Hafiz Al Mirazi is the Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera and host of the channel's weekly program, From Washington, which spearheaded Al Jazeera's coverage of US elections in 2004. TBS's deputy managing editor Lindsay Wise interviewed Al Mirazi about Al Jazeera's strategy for covering the US presidential race and Arab media interest in the race in general.
TBS: There has been an unprecedented level of coverage of the US presidential elections in the international media, and especially the Arab media. Do you think interest has increased? Why do you think that is?
HM: It is true that interest has increased in the US presidential elections, and I believe for two reasons at least. First of all, the Iraq war. Usually it used to be just the Arab-Israeli conflict, but after a while, people in the Arab world realized that the US elections do not really cause big changes when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict or the peace process, but the Israeli elections might have more effect on it, i.e., if the Labor Party or a Labor candidate comes to power or a Likud one. And Washington is going to cater at the end to whoever is going to be in power in Israel. But the Iraq war and the US presence in Iraq made this election more important given the fact that the opponent to the incumbent president took a position on Iraq against the war, asking for withdrawal, or at least to reconsider the whole involvement in Iraq and calling it the "wrong war." So somehow his views resonated, and his criticism and attacks on the incumbent resonated with the views of many people in the Arab world or in Europe, and somehow they got into that wishful thinking that there would be a change of regime in Washington the same way that Washington changed the regime in Baghdad, but through the election, and so they're watching it. That's part, the other one, in addition to the Iraq war, is the development of the Arab satellite television stations. They have been watching closely the whole process even before Election Day on November 2, as in the case of Al Jazeera--the whole primary, the conventions, all of that. That was not really carried before in the same way, so that the Arab viewers got the chance to watch it and follow it up through television.
TBS: Do you think there's also a factor of competition?
HM: That could be. I mean competition is there always in the media and in any coverage regardless of whether its television or print media or anything like that. But yes, for us, for Al Jazeera at least, we were the first to start the coverage, we were the first to have a weekly show on Al Jazeera since mid-January to cover it. But if there is a challenge for us, especially in the Washington bureau, it's whether the Washington bureau of a TV station that is an Arab television station headquartered outside the US would be able to cover the elections much better than even the US-based and funded television station like Alhurra, and I can claim that we did a much better and more expansive coverage than any other station, including Alhurra.
TBS: Did Al Jazeera have a specific strategy for covering the elections? Were there specific goals for your coverage?
HM: They always say in the media there are three major issues--inform, educate, entertain. So we were trying to inform the people about the American political system, and educate them about it as well, and inform the people who is ahead, who is behind, what kind of background the challenger or the incumbent might have, so that if they come to the White House people are not surprised about their views. This is part of the information we were trying to provide. The education is about the political system. That was a chance for us to explain main things in the American political system. Without the plug of the election or the excuse of covering the election, you wouldn't have the chance to educate people about it. And we had that chance and that was part of the reason we did the coverage explaining the Electoral College, the two-party system, all of that. And the entertainment came in having a sky box in the conventions, and showing the kind of color and festivities that take place even in a convention, that there is not much news coming out of it, no surprises, but still the dynamics of it, the color of it, is good for TV and would capture audience attention.
TBS: I noticed you had very extensive coverage and I was wondering how many correspondents you had on the story and what kind of resources went into it?
HM: Well, we had one covering the Democratic Party, Wagd Waqfi, our female reporter in the Washington bureau; we had one with the Republicans who followed the president for most of his campaign. That was Mohamed Al-Alami, the chief reporter in the office. And then other reporters covered either Nader or some other event. But during the conventions for example, we had four reporters covering both conventions, in Boston and in New York.
TBS: Your head office was in Washington but your headquarters are in Qatar. Did you find that you had any challenges in terms of resources or funding or access because you are based abroad?
HM: No, not at all, the reason for that is that the Washington bureau of Al Jazeera has the most resources among other Arab television stations. We have a good team here and the staff is big enough to cover a story like that, and they are also seasoned and familiar with it. Some of us have been covering US elections since 1984. So for them, that was a plus, in order to explain the whole thing and to know where exactly you are going to put your resources and what states you are going to cover, compared for example, to other stations, mainly Alhurra. People when they started their weekly show, they started just about four months after Al Jazeera, or even five months after Al Jazeera started the weekly show on our network on the elections. And the people who were covering the elections for Alhurra came to Washington just a few months before and really some of them needed to be educated first about it. It's a challenge. I am sure they did their best, and they are colleagues and we commend them for whatever efforts they did. But they were at the disadvantage of having just come to the States and then to have the burden of explaining the whole thing to the Arab audience.
