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Tony Burman

Tony Burman

Posted: October 24, 2008 06:22 PM

Shocking Racism at Palin Rally: Al Jazeera Report Starts Controversy


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The U.S. presidential race is mesmerizing the world. The result is hundreds of hours of unprecedented news coverage about the U.S. on international news channels -- including the one that I run, the English-language channel of Al Jazeera.

So why has one of our news reports -- on a channel that is broadcast in 120 million households worldwide but not throughout most of the U.S. -- triggered so much controversy in this country?

Perhaps because it was a tough take on at least one issue -- race -- that is being poorly reported by most of America's mainstream media.

On October 12, one of our reporters interviewed people attending a Sarah Palin rally in St. Clairsville, Ohio. It was raw and it was real.

Here's a sample of some of the comments the reporter heard about Barack Obama:

"I'm afraid if he wins, the blacks will take over. He's not a Christian! This is a Christian nation! What is our country gonna end up like?"
"When you got a Negra running for president, you need a first stringer. He's definitely a second stringer."
Watch the full report:

The piece went viral on YouTube, and is now at more than 1.7 million views. It has sparked intense reaction, as well as a debate about our coverage.

On October 17, Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King wrote about the Al Jazeera piece, and accused Al Jazeera English of having an anti-American agenda:

"It is no accident that the English-language operation of al-Jazeera, the Arab-language news network, tried to capture and broadcast to the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere a glimpse of America's more sinister side.... Was this fodder served up by al-Jazeera to feed anti-American sentiment overseas? To be sure. But the camera didn't lie. Did al-Jazeera, however, record the whole truth?"

What nonsense. No single news report -- like no single newspaper column -- can "record the whole truth".

But, as I pointed out in a letter to The Washington Post, these rallies are bringing into the open what is usually hidden in U.S. elections, that race and fear are still powerful forces in American society.

I also challenged the suggestion that this single news report reflected a bias on the part of Al Jazeera:

"Al Jazeera's international news channels - both English and Arabic - have devoted more air time covering this campaign than perhaps any other network. Americans appear on the brink of electing its first black President in history, which would have been thought unimaginable a few years ago. If it happens, this would be a historic development not only for America, but for any major Western nation. For most people - and this is widely evident in Al Jazeera's coverage - it is a story that reflects exceptionally well on Americans and its democracy"

My full letter is here.

In my letter to the Post, I acknowledged, sadly, that most Americans wouldn't be aware of this because American cable distributors -- virtually alone in the world -- refuse to carry Al Jazeera. However, Al Jazeera's very popular website is available in the United States and -- perhaps not surprisingly -- receives a majority of its page views from Americans.

The reverberations from the Al Jazeera coverage didn't end with the Washington Post column. The next day, Colin Powell talked about the issues underlying our story as he left the NBC studio where he had just endorsed Barack Obama on Meet the Press:

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In responding to a question about McCain's negative campaign, Powell said,

"It troubled me. You know, we have two wars. We have economic problems. ...We have health problems. We have education problems. We have infrastructure problems. We have problems around the world with our allies. And so those are the problems the American people wanted to hear about, not about Mr. Ayers, not about who is a Muslim and who's not a Muslim. Those kinds of images going out on al Jazeera are killing us around the world. And we have got to say to the world it doesn't make any difference who you are or what you are. If you're an American you're an American."

It's true -- the way that the U.S. is portrayed on Al Jazeera matters, and we take that responsibility very seriously. We followed up the initial piece by sending the reporter to get reaction from African-American Obama supporters. We gave the last word in this saga to the owner of a PR firm in Atlanta:

"They are not America. They don't reflect America, they don't represent the America that I live in and am a part of, and they don't reflect the majority of Americans."

We will have to wait until November 4 -- or the early hours of November 5 -- to know who Americans will choose to be their next President. But there are certain things we do know now.

After the dark and gloomy years of recent times, this race has electrified the world. It's a U.S. election that has more international resonance that perhaps any in our lifetime.

And all of these issues have been debated and explored in hundreds of hours of coverage on Al Jazeera English, an award-winning channel that is broadcast in more than 100 countries.

Except for most of the United States. Political and financial interests have pressured American cable companies from carrying Al Jazeera English.

In a country that regards itself as the world's leading democracy, that is regrettable because Al Jazeera's coverage has been fair, comprehensive and respectful of different points of view. And a window on the world.

As the world welcomes this new and exciting U.S. era, isn't it time for Americans -- when it comes to being able to see Al Jazeera - to actually be allowed to make their own judgment?