Monday, January 31, 2011

The Vindication of Al Jazeera

The striking characteristic of American news isn't necessarily its lacking quality, it's the provincial insularity of it. By encumbering themselves in fantasies of inherent American exceptionalism and inherent American relevance, the media - particularly cable news - manages to treat all instances of non-American significance as though part of what makes it news is the fact that American actions are irrelevant to the enormity of what's taking place. The desire to shift the tenor of the discussion into speculation about how "the Obama administration should respond" and whether their responses are "strong enough" and "what they suggest" and "what Egypt means for our foreign policy" is revealing.

It doesn't merely portray an ignorance about Egypt's protests, its implications and a subtle attempt to take away the Egyptian people's centrality to Egypt's events. They portray a media culture that's so thoroughly detached from the world - beyond the going-ons of Washington and Washington's political ramifications - that an event that has nothing whatsoever to do with America can only be discussed if they pretend otherwise. When there are no political briefings to unquestioningly report on, or polls to mindlessly repeat, or "sensational" clips from politicians to draw basslessly broad narratives on, you have a media that's woefully unprepared for not just articulating nuanced and incisively informative thought, but for confronting, absorbing and deconstructing the unique realities and histories of other countries.

That's why the secondary story wasn't the American government's reaction to the events. It was that the Egyptian protest could not be covered by any existing American cable news source without drawing footage and commentary from Al Jazeera. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with borrowing coverage, but it's certainly odd when the station that the MSNBC/CNN/Fox News triumvirate is borrowing their news from is - to quote the words of
Al Jazeera English's managing Director - "effectively being blocked from being broadcast in the United States of America". Dating as far back as 2001, Al Jazeera has been something of a dirty word in politics. Bush officials enjoyed claiming Al Jazeera's critical and nuanced coverage was "anti-American" (even going so far as to send Colin Powell to get it shut down). Even worse, it's been censored on numerous occasions and there are even instances where the US is implied to have bombed its stations, or was at least in a position to have President Bush consider it.

Instead of drawing the obvious and disturbing conclusions from the above details, I'll simply note that the events in Egypt and the media's use of Al Jazeera's outline its journalistic relevance. The importance of international politics is not defined by America's involvement in it, and our general news outlets are amongst the last parties to acknowledge this. While most instances of misunderstood American ignorance are a result of geographical distance and lacking penetration of the media from other countries, Al Jazeera stands as an exception - both because it gives us the benefit of a perspective that's detached from American interests and because it's actually capable of showing in this country. The only thing that keeps it out is our cable providers, and this needs to be recognized as a travesty; just as their penetration despite their invisibility should be seen as a success.

It's an embarrassment for a country so heavily involved in Middle Eastern affairs to have such a limited understanding of Muslims, the Muslim world, their political opinions and the state of their countries. And their exclusion from America's political considerations only serves to further their dehumanization. Caricatures about "Islamofascism", "Islamic terrorists" and "Evil Muslim Fundamentalism" couldn't exist if we were aware of how unrepresentative they are. And our penchant for silently acquiescing to the Muslim world's treatment as "other" would be considerably more difficult if we could put actual information to the names we randomly hear when our political officials deign to bomb them.

The cable companies insistence on treating Americans like children by keeping Al Jazeera marginalized is not a reflection of our wishes; it's reflective of the way our political culture thrives on depriving its citizens of dimension. Allowing Al Jazeera publicly wouldn't simply serve as a panacea to that; it could serve as a means of piercing the bubble our elites have formed around this country and its citizenry. I don't endorse everything Al Jazeera has done - I don't even have a fully developed opinion on its quality as a news source. But I support my privilege to form one and to change the channel if my favor for it somehow changes in the future. Why can't they?

As these events have shown, the legitimacy of Al Jazeera is unquestionable. It's not only flaunted a remarkable reach (despite being essentially banned from the country), but it's shown a consistent professionalism in its free coverage and consistent appearances on the (considerably less informative) cable news programs. Given that it has more on-the-ground journalists than any news organization in America, the excuses for not showing it are strikingly limited. The only thing that keeps it out of this country is the insistence of a limited few and a growing disrespect for the necessity of combative journalism and international realities.

There's a reason Al Jazeera's site traffic has gone up by 2600% (with half of that coming from America). It's because it offers something that the rest of our pathetic news divisions are incapable of offering: scope. And it does so with a sensitivity and awareness that's sorely lacking in the self-congratulatory culture that Washington feeds off and articulates. Al Jazeera is not just a testament to journalism, but to the ease with which political realities can be shaped to exclude perspectives that can be useful for us. Our government (which has been hostile to Al Jazeera) and our cable services (which have been overly compliant to the government) don't quell their willful coddling of American ignorance by continuing their hostility. They do it by recognizing that the presence of a world beyond our borders is - by itself - a justification for receiving news from beyond our borders.

Wadah Khanfar makes a lengthy and worthwhile observation about the apparent interest and near-complete lack of resistance to their coverage. I again emphasize that American ignorance is not a function of American stupidity. It never was. Other countries are only overwhelmingly aware of us because we have the strongest media penetration and overwhelming international influence. Our stamp is utterly unavoidable and the product of that inescapable influence is that you're, well, influenced. You can discuss our television, our cinema, our music, our pop culture, our idioms, our accents, our politics - whatever - because you're exposed to it. That's the consequence of power.

We can't discuss yours because we're not. That's the consequence of no country having similar power. That is not the fault of America or Americans, and it's both ignorant and dishonest to pretend that's the case. Al Jazeera represents a rare example to change that because they're one of the only international brands with the power influence to make that change. Ignorance is not a metric for assessing intelligence, and I think people who want to see American insularity as the fault of Americans demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the disproportion in media power/penetration. If we had the same chance for the same levels of exposure, the condescension would be warranted. We don't, so it's not. Few things are rarely that simple, but this certainly is.

Edit 2: Here's the URL to demand it for your area.

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