Al Jazeera Anchor: "Objectivity is Relative"

Joumana Nammour, one of Al Jazeera's most celebrated and popular anchors, sat down with the Forum for an exclusive interview on media in a changing Arab world. Below are excerpts of the discussion, which took place in the Freeberg Room of Claremont McKenna's Athenaeum. Michael Wilner: You’ve been at Al Jazeera since 1998. Since you joined the network, two major wars have been waged by the United States and numerous conflicts have flared between Israel and Palestinian groups.

Coinciding with these changes, Al Jazeera has grown into a worldwide organization.

How would you say things have changed in Arab media, given all the geopolitical changes that have occurred since you arrived?

Joumana Nammour: Things have changed a lot with the wars. But Al Jazeera brought a new type of coverage to the region, even before Bush. Before, the Arab world was not represented – its perspective was not shown. At the same time, we were the first network in the region to bring Israelis on the air. We covered areas that were not covered before.

Wilner: What would you say your audience is looking to hear about these conflicts?

Nammour: This is funny… “looking to hear.” What they look for and what they hear are often two different things. We show what is there, and what is undeniable truth – like when a photo is taken, or a video is taken, and there is something provable. Sometimes people are looking for their perspective only, and do not hear that from us. And we will cover what happens in under-developed nations, and the politics and conflicts, while the Western networks will not.

Wilner: Now, you say that Western networks don’t cover under-developed nations. But you certainly all cover major conflicts in the region. How would you contrast Al Jazeera’s coverage of these events from that of CNN, say, or the BBC?

Nammour: The wording. We will talk about a resistance, for instance, occurring in Afghanistan – men resisting against an occupier– when other networks will often call them terrorists. Other times we will simply report on things they ignore – like the killing of young children in a small town in Gaza. But we also have our correspondents be from the location they report from. We see this as important. The West calls this bias, but how many Arabs are reporting for CNN in Washington?

Wilner: On wording: during the Israeli campaign in Lebanon in 2006, your network kept a “martyr count.” Don’t you feel this reflects a bias in coverage?

Nammour: I find this strange, because I was in Lebanon at the time. They were asking me: why do you call the Palestinians martyrs, but you do not call us martyrs? So I find it strange that we kept a martyr count then.

Wilner: Well then let’s talk about the word “martyr.” Why is it used to describe all Palestinian deaths?

Nammour: This is one cause that unites the Arabs. It is the Arab cause.

Wilner: But if this is a cause that all Arabs are united behind, doesn’t that mean it is also Al Jazeera’s cause? And what are the implications of that?

Nammour: That is the central question, which I address in my remarks tonight. We ultimately tell the story – we tell what is happening, the truth. But there is also a perspective here. People want to hear… they want them together. Objectivity is relative. Is anyone ever really objective? Is any organization?

Wilner: Okay. And how would you describe Al Jazeera’s portrayal of Israel and the Jewish people?

Nammour: We report on what the Israeli Army does by looking at the facts. We see children being killed and we will report on it – the worst, when children are dying. Journalism is about reporting death counts, really. Or we find out – with hard facts – that it is using white phosphorus in Gaza. But I cannot think, in my twelve years, of a time when Al Jazeera said anything general about the Israeli people, specifically.

Wilner: You speak of the Gaza campaign, but I was wondering more generally. Did Al Jazeera portray Israel any differently before 2009?

Nammour: No, because before that there was Lebanon, and there were others before that.

Wilner: Okay. And if there was one thing you have learned from covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what would that be?

Nammour: Bloodshed only leads to more bloodshed. We cannot solve the conflict by fighting through it. But I know Arab governments who have put deals on the table, and their people have yelled, “take that deal back!” And they haven’t. And those deals are still sitting there; they have not been picked up.

Wilner: You have covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan extensively. What would say are some of the challenges covering two campaigns that are viewed so unfavorably in the region?

Nammour: Well the bombing of our bureaus, in both countries. I remember talking to a close coworker who was on a rooftop reporting, very proud – wearing all the gear. Just a few hours later, he was killed. The office was very affected by that – it was personal. But we were all working very hard, and it was difficult, with the circumstances.

Wilner: There clearly was a change of atmosphere at Al Jazeera’s headquarters after the wars began. But how about during 9/11, and in the immediate aftermath?

Nammour: Bush made this very difficult, because he made things very black and white. Suddenly we were either with his decisions or against them. We were put in black and white. And it made things difficult, even before the invasion.

Wilner: Well thank you for joining us, Ms. Nammour, and welcome to Claremont.

Nammour: Thank you.

For more information on this interview and Ms. Nammour's visit, e-mail forum@ascmc.org.