TBS: We watched the coverage here from Cairo, and we noticed your program From Washington about the US elections was not very confrontational, unlike some other Al Jazeera talk shows like Bidun Hudud and Al-Ittijah al-Mu'akis. It seemed to have more of an educational and analytical bent. Was that your intent?
HM: That's my style, actually. I feel like you leave it for the jury to decide. It's not the idea that you have to prove it immediately when someone is wrong or to corner that person or to keep repeating stereotypes. This is a chance for our audience to understand the American political system. We are not going to debate over and over again in all the hours that we are taking for the coverage that the Americans are biased in the Arab-Israeli conflict. These are things that we know and that the audience already knows about, and there is no time for debating on that one. We just wanted to know where Americans are coming from, why they are taking these decisions. The more education you give for your audience, the more they can appreciate the others and the more they will understand, and there will be no surprises. I was myself a little bit disappointed when I was in the Arab world in the last two weeks and I found some people were surprised that President Bush won a second term. I told many people that if you'd been watching us closely on our election coverage, you wouldn't have been surprised. We did not tell people anything, but all the polls were showing that he was ahead, even by a few points, but still ahead. He wasn't someone who came from behind. So I think it's very important to allow people to speak, and to give people the chance to express their views. Then the news and the information they give to people would have more entertainment value for people to stick around and to stay with you, rather than just creating a fighting match, like a Crossfire format. Sometimes you should have it, but it shouldn't be all the time.
TBS: Was it in your mind at any point, when you were putting this program and coverage together, that the US election process should be taken into consideration by the Arab audience or the Arab world as a model? What applicable lesson, if any, for the Arab world might be drawn from learning about the US system?
HM: I was told by a veteran Arab television anchor, Mr. Hamdy Qandil--I met him four months ago during our coverage of the elections--and he himself told me, "When you started that weekly show about the US elections in mid-January, I doubted really if there is much to talk about and to fill in the time with the US election story for months before November, but when I followed the program, I found that there are so many things that are really beneficial and that Al Jazeera managed to get a lot of information to people to help them learn about the process." And that's really a very nice complement and observation from someone like him because the assumption is that people know everything about America, that we don't really need to know a lot, and when it boils down to Kerry versus Bush, people really lose sight of things, and the idea is to explain issues in depth regardless of whether it's US of other elections. So if there is a lesson, it is don't take things for granted, don't just go with the vision of the black and white, you're either with us or against us, or whoever is going to be in the White House is not going to be with the Arab causes or Arab views. But knowing more about the candidates' background is very important, and the pressure itself that brought them into power is important and that's what really I feel that we should care about, whether we are covering Iraqi elections or any other election, not only the US election. I hope that people will care about the process in covering the Iraqi elections, the same way we cared about the process in covering the American elections, and not just to get stuck on the day of the election itself, because the day of the election is just ballots and people are going and putting some ballots in boxes. That doesn't tell the story. That is all I hope we will do in the future, that we will come into coverage of events without our own ideological baggage and without any preconceived positions--just to learn and share that knowledge with our audience, regardless of whether it will be beneficial for one person on one day, or one party on one day or another.
TBS: How did you decide who to have as guests on your program? Was there any system to it? Some observers have suggested that there's a liberal bias and that people who appear on your shows, the majority of them, happened to be liberal or Democratic supporters. Would you deny that, or would say there's a reason for that?
