What a difference a revolution can make.
Members of the Obama administration are flocking to appear on Al Jazeera, one of the most influential media sources in the Arab world.
US officials are desperate to have their spin of events in the Middle East included as millions tune in to the network’s coverage of the uprising in Egypt.
More than a dozen times in recent days, US State Department officials, including chief spokesman Philip J. Crowley and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, have appeared on the network. The turn around is the result of a State Department policy review completed in December.
“If we are not in the conversation, people will be speaking for us or about us,” Dana Shell Smith, deputy assistant secretary for international media engagement, told the Los Angeles Times. “We need to make sure we are out there speaking for ourselves.”
Shell Smith’s office was created by the Obama administration last year to begin to reach out to international media.
“The State Department has assigned staff in media hubs such as London, Dubai and Brussels to field requests from Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language media,” the Times noted.
“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all have appeared on the network’s Arabic and English channels in the last year,” the paper added.
The White House has also turned to the network as a primary source of information about protests in the region.
The embrace is a big change from the days when the Bush administration showed open hostility towards the network.
In 2001, the US fired missiles at Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul. “The building we struck was a known Al Qaeda facility in central Kabul,” US Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke later said.
Al Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed when US bombs hit the network’s Baghdad offices in 2003. “This coalition does not target journalists,” Brigadier General Vincent K. Brooks insisted. “We don’t know every place journalists are operating on the battlefield. It’s a dangerous place, indeed.”
A furious Donald Rumsfeld blasted the network’s 2004 coverage of civilian casualties in Fallujah as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.”
That same year, US President George W. Bush reportedly told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he wanted to bomb Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar, a US ally.
“There’s no doubt what Bush wanted, and no doubt Blair didn’t want him to do it,” a source told the Daily Mirror.
“He made clear he wanted to bomb Al Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere.”