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PBS Frontline: 'News War: Stories From a Small Planet'

Greg Barker
Producer and Co-Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007 11:00 AM

Producer Greg Barker was online Wednesday, March 28, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the fourth installment of Frontline's " News War" series, which looks at the international forces that influence journalism and politics in the United States -- including Al Jazeera and the new Arab media.

Frontline/World's " News War: Stories From a Small Planet" airs Tuesday, March 27, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Barker's other projects for Frontline have included the award-winning two-hour special "Ghosts of Rwanda"; "Campaign Against Terror," which recounts the behind-the-scenes story of the U.S. and world response to 9/11; and an examination of Saddam Hussein, "The Survival of Saddam."

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Wheaton, Md.: Why is it that the news organizations that heavily criticize the U.S. never condemn the actions of the Baathists, Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hamas and other terrorist groups? Is it fair to say these leftist news organizations actually support terrorism?

Greg Barker: If you're talking about Al Jazeera and other Arab news channels, they do include critics of all those groups, especially in their discussion programs.

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Alexandria, Va.: I was in France several weeks ago. I had access to Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera Children and Al Jazeera International(English). Al Jazeera had the full Nouri Al Maliki speech of the International Peace Conference March 9, 2007 in Baghdad, both Arabic and English. Maliki launched an international peace conference in Baghdad aimed at quelling the sectarian violence plaguing the country. According to the report, Maliki said reconciliation was key. The summit -- which brought together Iraq's six neighbors, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and several Arab representatives -- was the biggest gathering in Baghdad since an Arab League summit held in 1990. Is it possible that the downturn in violence in Iraq was because of reconciliation efforts not Bush's upsurge? This is why we need other points of views on Iraq. Al Jazeera Children had the story of the Harriet Tubman and her effort to free the slaves and the story of the Underground railroad.

Greg Barker: Other Arab news channels would also have covered Maliki's speech live as well. One of the things that struck me is the hunger for news in the Middle East, which is why these channels have such large audiences, and why their full impact is only beginning to be felt.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Your work on Rwanda was excellent. I was wondering if you have any current updates on how things are going in Rwanda.

Greg Barker: Thank you. Ghosts of Rwanda was a great privilege to make and

Greg Barker: Thank you. Ghosts of Rwanda was an extraordinary film to make and, on a personal level, a great privilege. Though I may return to the subject again one day, I have not been back to Rwanda since so I wouldn't want to comment on the current situation. There are some good resources on the film's Web site.

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West Orange, N.J.: Does Al Jazeera continue to broadcast footage of hits on U.S. targets, where it is evident that the insurgents tipped the cameramen where they could expect a good "money shot"? Do the Al Jazeera crews roam freely in insurgent zones, as if among friends?

Greg Barker: Al Jazeera currently was banned from Iraq in 2004, and the reason given (by the Iraqi government, with US support), was precisely the reason you give. All their footage now comes via news agencies, or stringers and freelance cameramen, as well as footage provided by insurgent groups themselves.

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Maryland Do you believe that U.S. mainstream press is as critical of the U.S. government in dealing with internal issues as with foreign ones? How does one explain the fact that the war in Iraq is covered differently by non-U.S. media outlets, such as European or Arab ones? While some journalists may criticize certain aspects of the policy (such as the war execution, etc), is there an obvious tendency among U.S. journalists to portray the U.S. government as a force of good?

Greg Barker: Good question. It seems to me most journalists - everywhere - have an instinctive bias in favor of their own country, whatever they may think of the particular polices of the day.

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Washington: Do the Arab news networks like Al Jazeera cover al-Qaeda differently than those in the U.S.? Specifically I mean the way in which U.S. reporters tend to refer to al-Qaeda as an organized group of operatives working together towards common objectives, rather than as a disparate (less connected) group of people with a shared idea.

Greg Barker: The Arab news channels each cover Al Qaeda differently. With regard to Al Jazeera, one of their top journalists told me they cover it as an organization with a legitimate viewpoint that reflects the opinions of many in the region...I think that sense of legitimacy is very different from how US media outlets cover Al Qaeda.

