Al Jazeera: TV setting or agenda setting?


It seems someone at Al Jazeera had an exciting idea for a talk show set. Who needs a typical, boring studio shot of a skyline when you can have real tanks sprouting out of the ground right behind the anchor?


Whether or not this was the thinking, Al Jazeera went full throttle with the idea, employing a serious production crew to capture the new ‘Arab victory’ museum created by Hezbollah in south Lebanon, as the backdrop for a talk show that aired last week.

The exhibit, which went up this summer, is largely a homage to Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah commander that was assasinated earlier this year. But the show, hosted by Ghassan Ben Jeddou (seen above) was not about Hezbollah explicitly. It tackled the general subject of Arab armies and Arab victories, looking at troop morale and national support; reasons, presumably, why there have been far more defeats than victories.

In addition to two Lebanese analysts, the show also featured a guest from Cairo over satellite link.


I interviewed Al Jazeera host Ben Jeddou when I was managing editor of the Journal of Middle East Broadcasters (see interview). We spoke soon after the summer war of 2006, when Ben Jeddou landed an exclusive interview with Hezbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah. He was very open about his admiration for Nasrallah, but maintained that he could put these feelings aside as a journalist.

The show last week avoided any lengthy discussion of Hezbollah but the Lebanese analysts (neither identified as being supporters of the group) spoke of the importance of resistance as a national sentiment leading to victory. Much of the time however, the cameras focused on the exhibits, which seemed to speak for themselves, comprising a virtual voice among the punditry. They include destroyed Israeli tanks and the Hezbollah weaponry used to attack them.


Also on display were pictures of the men who carried out the attacks:


Naturally, footage of the exhibits add a bit of excitement the show and a nice break from the monotony of talking heads. But the museum is far from being a neutral space as the backdrop of a supposedly objective conversation. Of the many shots, perhaps the most telling was a wide angle cross section of the stage:


In this shot we see a giant poster of slain Mughniyah with the title “Martyr” above his image.

In some ways its not surprising to see Ben Jeddou in this context. His show sets have recently gained much publicity for their elaborate nature.

This summer Al Jazeera apologized for a show in which Ben Jeddou hosted a celebration for the freed former Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar, which included musicians, fireworks and a large cake with Nasrallah’s picture encrusted on top. The network said the show “violated its ethics policy”.

But this case illustrates more than the question of Al Jazeera’s editorial judgment. It also highlights the power of the war museum as a cultural fixture. Not only does it provide an experience for every day visitors, but it also functions as a frame for public debate, whether or not it is directly addressed in that debate.

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