According to the whispers, it will come sometime this month. After millions of dollars, months of planning, and a massive buildup, the invasion is now just days away.
No, not an attack on Saddam Hussein, though that could happen around the same time. By design or not, just as the United States prepares to launch its forces against Iraq, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar is launching an offensive of its own-against CNN and the BBC, against what it perceives as Western ignorance and stereotyping. The United States may or may not reach Baghdad and Tikrit, but the Arabs are definitely coming to Boise and Tampa.
The Al Jazeera news channel has already conquered the Arabian Gulf, bringing critical, Western-style reporting to a region long known for its fawning, state-run media. Nearly every sheikh, king, and president in the Middle East has banned or boycotted the channel at some point in its brief, seven-year history, and President George W. Bush would gladly have joined that list, if he could. Yet despite-or perhaps because of-the opposition, Al Jazeera has quickly established itself as the No. 1 news source in the Arab world, as ubiquitous and influential in the Middle East as CNN is throughout Europe and the Americas.
Now it wants to bring its avowedly Arab point of view to American audiences. With the March launch of its new English-language website, Al Jazeera could revolutionize the news business, writing the "first rough draft of history" through the eyes of the vanquished, not the victors. That, in turn, could push some Americans to reconsider their assumptions about the war-and, perhaps more importantly, the whole concept of media "objectivity."
From the outside, the nondescript, four-story office building in the Qatari capital of Doha doesn't look like much of a command center in this media revolution. Indeed, it's largely abandoned for Eid Al Adha, one of the most important religious festivals in the Muslim calendar. All across Qatar, the faithful have packed into their local mosques for morning sermons, then headed to the slaughterhouse for the ritual sacrifice of thousands of sheep.
In the third-floor offices of Al Jazeera Net, however, employees are sacrificing something else: their day off. Though some have rushed from morning prayers still wearing their traditional white robes, or thoub, they're now at their battle stations, banging away at computer keyboards or reading through stacks of newspapers in various languages. They have only a few weeks to get the site up and running, and they feel the weight of the world-the Arab world, at least-on their shoulders.
Then there's Nathan Wilson, who's not doing much of anything yet. Still jet-lagged from his 24-hour trip to Doha, he's trying mostly to figure out the e-mail system and learn his way around the office. The 22-year-old journalism grad from Franklin College in Indiana signed on just last night as Al Jazeera Net's latest reporter, making this his first day on the job. He admits it's a career choice many of his friends don't understand.
"Some of them had to be educated," he says with a laugh. "I know there's a stigma associated with Al Jazeera, and some of my friends were concerned for my safety. They come from small towns with lots of stereotypes-one image of the entire Arab culture. You have a different perspective when you live in the States your whole life. You don't realize how sensational and one-sided the American media can be in their coverage of the Arab world."
Mr. Wilson's own view of the Arab world was shaped at much closer range. He grew up in America, but he spent his high-school years in Qatar after his father, a chemical engineer, accepted a position at the local university. He figures his cross-cultural experience and his contacts in the American expatriate community will help gain him access at Western embassies and military bases in Qatar. His goal, he says, is to "reach out to the West and present Al Jazeera as an option for people who want a more rounded perspective."
Yet even among Muslim nations in the Middle East, Al Jazeera's perspective has been criticized as anything but well-rounded. Saddam Hussein complained that the station was anti-Iraqi after it reported on the huge expenses for his lavish birthday party. In neighboring Kuwait, officials accuse Al Jazeera of being pro-Saddam, while the ruler of tiny Bahrain banned the station for being pro-Israel. Saudi Arabia organized a devastating advertising boycott to protest unflattering coverage of the kingdom's tyrannical ruling family, and Yasser Arafat blasted the channel for allegedly favoring Hamas over the PLO. All told, the Qatari government has received more than 400 official complaints from other Arab nations regarding stories broadcast on Al Jazeera. (Although both the station and the website are independent of the government, Al Jazeera received $140 million in seed money from the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.)
