It’s been too long since I last published a blog entry, and that’s not good for me. But a warning: I’ve been told that my entries are too long. I think they’re especially too long for any audience who has trouble with a thought requiring more than 140 characters. So I probably won’t attract many of that audience. But some people don’t mind a longer story.
So here’s a glimpse of an issue I believe to be significant: Al Jazeera America. It’s at least a third incarnation of Al Jazeera Arabic, which then spawned Al Jazeera English. It is based in Doha, in Qatar, a tiny Middle Eastern state that is awash in oil money, and has explored ways of leaving a mark on the world proportionate to its financial strength and not its geographic size.
First, for those like me who have wondered—“Al Jazeera” is transliterated Arabic for “the island,” which in this context refers to the Arabian Peninsula. No mystery there.
I don’t remember why I stumbled over it, but it’s at Channel 347 on DirecTV. I tuned in, and was immediately fascinated. It wasn’t like any news programming I’d ever seen, both visually and in content, and the differences taught me much about what I was accustomed to—and what I’ve had a surfeit of.
For one thing, it’s mostly about news. Who knew? Take today, for example. I turned to CNN first—and saw a story about the clever way in which some high school boy went about inviting the girl of his choice to the prom. I kid you not. That was what CNN thought was high news on a Wednesday morning. If I hadn’t had AJA available as an alternative, I would just have given up and turned the set off immediately.
Instead I turned to 347, and immediately saw an up-to-the-minute story about today’s twists and turns in the struggle for control of the eastern Ukraine. And that’s not the first—or the tenth—time I’ve seen that kind of contrast.
I think of The Today Show and Good Morning America, for example. They usually do have a bit of news at the beginning—and then quickly lapse into what’s really interesting, like what pop starlet is pregnant, which actor just divorced which actress, and which channel is currently scooping (forgive the pun) the most utterly charming new cat videos. So much of what is labeled “news” programming is little more than People Magazine in video. And I do understand that there will always be a market for that kind of entertainment. But what about those of us who prefer actual news?
Nobody lives up to their stated values perfectly. But when we announce our stated values publicly, we ask to be judged by how well we live up to them (ask your local Catholic bishop!). And AJA says that their vision is “To be recognized as the world's leading and most trusted media network, reaching people no matter who or where they are.”
They say that their “mission” is “To deliver captivating content to the world which informs, inspires and entertains . . .”
And among their stated values are integrity, respect, a pioneering spirit, excellence, and “impartial, accurate, and comprehensive” reporting.
That, I would submit, is not a bad set of standards by which to invite judgment.
Wikipedia quotes AJA’s president as saying (if this is still current) that “the channel would feature less political discussion and celebrity news, and that newsgathering will take priority over maximizing profits (the network will air only six minutes of commercials per hour, a rate far fewer than competing networks).” Unless you really love commercials (an ad guy assured me this week that most people do), this is a welcome shift.
Further, “Its three-hour morning program will have a different format, focusing on hard news and not "a group of anchors chatting on a couch."
So I wrote to friends, urging them to give Al Jazeera America a try. I don’t know how many did.
But the subject got my attention again this week when I read that AJA was making significant layoffs, due to a lack of viewers and income. And I suddenly became aware that I should never take for granted having this alternative (actual) news source available.
I’ve wondered about why this important (though certainly imperfect) organ is having a struggle, and three things occurred to me immediately. One is that it’s still not available to a great many American viewers. Apparently Fox News is available in something over 100 million American homes. AJA is available in less than 50 million. So many people who might enjoy watching AJA can’t get it.
A second is to wonder whether AJA’s decision to air fewer commercials than the competition is backfiring. If so, perhaps we’ll soon see something more like the standard penetration of news broadcasting with the latest cash cow of one of the fabulously wealthy pharmaceuticals. Sad, but perhaps when you need cash, the only place to go is to the big guys who have it by the trainload.
But the elephant in the living room, it seems to me, is its Arabic name. Americans certainly have no monopoly on racism or xenophobia, but we have our own versions. And especially since 9/11, Arabic-looking (or –sounding) people (including anybody we think looks like them, such as Sikhs) may arouse hostility (or even violence) in the US, just by breathing the air.
So can Americans ever be persuaded to trust an organization with an obviously Arabic name to be their source for news? Isn’t it obvious that they would be biased toward Muslim values? After all, aren’t “Arab” and “Muslim” synonymous?
Well, no, actually, it’s not obvious at all—not, that is, to anyone who’s learned just a bit about how to think.
For one thing, take a look at their executive staff. There are, mercifully, a couple of “Arabic-sounding” names among them—but most of them are of every ethnicity you can think of—and some you couldn’t.
Before AJA was even launched, Wikipedia reported of its parent company that “In the 2000s, the network was praised by the Index on Censorship for circumventing censorship and contributing to the free exchange of information in the Arab world, and by the Webby Awards, who nominated it as one of the five best news web sites, along with BBC News, National Geographic and The Smoking Gun.”
An article by Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic is not recent, but many of his observations on Al Jazeera English still apply. He refers to its “eclectic internationalism” as “a feast of vivid pathbreaking coverage from all continents.” He notes, “Outlets such as CNN and the BBC don’t cover foreign news so much as they cover the foreign extensions of Washington’s or London’s collective obsessions.” He criticizes Al Jazeera’s biases, but concludes that they are no more egregious than—and refreshingly different from—the biases to which we’ve become accustomed.
But since actual, logical thought is still an endangered species in public conversation, the thought that an organization with an Arabic name might provide news coverage superior to Fox or CNN will involve too much logical thought to be credible to many Americans.
But what do Americans want from their news channels? One answer to that is that according to the latest figures I can find, Fox News draws more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. And most of those who love Fox are going to find little to love on AJA.
But AJA doesn’t need to outdraw Fox. AJA will always be at best a minority report, no more a favorite of the masses than C-SPAN or NPR. It only needs to gain a foothold among thoughtful viewers, and apparently that job isn’t done yet.
So think giving it a look. My most experienced and informed media-savvy friend had kind things to say about AJA. Since you’re reading this, I think you will too.