Think Again

Think Again: Al Jazeera

It is vilified as a propaganda machine and Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece. In truth, though, Al Jazeera is as hated in the palaces of Riyadh as it is in the White House. But, as millions of loyal viewers already know, Al Jazeera promotes a level of free speech and dissent rarely seen in the Arab world. With plans to go global, it might just become your network of choice.

"Al Jazeera Supports Terrorism"

False, though the network makes little attempt to disassociate itself from those who do. This claim is one of the loudest arguments that Western critics have levied against the Arabic-language news channel since its inception 10 years ago, when the Doha, Qatar-based network pledged to present all viewpoints. Just as it describes in its motto, "The opinion and the other opinion," Al Jazeera has lent airtime even to hated political figures and extremists, including prominent members of al Qaeda. It's this willingness to present terrorists as legitimate political commentators that has prompted outspoken critics such as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to refer to Al Jazeera's coverage of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as "inaccurate and inexcusable."

After all, when Al Jazeera offers its estimated 50 million viewers exclusive interviews of Osama bin Laden, it's easy to confuse access with endorsement. And when a journalist who conducts those interviews is jailed for collaboration with al Qaeda, as Tayssir Alouni was in a Spanish court last year, the line between impartial observer and impassioned supporter is certainly blurred. In addition, al Qaeda is not the only terrorist group that reaches out to Al Jazeera. Besides the infamous bin Laden tapes -- at least six of which the network has still never aired -- Al Jazeera has also received tapes from insurgent groups in Iraq, renegade Afghan warlords, and the London suicide bombers.

But the network has never supported violence against the United States. Not once have its correspondents praised attacks on coalition forces in Iraq. The network has never captured an attack on the coalition "live," and there's no evidence Al Jazeera has known about any attack beforehand. Despite claims to the contrary, the network has never aired footage of a beheading. As for Alouni's case, conclusive evidence has yet to be presented to the public. And there is nothing to suggest that the network's funding is illegitimate. Allegations of supporting terrorism remain just that -- allegations.

"Al Jazeera Is Anti-Semitic"

Wrong. Just as Al Jazeera has proven willing to present al Qaeda's "perspective," it has also devoted airtime to and welcomed another regional pariah -- Israel. The network was the first Arab channel to allow Israelis to present their case in their own words, in Hebrew, English, or Arabic. This move was a major departure from past practices and truly shocked the Arab public. Until Al Jazeera arrived, most Arabs had never even heard an Israeli’s voice. Al Jazeera regularly airs clips of Israeli officials within news bulletins and conducts live interviews with six to 10 Israelis each month. The network covers Israeli affairs extensively and is widely watched in Israel. In fact, Al Jazeera gives more airtime to Israeli issues than any other channel outside Israel itself.

Although Israel has accused Al Jazeera of bias and anti-Semitism (and some of the network's guests have certainly fit that bill), the network's coverage has occasionally been of concrete benefit to the Israelis. When Israel invaded Jenin in the spring of 2002, Al Jazeera's exclusive television reports from within the besieged city thoroughly dispelled rumors of a "massacre," leading to a U.N. special investigating committee appointed by the secretary-general being unceremoniously disbanded.

Many Israelis even regard Al Jazeera as an important new force for change in the Arab world. Gideon Ezra, former deputy head of the Israeli General Security Service, once remarked that he wished "all Arab media were like Al-Jazeera." Not all Arabs would agree. Although many Westerners think Al Jazeera has a pro-Arab bias, many Arabs believe exactly the opposite. It is widely held in the Arab world that Al Jazeera is financed and run by Mossad, MI5, or the CIA, so as to undermine Arab unity. Just as Bahrain banned Al Jazeera from reporting from inside the country because of a perceived Zionist bias in 2002, Al Jazeera's bureaus in Arab countries have often been closed down, accused of besmirching the Palestinians or disseminating other kinds of imperialistic anti-Arab propaganda.

"Al Jazeera Is Spreading Political Freedom"

Wishful thinking. It's true that Al Jazeera established the tradition of investigative reporting in the Arab world and rolled back the boundaries of debate within Arab families, breaking all kinds of taboos about what could be discussed on television. Improving upon the sycophantic Arab news channels that existed prior to 1996, Al Jazeera better informs the Arab public about their leadership and provides Arabs with a forum through which they can more easily ask of their rulers, "Why are we in this mess?"

