even begin.

It only seems logical that this fury will explode one day. Maybe I’m so sensitive to it because I’ve spent so much time in this part of the world.

But it still seems reasonable to expect the gathering fury to ignite and strike out at those considered by the crowds and their leaders as complicit in the Palestinians’ tragedy—the Israelis, Americans, Westerners overall, and those Arab governments that have not rallied to Hamas’ cause.

The fury will come calling too, I sadly suspect, on innocents whose only fault is that they wandered into the way of the rage.

“Mark my words,” predicted Marwan Bishara, a news analyst on Al Jazeera’s English-language station the other night. “Those who talk about the roots of violence and terrorism, should watch their televisions.”

Stephen Franklin is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, The Philadelphia Bulletin, the Miami Herald, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he has trained journalists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, and Pakistan. He is currently the ethnic and community media director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, a nonprofit organization that helps Chicago’s diverse communities and nonprofit organizations tell their stories. He is working on a book about his longtime bond with the Middle East, Captured by the Light.