HM: Well I'm not sure about that really. I mean, the liberal bias label is already in the US all over. Anyone will consider most of the US networks have a liberal bias. So if Al Jazeera is branded as liberal-biased, I think it might be a compliment within the American context of discourse. But to go to your point, we were challenged really in this election, because first of all you have a preference for Arabic speakers. There's a language barrier. We do translate, we do get people, we present them, but your preference still might be an Arabic speaker. In 2000 that was not a problem, because in the year 2000 elections, most of the Arabs and Muslims stood with President Bush. In this year, because of 9/11 and in many other factors, most of the polls were showing that the majority of Arab Americans were against Bush, regardless of whether they were for Kerry or not for Kerry, but they were against Bush. That was a challenge--how to represent the community of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans and how to get commentators from them, and yet make sure that you have a balance between both. Even some Republicans were Republicans but against Bush. Still, we had an Arab American Democrat and we had an Arab American Republican. She wasn't speaking Arabic, she was an English speaker. But she was a very strong supporter of President Bush, with no compromise whatsoever, and we insisted on her. So we compromised in the language issue. We could have had that as an excuse, since we didn't have anybody who was speaking Arabic, but we did not use that excuse. We had Randa Fahmy, who was in the administration before in the Energy Department, as a Republican commentator and we had Abdel Aziz Awwad, as an Arab one. And actually some people like the New Republic, and other magazines and publications, found that the Republicans treated us very well in the convention and we had more access to them even than with the Democrats. We have never heard any complaints from the Republican Party of bias. On the contrary they gave us more access than the Democrats gave us, and more interviews.
TBS: That was going to be my next question: Whether you had any trouble getting campaign, government, or administrative officials to come on the air because Al Jazeera has had a rocky relationship with the US government.
HM: The irony is that we didn't have that problem with the US government, or with the Republican Party. We had it with the Democrats, maybe because they were so worried that the Republicans would attack them or use it against them, or perhaps they were not sophisticated in dealing with international media. So the Kerry campaign failed really to capitalize on that, and they missed a lot of minorities, maybe not only us, in building relations with international media, which usually is ethnic media also because part of their broadcast is inside the US. While on the other hand, the Republicans and the Bush campaign were savvy and they managed really to get their word through, and if not to make Bush likable by Arab American voters or our audience, at least to make sure people were disillusioned about Kerry.
TBS: Do you think your coverage was also reaching Arab Americans through satellite and providing them with the forum and affecting the way that they viewed the elections?
HM: I think so and I hope so. I think that our coverage did make some difference, I don't know when it comes to results whether it made a difference or not, and maybe it's too early to judge, but at least the feedback that we used to get from people was very clear that they were watching our coverage of the conventions and the whole process itself. An Arab American activist came back to tell us that her mom has been in the States for forty or fifty years and had never watched the convention or really felt what they are doing and what she, her daughter, was doing through her activism, and that thanks only to Al Jazeera's coverage, and especially our live coverage from both conventions, she realized the whole thing, and understood the process, and that's really good. I mean, if we did nothing else, we did try to make sure that this part of our audience is not in a ghetto. Because the downside of them watching the [Arab] satellite stations in Washington, or while they're living in America, is to be in a ghetto and to only follow the news over there and forget about their own society. And that coverage helped them to reconnect again with the society that they're in and it empowered them to feel that with a few votes one of those people could win the whole election.
TBS: Is there anything that you'd like to add reflecting on the election coverage? What do you think Al Jazeera still needs to work on in the future for improving its coverage of elections?
HM: The only thing that I felt at some point was that the Arab media all of a sudden came in in the last week before the Election Day, and then you turn everywhere and people are talking about the US elections. Sometimes it's too much. With all my interest in the need for us to cover America, I'm afraid sometimes people do it too much, to the point that they are alienating their own societies. It is important that the same effort that we sometimes put into, as I mentioned earlier, explaining American elections and the American political system, we should also put into coverage of elections and other stories in Arab countries, even though people don't have the same trust or confidence in elections or the political process in Arab countries. Yet it's worth at least giving them a chance to explain, because the way people vote or elect a president in Mauritania or Algeria with only 60 percent of the votes to win is different from other countries where the leader always wins by 99 or 95 percent. If we don't explain that difference, if we don't make an effort in explaining the Arab political systems for our audience and just focus on America because this is what we have on the wires, we're really failing our audience. So I think that the balance is important. We should avoid this kind of alienation of people just focusing of what's going on in Washington, or carrying live press conferences from the US without carrying live what's going on in the Arab world, including speeches or discussion in Arab parliaments whenever these are available to be carried live for the audience.
TBS: Thank you very much for talking to us today.