In fact, Al Jazeera's programs about Western politics have done more to inform Arabs about democracy than any nation or station. After 9/11, Al Jazeera's Washington bureau started two weekly talk shows to illuminate American democracy for a foreign audience: From Washington, in which the bureau chief interviewed U.S. politicians, including members of the Bush administration; and U.S. Presidential Race, which covered the U.S. elections in great depth, including most of the major primaries.

However, to assume satellite television will transform Arab societies into transparent, just, and equal democracies is to presume that the current state of affairs in the Arab world results from an information deficit, which is not true. Except in the most authoritarian Arab countries, news has long been available to determined citizens via the BBC or Voice of America radio, and neither one of those remade the region.

Al Jazeera encourages free speech in the Middle East, but that is no substitute for real political reform. Just because a woman in Saudi Arabia can now see a debate on TV, and can even contribute in real time, doesn't mean she can go out and vote in an election or join a political party. Arab autocrats have come to realize that even if information on satellite TV cannot be packaged and manipulated the way it was with state-run media, Al Jazeera may not be as deadly a threat to their regimes as they first feared. They can still ban Al Jazeera from opening a bureau, as has happened in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, or evoke emergency laws to confiscate equipment or arrest journalists, as happens in Egypt. Arab press unions, like Arab opposition political parties, are still prevented from growing strong.

"Al Jazeera Is Biased"

True, but no more so than Fox News or CNN. Al Jazeera employs the same stringent editorial processes as the Western media, but it ends up with a different product. During the war in Iraq, Al Jazeera's tone was notably sympathetic to the Iraqis and hostile toward the Americans. Similarly in Afghanistan, the Taliban was often presented as the noble underdog and America as the vengeful, colonial aggressor. A general cynicism about Arab regimes allied to America is detectable, and though Al Jazeera has employees from many religions, including Jews, the network is clearly sympathetic toward the Palestinians.

This bias in no way invalidates the network's news. Knowing it is scrutinized more rigorously than any other news channel in the world, Al Jazeera is fastidious in presenting all sides of a story. Certainly compared to most other Arab news stations, Al Jazeera remains a model of professionalism and objectivity. Journalists around the world treat Al Jazeera with the same respect they treat news from any other major international news network. Al Jazeera has sharing agreements with CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, BBC, Japan’s NHK, and Germany’s ZDF, all of which regularly use Al Jazeera's footage and reports.

If Al Jazeera has a bias, it is a commercial one. Despite the fact that it enjoys an estimated annual budget of around $100 million, subsidized largely by the gas-rich Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar, Al Jazeera wants to win audience share and it wants to sell advertising. The network has consistently lost money since its launch, which is unsurprising, as no Arab channel makes a profit. The network targets a particular demographic (namely Arab men over the age of 25), and, like the mainstream cable networks or FM radios stations in the United States, it tries hard to pitch itself to viewers by luring them with dramatic trailers and lead-in segments. They often feature montages of violence from the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, or Iraq, accompanied by pounding music. Critics argue that such montages are deliberately inflammatory. The network counters that it is not its job to sanitize images of war. What is indisputable is that Al Jazeera has different standards of taste from Western networks when it comes to showing casualties.

"Al Jazeera Is Censored"

Not yet. Al Jazeera occupies a peculiar space in the Arab media. It presents itself as a beacon of free speech and editorial independence in the region. Yet, the chairman of the network's board of directors is Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al-Thani, the former Qatari deputy minister of information. There’s no question that Al Jazeera remains heavily dependent on the emir. And he has proved to be an unflinching sponsor. When he came to power in 1995, the emir calculated that hosting a popular television network would help Qatar shore up Western support in the event that Iran, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia should decide to invade. The gamble paid off, both for Al Jazeera and for the emir.

Despite its dependence on the state, Al Jazeera regularly criticizes Arab regimes, including Qatar's. For example, when a coup to depose the emir was foiled in February 1996 and the plotters put on trial, proceedings were televised live on Al Jazeera -- a first in the Arab world. Al Jazeera's viewers had a front-row seat when the defense counsel claimed that the defendants had been subjected to torture, and when a spokesman from Amnesty International who had been invited to attend the trial attacked the Qatari criminal justice system. Talk shows on Al Jazeera have discussed whether it was right or wrong for Qatar to host an American air base. At the height of the intifada and in the run-up to the war in Iraq, when America's allies were being hounded in the Arab world, politicians, guests, and callers frequently attacked Qatar on Al Jazeera.

Yet there remains a deeply held belief from government ministries right down to the Arab street that the Qatari ruling family is the real power behind Al Jazeera. The exact nature of the relationship remains opaque, but it is a testament to the vision of the emir that, so far at least, he has been tolerant. Whether he will continue to keep his fingers off the channel remains to be seen.

