Last October, Dan Schectman won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Schectman, a professor at Israel’s Technion (the country’s top technological institute), was working at the U.S. Department of Energy when he discovered the first experimental evidence of quasicrystals, which had long been dismissed unscientific fantasy. The details of quasicrystals’ redemption at Schectman’s hands are too obscure to be of interest to me. They were of great interest, however, to the Nobel Committee, which made Schectman the fourth Israeli chemist to receive the prize. Israel surpassed the Netherlands to become the world’s seventh most-awarded country in the category (tied with Sweden). Israel’s small size, one would think, makes this an achievement of some note (in terms of total Nobels, it tops Spain and China), to say nothing of its radical implications for chemistry.
Don’t stop reading; my point here is not to brag about Israeli Nobel Prizes.
As they invariably do when the eminent Swedish conclave renders a decision, the world’s major news organizations reported on the win. The New York Times carried the story, as did sources as diverse as The Guardian, Chinadaily.com, Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News, and, needless to say, the Israeli media.
Al-Jazeera ignored it.
Al-Jazeera.com’s archives hold about a dozen articles about Tawakkul Karman’s receipt of the award for her activism in Yemen. Liu Xiabao’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize and the wrath it drew from Chinese authorities merited a mention. Hm. Maybe Al-Jazeera only really focuses on Nobel prizes involving political opposition, given the relevance of the topic to its readership—oh, wait a minute. The network covered the 2011 Nobel Prizes for Physics and Economics, both won by Americans. So it is interested in science, it cares about Nobel Prizes, and it covers stories from around the world (not that Israel is too far away).
I searched for Dan Schectman in Al-Jazeera’s search tool. Nothing. I took the web site’s advice and made sure “all words were spelled correctly.” I also “tried different keywords.” Still no luck.
I decided to broaden my search. “Israel nobel.” I wasn’t optimistic at this point, so it surprised me when three headlines appeared containing those two words. My surprise evaporated when I saw that they also contained the words “Günter,” “Grass,” “banned,” and “entry.”
Israel’s barring of Nobel Prize winners is newsworthy, but Israelis’ winning of Nobel Prizes is not.
Hoping to redeem al-Jazeera, I set out to find the most positive news story I could on Israel. I just typed “Israel” into the search box. I found 2 critical op-eds, a story on the dispute with Egypt over gas prices, a story on the approval of 3 new West Bank settlements, a comparison of Iranian and Israeli military capabilities, and such titles as “Israel Hedges its Bets on Syria” and “Is Israel Fuelling Fear Not Facts Over Iran?” (I’m not sure how one goes about fuelling facts in any context).
I wanted to give al-Jazeera the benefit of the doubt, but my doubt was diminishing. I tried more targeted searches. The top results from each search:
- “Israel forefront” returned “Israel at Forefront of Testing Medical Marijuana.”
- “Israel science” returned “Will Israel Attack Iran?”
- “Israel helps” returned “Should US Churches Divest From Israel?”
- “Israel child” returned a story about child marriage in India (followed by a story on the injury of a Palestinian child by an Israeli airstrike).
Al-Jazeera’s justification of this appalling self-censorship can take three forms.
One: “The Israeli government’s crimes against Palestinians and its regional aggression are so grave that we simply cannot spend time reporting virtually anything else about the country, except for its advances in the field of medical marijuana.” Al-Jazeera is a huge organization with global reach. It has covered the Michael Jackson trial, the EU’s lifting of a ban on battery cages for chickens, Christianity in China, and Brazilian soccer.
Two: “Because we don’t recognize Israel, we don’t cover it.” The obvious problem with this explanation is that Al-Jazeera absolutely does cover Israel.
Three: “The Western media is biased in favor of Israel, so our job is to balance it out.” This would be reminiscent of Chris Wallace’s hastily-retracted defense of Fox News, both for its childishness and its inaccuracy. Even if the Western media is universally pro-Israel, it isn’t so pro-Israel that it utterly ignores whole swaths of Israel-related news. You won’t find any major newspaper, even in Israel, that comes back empty from a search for “Israeli air strikes.”
The network has grown rapidly over the past decade, often ignites controversy with its debates and participatory formats, and has contributed admirably to the Arab Spring by broadcasting footage taken by ordinary Arab citizens. All of this has strengthened Al-Jazeera’s reputation as an independent and reliable news organization. But when it comes to Israel, Al-Jazeera and its owner, Qatar, still need to grow up.
Update: A friend has pointed out to me that there is, strictly speaking, no Nobel Prize in Economics. Rather, the Nobel Foundation offers a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. It was first awarded in 1969.