Such controversial reporting is almost unheard-of in the Middle East, where both publishers and broadcasters carefully toe the official line of their sponsoring governments. "News" in this part of the world typically consists of dispatches handed down from the Information Ministry rather than debates bubbling up from the streets. Consider this Page One, above-the-fold story from The Peninsula, an English-language daily in Doha: Under a full-color photo of the Emir at prayer, the article gives a minute-by-minute breakdown of his holiday schedule. Typical paragraph: "At 8:15 a.m. the Emir received officers of the armed forces and police, directors of state departments and national corporations. All congratulated the Emir, wishing the Qatari people welfare and blessings."
Small wonder, then, that scrappy Al Jazeera was an instant hit throughout the Middle East. By criticizing rulers, reporting multiple sides of a story, and seeking out spokesmen for differing viewpoints, it revolutionized the way Arabs thought about the news. With an estimated 35 million viewers, it is by far the most popular news source in the region. Enter any coffee shop or carpet store, and the TV is likely tuned to the news channel with the distinctive teardrop logo in the lower right corner of the screen. Even in electronics shops, with whole banks of TVs tuned to soccer or cricket, one or two sets are always reserved for the talking heads and live stand-ups of Al Jazeera.
Despite its ubiquitous presence in the Middle East, few Americans had ever heard of Al Jazeera until October 2001, when Osama bin Laden chose the channel to make a comeback of sorts. In a chilling, 15-minute rant broadcast without interruption throughout the Arab world, he praised the attacks on the World Trade Center and called for the murder of more Americans.
To the Bush administration, Al Jazeera's unedited broadcast made it a mouthpiece and an ally of al-Qaeda. Secretary of State Colin Powell lodged a formal complaint with the Qatari government. American broadcast networks refused to carry the bin Laden comments for fear they might contain coded instructions to sleeper cells in the United States. The New York Daily News called for military action against Al Jazeera, and just weeks later, Air Force planes flying over Afghanistan dropped two 500-pound bombs on the station's bureau in Kabul.
Back at the Al Jazeera Net headquarters, Nathan Wilson is spending his second day at work in much the same way he spent his first day: Learning the ropes, meeting the staff-and making the case for his new employer. Just hours earlier, Al Jazeera broadcast, without interruption, another 15-minute harangue by Osama bin Laden urging Arabs to defend Saddam Hussein against any American attack. Thanks in part to that tape, his friends back in the States are now living under a Code Orange terrorism alert, Washington is deploying Stinger missiles around the Capitol, and London's airports are all but closed down by security concerns. But at Al Jazeera Net, "Things are pretty low-key. It's just another day at the office, basically.
"Just because we may not agree with a perspective doesn't mean it shouldn't be voiced," he says in defense of Al Jazeera's freewheeling style. "That's what really attracted me to Al Jazeera in the first place: They're not afraid to create controversy as long as they're presenting all sides."
It's the Arab side that has traditionally been absent from Western news reporting, according to Mr. Wilson's boss, Joanne Tucker. "We see this part of the world being covered in a rather superficial, one-dimensional way. It's not often seen through the eyes and experiences of the people who live in this region. The American perspective is given major airtime while other perspectives that represent a large portion of the world's population get a token sound bite. I can't tell you the number of times I've seen the entire Middle East wrapped up in a one-minute report from Tel Aviv."
In hiring the initial 15 reporters to serve as the eyes for American readers, Ms. Tucker says she made a conscious effort to find people, like herself, with broad experience in both the Arab and Western worlds.
A slim, soft-spoken woman in a pink blouse and black slacks, she switches effortlessly between unaccented English and rapid-fire Arabic. Born in America to a Lebanese-American mother, Ms. Tucker lived 22 years in the United Kingdom and became a naturalized British citizen. Like many other staffers at Al Jazeera, she got her journalistic start with the BBC, where she spent six years in both TV and radio. She also worked on the broadcast side of Al Jazeera before moving to the Internet division as managing editor last October.