"Al Jazeera Wants to Compete with CNN and the BBC"

Yes, and it plans to. Although it wasn’t part of the original launch plan back in November 1996, the network’s incredible success during the past decade has prompted the emir to expand his goals for Al Jazeera. This fall, a sister English-language station, called Al Jazeera International, or AJI, will launch around the world. It expects to reach 30 to 40 million households on its first day. AJI is directly competing with BBC World and CNN International for the world’s English-speaking audience of 1 billion people.

Although it has hired a large number of Western journalists, it won't look much like CNN. The network's coverage will "follow the sun" throughout the day, airing from Kuala Lumpur for 4 hours, Doha for 11 hours, London for 5, and Washington for the remaining 4. Reporters and editors in each locale will present news from their region’s perspective, and the entire world will watch the same satellite feed at the same time. "We're the first news channel based in the Mideast to bring news back to the West," says Nigel Parsons, managing director of AJI. "We want to set a different news agenda." And CNN and the BBC are taking the new global competition seriously. The BBC has unveiled plans for an Arabic-language television news service, slated for launch in early 2007, and both networks are busy reassessing how they cover news in the developing world.

"Only Arabs Will Watch Al Jazeera International"

Not so fast. This venture is the biggest challenge yet for the network. Whereas the launch of the Arabic Al Jazeera network meant competing with the likes of Egyptian, Lebanese, and Saudi television, Western networks are much meatier competition, and Al Jazeera will face them on their home turf. In English.

For its part, AJI has said it will focus on developing-world issues and use more indigenous reporters and freelancers than other channels. It is widely expected to win large market share in Asia, where the Al Jazeera brand already enjoys a favorable reputation and where many more people speak English than Arabic. Pakistan has 160 million Muslims, and Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, has 215 million Muslims, many of whom will be interested in following events in the Arab world closely.

Of course, it won't be so easy to break into America. Even securing distribution for AJI has been tough: As of press time, not one U.S. cable company had offered to carry the channel as part of a general news package. Ironically, it is the world's freest media market that poses the biggest challenge to Al Jazeera.

None of which changes the fact that Al Jazeera has permanently reshaped the landscape of world news to and, soon, from the Arab world. In a region where the United States is engaged in a protracted war in one country and the West as a whole faces a nuclear impasse in another, it hardly makes sense to simply turn the dial -- and remain confined to an echo chamber of recycled opinion. If Al Jazeera International hits the airwaves this fall, America would do well to tune in.

Think Again

Think Again: Google

In only eight years, the darling of the Internet world has rocketed to fame and fortune. Boasting users in every corner of the world, the popular search engine is the quintessential American success story. Yet it has begun to draw skepticism from Wall Street and the ire of human rights groups. Is Google really as kind, ubiquitous, and omnipotent as it seems?

"Google Is Truly Global"

Not really. Google is the gateway to the Internet for hundreds of millions of users worldwide. From Arabic to Zulu, the search engine can be used in more than 100 languages -- even fake ones such as Esperanto and Klingon. In the United States, Google is the unquestionable market leader. It holds a commanding lead, with an estimated 48 percent of all Internet searches in early 2006, over rival Yahoo, which is used 22 percent of the time. Google is growing more rapidly than its major U.S. competitors, and it continues to develop new technologies to attract new users. In fact, you could even say that it's on its way to becoming universal; Google Mars offers interactive maps of the Red Planet. As a brand whose name was officially listed as a verb in Webster's Dictionary earlier this year, Google has entered Americans' everyday lexicon.

But around the world, Google faces tough obstacles. In developing nations, the Web is inaccessible for all but a wealthy few. In technologically advanced countries, Google faces the emergence of government-backed rivals. The competition in Asia is especially fierce. In Japan, Yahoo leads the pack with its millions of registered e-mail users. The leading search engine in China is Baidu.com, which enjoys strong government support. And, though Google's popularity in China is increasing, it can't seem to gain any traction in nearby South Korea. There, the government has invested heavily in making high-speed Internet service widely available, as well as facilitated the creation of a number of domestic Web search firms that are the market leaders. Google has become so frustrated by its inability to crack the Korean consciousness that it has done the unthinkable -- spent money to promote its brand name, something the online giant has rarely had to do anywhere else.