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Chicago: Could you give me your impressions of the people that work in the U.S. government, either military or diplomatic, who speak Arabic and if those who do have a more "favorable" opinion of the Arab point of view. I was blown away, blown away at the statistics you cited for the number of Arabic speakers in the U.S. government -- how many? 100? Do all Al Jazeera English employees speak Arabic?

Greg Barker: Good question. Certainly Arabists in the State Dept have historically been accused of being too close to Arab regimes, though I think there's little doubt that officials who speak Arabic have a deeper understanding of Arabic culture and politics than those who don't. The State Dept & other US agencies would like to have more Arabic speakers and are training aggressively...but it's a tough language and fluency takes a long time. Most Al Jazeera English employees do not speak Arabic

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Washington: I'm lucky enough to be able to watch Al Jazeera's English channel at work. The quality of the journalism is quite striking. It's also quite striking that seemingly most of its journalists and broadcasters seem to have come from the BBC. But I've heard the same stories everybody else has heard about bias on the Arabic-language Al Jazeera news channel. Is there much difference between the two, either in outlook or in journalistic standards?

Greg Barker: Al Jazeera English is a very new channel and I think they are still finding their voice and style. But I think there are key differences from the Arabic channel - the style seems less sensationalistic, the news stories longer, the discussions less impassioned. Many of the Western journalists there are adamant that their journalistic integrity will not be compromised. At the same time, the senior management on the Arabic side retain ultimate editorial control, and I understand there are rather intense internal debates going on. So it will be interesting to see what the channel looks like in a few years time.

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Austin, Texas: Is it the U.S. government that has banned Al Jazeera from US viewing, or was it because of the efforts of the right-wing group that you showed? It seems to me that many like myself agree with the military media person at the end who thought it was wrong to ban them because the consumer or viewers should be the ultimate judge and we, the U.S. of all countries, should not be afraid of ideas and should see for ourselves what 50 million Muslims are lapping up, so we can form a response. Banning it to me seems very counterproductive. What's your view?

Greg Barker: The Channel is not banned in the US. Each cable or satellite provider decides what channels to offer their customers, and they are free to offer Al Jazeera English should they choose to do so.

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Washington: I enjoyed watching your show quite a bit last night. (You peeled my household away from "American Idol," if you can believe that.) I was curious about the roles of the military officers who were visiting Al Jazeera's offices. Are they trying to network and lobby Al Jazeera for less anti-U.S. coverage? I assume they are purely off-camera; do U.S. spokespeople appear on Al Jazeera's regularly?

On another note, I never have seen a Frontline production that was not of extremely high quality. How can my family support Frontline directly? Thanks for the great work.

Greg Barker: Thanks. The US military officers (and their counterpart from the State Dept) regularly visit Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and other Arab news channels -- I wouldn't say they're lobbying for a change in coverage...no media organization responds well to that. It's more like networking. And when a story breaks, they're available to go on the air.

For more information on this film series, click here. For more information on PBS Frontline as a whole, click here.

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San Francisco: I understand Al Jazeera began after a failed attempt by the BBC to begin an Arab news channel. I never have seen any of their broadcasts, but given these beginnings, I expect it would be similar if not identical in format to western news. Are there any specific cultural differences in presentation or news gathering that are special or unique to the region?

Greg Barker: That's correct. The BBC began an Arabic language TV news channel in the mid '90s (I think it was '94), but a Saudi company controlled the distribution...which was pulled when the channel aired a documentary that included Saudi opposition figures. The BBC channel was shut down and many of its journalists went directly to Doha to help found Al Jazeera.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Has anyone looked at how the less-involved media, such as Asian outlets, view the war in Iraq?

Greg Barker: I'm not sure -- it's a good question.

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West Orange, N.J.: Have U.S. satellite and cable TV providers colluded to keep Al Jazeera English broadcasts from reaching the U.S.? Does the FCC concur? Any anti-trust violation, or does Al Jazeera's history provide a legal basis for such exclusion?

Greg Barker: I don't believe there's been any collusion, nor action from the FCC.

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