BEIRUT- From sword dancing with the Saudis to swaying to Hebrew pop with Israeli children, it was Al Jazeera that delivered regional audiences the most extensive coverage of U.S. prexy Bush’s Middle East tour.
Ironically, the network most criticized by the Bush Administration often provided more exposure to the president’s activities than many of the major TV networks in the United States. On several occasions, flagship U.S. evening newscasts at ABC and NBC seemed to flatly ignore the activities of the president in favor of stories covering presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama as well as Brittney Spears, whose custody battle drew far more air time in the U.S. than did the president’s final stop in Egypt. However on Al Jazeera Mubasher (‘live’)–the state-backed Qatari network’s equivalent to C-Span–Bush’s ceremonious affairs received hours of coverage on a near daily basis.
This included a lengthy choir-like performance by Israeli and American flag waving youth in Jerusalem, an extended visit to the Church of Nativity and several folkloric performances across the Gulf States that saw Bush hold a falcon, wear traditional robes and gaze at Arabian horses.
International broadcasters such as CNN International and BBC World typically dropped such events after only a few minutes, but Al Jazeera Live regularly broadcasted the raw feeds in their entirety, even picking up footage from other regional broadcasters such as Bahrain’s state-run channel.
This is not to say that the network, which has been dubbed “terror TV” by Bush administration officials in the past, and whose offices were struck twice by US forces during its tenure, was tepid in its coverage of the presidential visit.
Much like C-Span in the US, Al Jazeera Live is largely free from commentary, but its regular programming, all- news networks, both in English and Arabic, offered scathing criticism of Bush’s remarks, with one analyst saying the head of state sounded “like a broken record” following his keynote speech in Abu Dhabi.
American networks, on the other hand, largely offered little analysis or even surface coverage of Bush’s landmark trip. On Jan. 10, for example, the top story on all the Arab networks as well as CNN International and BBC World was the president’s historic call for “an end to the (Israeli) occupation that began in 1967.”
But at the same time on American network MSNBC, the top stories were limited to a row between Britney Spears and talk show host Dr. Phil, the endorsement of Obama by former presidential candidate John Kerry, the trial of accused paedophile Debra LaFave and a severe weather system in Indiana.
Bush’s landmark speech was also ignored in MSNBC’s top-rated program “Hardball with Chris Matthews” which focused exclusively that evening on the race for the White House and the minutiae of the candidates’ campaigns.
Bush did eventually get a mention on “Hardball” on Jan. 14 as he arrived in Saudi Arabia but in contrast to the international media, which focused on a potential $20 billion dollar arms deal with the Kingdom and the Bush family’s longstanding ties to Saudi royals, Matthews honed in on the quirky and the mundane. With less than a minute of airtime devoted to the president’s activities, the host smirked after rolling an “awkward moment” of Bush nervously holding a falcon on his arm.
For ABC’s “World News Tonight”, even the sarcasm did not prove to be newsworthy enough. The program completely ignored Bush’s visit to Saudi Arabia that evening despite its status as a top story on Al Jazeera, CNNi, BBC and others.
Instead the leading American network’s news agenda on January 14 was populated with reports about heart drugs, gas prices, the endless Obama/Clinton rivalry and the rising appeal of video games among senior citizens.