Although Ms. Tucker is mildly critical of the Bush administration's early reaction to Al Jazeera ("The blanket censorship of the bin Laden speech was understandable, but not necessarily right"), she reserves her most pointed criticism for the American press and its claims of objectivity.
"This holy grail of pure objectivity, the absence of any point of view, it simply doesn't exist. I think the ideal of American reporting is beautiful, but whether it's adhered to is another question. Every single reporter has a point of view. I think it's quite self-deceptive and kind of sweet, really, this American approach that 'we are so objective, so neutral.'"
In any war with Iraq, she points out, "objective" American reporters will cover the war from a U.S.-staffed media center hundreds of miles away from the action. Lengthy briefings by top military brass will be broadcast live, while the Iraqi response may get a sentence or two read back by reporters. Iraqi casualties will remain nameless, faceless statistics while U.S. soldiers send greetings home to mothers and spouses.
Al Jazeera, she says, will add a different viewpoint to the mix. "We realize that we are not going to compete with ABC, CNN, NBC, CBS, Fox, in terms of covering the war from the American side. But where we can compete is in filling in the gaps in information from the Arab world, and from Iraq specifically. We have a network of reporters inside Iraq. We have very good access to leading voices in the Arab world. We feel we're at the center of things. We can get access to exclusive points of view and events. We can develop news in this part of the world faster and more in-depth than a Western network could."
Indeed, if history repeats itself, Al Jazeera could be the only news organization in Baghdad once fighting breaks out. When U.S. bombs began falling on Afghanistan, the Taliban banished all Western reporters, leaving Al Jazeera to supply exclusive war coverage to the entire world. Back then, the network's reports were translated and filtered through Western news organizations like CNN. But now, with an English-language Al Jazeera website, readers in America will be able to see for themselves what their armies are doing half a world away.
For the Bush administration, of course, that's not necessarily good news. Eyewitness reports and gory photos from the battlefield will do little to rally public opinion in favor of a controversial war. Furthermore, any anti-war backlash that develops in America would likely be a distant echo of public opinion in the Arab world, where anti-U.S. sentiment-stirred and stoked by the propagandistic media against which Al Jazeera says it is competing-is already much greater.
But, if the war ends quickly with few civilian casualties, Al Jazeera will be in a position to relay the thanks of newly freed Iraqis, which could surely reverberate throughout the region. That will be a big test of Al Jazeera's stated commitment to fairness and balance.
To pass that test, Al Jazeera will have to do better than it did in Afghanistan. A Columbia Journalism Review analysis showed that while the Western media carried stories of happily liberated Afghans, Al Jazeera emphasized footage of Northern Alliance fighters kicking the dead bodies of Taliban soldiers and pulling their beards. Coverage also focused on chaotic scenes of destroyed homes and befuddled residents.
But in the world according to Al Jazeera, not all bombing victims are created equal. Coverage of terrorist attacks in Israel-three bomb blasts in Jerusalem that killed eight and wounded 180-lacked the up-close footage of bloodied victims, chaos, and fear. Instead, Al Jazeera concentrated "more on subsequent events in Palestine-the arrest of people suspected of having a connection to the bombings," according to CJR. (The publication offered a speculative explanation that perhaps Al Jazeera's cameras might not be welcome on Jerusalem streets.)
Al Jazeera has a great opportunity to play a role in reshaping the post-Saddam Arab world. "Undoubtedly the Arab people crave democracy and freedom, the right to choose their own leaders, the right to live in their homelands, the right to economic prosperity," Ms. Tucker says. "But sometimes the Arab people see their leaders as unhelpful in these regards, and they see those leaders being backed by American power."
If American power can now be wielded to bring freedom to millions of Iraqis, other Arabs throughout the Middle East may get ideas of their own. With a free press giving voice to their yearnings, they could re-order a region that has long been known for corruption, oppression, and violence.
That, in the long term, would be the biggest story of all. But it will require a news service that is truly pro-Arab, and not simply anti-American. Is Al Jazeera ready to play that role? As they say in the broadcast news business, "Stay tuned."