BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
RICHARD BOUCHER: Again and again, we find inaccurate, false, wrong reports that are, we think, designed to be inflammatory, that appear on this network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That was State Department spokesman Richard Boucher in a press briefing on Tuesday. He was talking about Al Jazeera, the influential news network funded by the Arab Emirate of Qatar that's been harshly panned by the U.S. Government. The U.S. claims that Al Jazeera, with its fabrications and bias, is making an already bad situation in Iraq that much worse, and this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that relations between America and Qatar were clouded by its coverage of the war. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera claims that its reporters are frequently harassed and arrested by American troops in Iraq. Others charge America with hypocrisy for celebrating press freedom while intimidating Al Jazeera. Robert Tappan is the director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority based in Baghdad. He says that Al Jazeera's coverage and that of Dubai-based network Al Arabiya has only worsened in recent weeks. Robert, welcome to the show.
ROBERT TAPPAN: Thanks very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think Al Jazeera's coverage has gotten worse over recent weeks?
ROBERT TAPPAN: Well, I think that Al Jazeera benefits in terms of its notoriety and popularity, actually, when it exploits the situation at hand. As you know, over the last two weeks we've had an intensification of military conflict, and at the same time we also see news organizations such as Al Jazeera trying to inflame and incite the passions of people where their relatives are perhaps losing their lives or in the midst of military conflict.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Al Jazeera is just feeding the rumor mill and making an already hot situation hotter, in your view.
ROBERT TAPPAN: In some instances I think they contribute to that a great deal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We should point out that when those four American civilians were brutally murdered and hung off a bridge in Fallujah last month, Al Jazeera was one of the few networks, and this includes American networks, that didn't immediately broadcast the images.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, score one for Al Jazeera in terms of responsible journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You're suggesting that stations like Al Jazeera are inflaming the population for ratings. Reporters and journalists from Al Jazeera that we've spoken to say they simply have a different context. They see it from the side of the people who believe they're being occupied by a power that won't let them go.
ROBERT TAPPAN: Well, I would certainly disagree with that viewpoint, and they're certainly entitled. I cannot read into their intentions, but I would make the point that there has been a pattern of misrepresentation that is disturbing, and I think that any journalistic endeavor or enterprise would be not proud of their track record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What kind of scrutiny is the coalition applying to Al Jazeera? What are you looking for exactly?
ROBERT TAPPAN:Well, we've developed what we call the truth matrix, which is basically an elaborate spread sheet that catalogs individual instances where these news organizations have either used bias or distortion or misrepresentation in their reporting. The list is rather long, I might add.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me some examples?
ROBERT TAPPAN:Sure. Just in the last two days, Al Arabiya reported that U.S. soldiers were occupying a hospital in Najaf, and that we weren't allowing any people to come in. That's a clear and blatant misrepresentation of the situation at hand. We've also been accused by Al Jazeera of targeting reporters. We've also had a number of instances where Al Jazeera has alleged that we use cluster bombs in our military actions. That is blatantly untrue. These misrepresentations are costing American and coalition lives, and we just cannot stand by and let that happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:U.S. officials have also questioned the speed at which Al Jazeera has broadcast messages from Iraqi militants and kidnappers. Is there a suggestion here that Al Jazeera actually has a relationship with the enemy?
ROBERT TAPPAN: Well, I don't know how I can characterize that other than it, it's awfully coincidental when some news organizations are 'Johnny on the spot' in so many different instances where personnel and innocent civilians have been killed or injured.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We spoke to a reporter who spoke to an Arab reporter who yes, got calls from insurgents about events that had just occurred or that were just about to occur, and they rushed to the scene. It doesn't actually, though, make them collaborators, does it?
ROBERT TAPPAN: If a potential terrorist tips off a news organization that something is about to happen, I think that a responsible reporter or news organization is duty bound to try to head off any sort of terrorist act that possibly may go their way. Also, too, I think that news reporting organizations should realize that they're being used in the most disgusting way to further political or terrorist ends.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That may be. And that's often the case, but I think that there are a lot of journalists who say that if they begin passing off source information to one side in a war, whether in Salvador or in Northern Ireland, their neutrality and their ability to cover that war would be irreparably harmed. They might as well not be there at all.
ROBERT TAPPAN: I would disagree in, in the case of terrorism. We are talking about people and sometimes organized entities that are trying to disrupt the very fabric of civilization in a particular area. They should be treated differently than the nation-state actors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Robert Tappan, thank you very much.
ROBERT TAPPAN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robert Tappan is the director of strategic communications at the Coalition Provisional Authority.