"Google Is the Next Microsoft"

Wrong. Talking heads like to say that Google is like Microsoft 20 years ago -- a fledgling company led by young, iconoclastic engineers who aim to change the world with ubiquitous, innovative technologies. Critics of both companies think Google could eventually grow so large that, just like Microsoft, it will stomp on its competitors and strong-arm those that get in the way. As proof, they cite areas in which Mountain View has already managed to surpass Redmond. Google's search engine leads both Microsoft's and Yahoo's in its number of users. In addition, Microsoft has lost more than a dozen of its best and brightest employees (including the former head of its China operations) to Google, which has set up its own outpost near Microsoft headquarters to attract defectors who don't want to move from Seattle to Silicon Valley.

But those who fear that Google is aiming for world dominance forget one important fact: Though Google must compete against Microsoft, Microsoft never had a Microsoft to compete against. Microsoft's deep pockets -- more than $40 billion in cash -- and its continued dominance of desktop computer operating systems have already forced Google to make a number of costly decisions that are hurting its bottom line. Google recently paid $1 billion to Time Warner for a 5 percent ownership stake in AOL. That defensive maneuver was driven entirely by Time Warner's simultaneous negotiations with Microsoft, which was willing to pay big bucks to knock Google from its perch as AOL's search engine of choice.

In addition, Google fears that Bill Gates will leverage the ubiquity of his operating system by embedding MSN Search in the next version of Windows for new computers. To keep Microsoft at bay, Google is paying millions of dollars to Dell, one of the largest PC manufacturers in the world, to make Google the default search engine on its new machines. Google may be a giant, but Microsoft is still many orders of magnitude bigger.

"Google Is the Most Inventive Force in the World"

Hardly. Google Desktop, Google Talk, Google Earth. These are just a few of the new, free products that Google has rolled out in the past couple years. There's no question that the company has provided high-quality service and remained nimble and creative. But Google rarely comes up with new ideas; instead, it improves on the inventions of others. For starters, it was Yahoo that first rolled out a major directory of Internet sites in the 1990s. As the Web grew, AltaVista did the best job of any search engine by comprehensively crawling the entire Internet. Google did not invent the Internet search. Users flocked to Google because it did a superior job of ranking search results based on relevance, and returning those results in the blink of an eye.

Nor did Google create the pay-per-click advertising model that earned it more than $6 billion in Internet advertising revenue last year, roughly half of all the money spent by advertisers online in 2005. That pay-per-click model was created by a company called Overture, which was eventually acquired by Yahoo. Once again, Google improved upon what came before it. Whereas Overture sold premium placement of text ads alongside search results based on how much an advertiser was willing to pay, Google added an important twist: It ranked ads based on a combination of how much an advertiser would pay, plus the popularity of the ad as measured by the number of clicks it generated. Google is also widely credited with inventing the concept of 70-20-10 time, so energized engineers may devote 20 percent of their time to brainstorming company-related ideas, and 10 percent on anything else that interests them. But when Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were mere schoolchildren, 3M was already giving its employees free time to work on outside passions, which led to the creation of Post-it Notes, among other things.

"Google Protects the Privacy of Its Users"

Yes, sort of. "In Google We Trust." That is Google's operating philosophy and culture; it must have the trust of millions of computer users and advertisers in order to thrive. Yet Google itself does not trust outsiders. Last year, a reporter for the online technology site CNET googled the company's CEO, Eric Schmidt, and wrote a story that contained personal information about him and his wife. In retaliation, Google said it would not talk to CNET or the reporter again for a year. After much adverse publicity about the hypocrisy of penalizing a news organization for using Google technology to learn and share information, the company lifted its embargo.

Google self-righteously protects its crown jewel -- its database of how Googlers search -- by claiming that it's in the best interest of its users. But in reality, Google operates in the best interest of Google. Recently, the U.S. Justice Department sought information from AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google for a child pornography investigation, asking for a week's worth of searches. The others complied, but Google put up a legal fight for several months before the Justice Department agreed in March to reduce the scope of its request. Google's motivation wasn't protecting people's privacy; it was a fear of losing its competitive edge. If Google were forced to disclose too much information about how its users search the Internet, then its competitors might be able to decipher secrets of its technology. Google will fight to protect its privacy at all costs.

"Google Is Unconventional"

Not anymore. The founders' letter written by Page and Brin states, "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one." On the surface, how could anyone conclude otherwise? After all, the Googleplex offers three free gourmet meals a day, free onsite medical care, beach volleyball, and all the toys a geek's heart could desire. There are even futuristic Japanese toilets -- replete with heated seats and push-button controls to wash and dry your backside -- that would make any champion of artificial intelligence proud. It's a graduate school campus on steroids that aims to stimulate creativity and teamwork by eliminating the distinction between work and play.

