Al-Jazeera English (1)

Bad news is often good news for journalists. The assassination of Lebanese opposition leader Pierre Gemayel may have been exactly that for Al-Jazeera English, the Westernized cousin of the channel the Bush administration loves to hate.

It wasn’t so much that AJE triumphed in its coverage of the Lebanese event but it did show signs of finding its footing after an uncertain first week.

Since AJE went live on November 15, it has looked more like Bob Geldof TV than a channel dedicated to “fearless journalism” that is “setting the news agenda,” as promised in the promos.

While it has been refreshing to see reports from places like Darfur, Myanmar and Zimbabwe, the channel was crammed with so many obscure features from forgotten corners of the world that it was beginning to resemble a UN video service.

Then came the Gemayel assassination. Its boss may claim AJE doesn’t present an “Arab” perspective, but the Qatar-based channel should be outperforming Western rivals on its own turf. The first hours after the assassination showed little evidence of that.

In fact, AJE seemed to be repeating the mistakes of both Western and Arab broadcasters. Two-thirds of the channel’s presenters are Brits and it was Sky News veteran David Foster, rather than an Arab journalist, who was sent in to anchor coverage from Beirut. He promptly mispronounced the names of two of Beirut major newspapers.

Such “parachute journalism” is a key criticism of Western reporting from the Arab world. Beirut correspondent Rula Amin, a Palestinian who previously served as CNN’s roving Middle East correspondent, then briefly strayed into journalistically dangerous territory when she described Pierre Gemayel as a “martyr” and somewhat fawningly kept referring to the slain Christian politician with the honorific “sheikh.”

Conservative bloggers in the U.S. have been sharpening their knives for AJE, which a columnist on Accuracy in Media’s site called “enemy media, plain and simple” out to “infiltrate our country.” Adjectives like “martyr” – no matter the context – will only feed that mindset.

During live coverage of the dramatic mass funeral-cum-political rally, which drew hundreds of thousands to Beirut’s city centre, Al-Jazeera English and its competitors – BBC World and CNN International – appeared virtually identical, relying on the same pool feed as the Arabic channels. But it was in the analysis and depth of coverage that AJE finally began to distinguish itself.

While  western  channels  focused  largely  on the obvious confrontation between the anti-Syrian faction that  Gemayel represented and Hezbollah, AJE’s other Beirut correspondent, Zeina Khodr, provided a valuable insight into the way in which the assassination had exacerbated divisions within the Christian community as well.

But the biggest difference between AJE and its competitors came as the funeral ended. It was here that Jazeera’s home court advantage came into play. Both BBC World and CNN International quickly switched away to other programming. CNN’s  anchors   looked a little uncomfortable with a segue from Lebanon and the latest carnage in Iraq right into a fluff piece about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, without so much as a commercial to buffer the jarring contrast.

AJE stayed with Lebanon, interviewing a Hezbollah spokesman, a perspective not heard on the other channels – one in a comprehensive series of interviews with the key players in the drama not seen elsewhere.

AJE’s Lebanon specialist Omar al-Jassawi dug deeper into the impact on the country and region as a whole, while Middle East analyst Lamis Andoni noted that although Syria is widely presumed responsible for Gemayel’s death, plenty of other players in the region had reason to want him dead.

The Gemayel assassination was not the first hard news reported by AJE. Since launch day, its correspondents in Gaza and Israel have been doing yeoman’s work, as have those covering the deepening chaos in Iraq. But in Lebanon, the channel finally began to separate itself from the pack.