But don't confuse these artifacts of the culture with the company itself. Google, as a business, turns out to be very traditional. Just like Hewlett-Packard and dozens of other Silicon Valley companies, it was born at Stanford University. It soon moved to a nearby garage off campus and received funding from mainstream Bay Area venture capital firms. Page and Brin are a formidable duo, but so were Microsoft's Bill Gates and Paul Allen and Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. When Page and Brin decided in 2000 to search for an outsider to become CEO, they poached Schmidt, an experienced manager from Novell. He has assembled a traditional management team to operate the business, implemented traditional mechanisms to measure the company's financial performance, and installed various safeguards against fraud and other activities. Google certainly tried to hang on to its idiosyncrasies by waiting longer than many other start-ups to offer shares to the public. But as soon as it announced its initial public offering, Google was beholden to the same rules as any other company. Like a rebellious teenager who learns to ditch her mohawk and piercings when she gets a job, Google has grown up.

"Google Is Morally Superior to Other Companies"

Perhaps. Page and Brin take Google's motto, "Don't Be Evil," very seriously. Conveniently, it is a highly effective recruiting tool that attracts those who might otherwise work for competitors such as the Evil Empire up in Redmond. Engineers see the world of technology and business differently than the rest of us mere mortals. In their view, technology can be used for good or for evil. It can free information by making the content of millions of books available online, which is good, as Google is attempting to do. Or it can be used to limit consumer choice by forcing individuals to accept a preinstalled operating system, which techno-purists see as evil.

But the world can't be so easily divided into good and evil, a lesson that Google has learned recently. When the company launched its Google.cn search engine earlier this year, hoping to tap into China's vast market of 105 million Internet users, human rights watchers lambasted Google for acquiescing to Beijing's demands to omit select results on searches for politically sensitive terms, such as "democracy" or "Tiananmen Square." Google defended its decision, somewhat lamely, by saying that providing information in China -- even censored information -- could foster positive change. It's only fair, though, to note that Google seeks to lessen the damage by posting an online disclaimer for Chinese users. On every Internet page that China censors, Google posts a notice indicating that the search results are incomplete.

Whether or not Google's motivation is genuine altruism -- or, more cynically, to create positive PR -- is debatable. But, at the very least, Google is putting its money where its mouth is. Last year, the company announced a donation of 3 million shares (equal to roughly $1 billion in March 2006) to a new philanthropic arm, Google.org. In February, Page and Brin hired Larry Brilliant -- a well-regarded physician who spent many years working with the World Health Organization and other public-health groups to eradicate smallpox in India, combat blindness in Africa, and fight other diseases -- to be executive director of the charitable foundation. Page and Brin have said they hope that their global philanthropic work through Google.org will someday eclipse Google itself in importance.

"Google Can’t Be Toppled"

Yes, it can. Clearly, the honeymoon is over for Google. Not only has the darling of search been subject to close government scrutiny, its finances are taking a hit, too. Amid heightened competition, Google's marketing costs are rising, its profit margins are shrinking, and its slowing rate of growth has disappointed Wall Street. The high-flying stock that once exceeded $475 per share has plunged to less than $350, a drop of more than 25 percent in less than three months. Google's absolute refusal to provide Wall Street analysts with any forward-looking financial guidance only compounds the risk, uncertainty, and volatility involved in investing in the company.

Does Google have a second act that can match its early success? Or, will its rapid expansion lead to costly mistakes? Certainly, the company has managed to spew out new products at a feverish clip. But unlike its core search engine, none of them has become a blockbuster. Google Video, Google Talk, and Gmail may be good products, but they are not yet market leaders.

There is little question that Google, a quintessential American success story with a gilt-edged brand name, will have staying power in the United States for many years to come. But as the company's tentacles extend across the world, its one-size-fits-all strategy simply won't work where different customs and laws prevail. Last year, French President Jacques Chirac announced Franco-German support for the creation of an ambitious new European search engine, called Quaero ("I seek" in Latin). The French government, which is the main financier of the project, created the Agency for Industrial Innovation with $2 billion in seed money, most of which will go to Quaero. For Google's global winning streak to continue, the search engine born and nurtured in Silicon Valley will have to do more than simply translate its whimsical home page from English into other languages. It remains to be seen how successfully Google can navigate the challenges posed by distinct cultures and foreign governments as it aggressively pursues global growth in the Internet Age.