Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In Search of Both News and Opinion

It is now official: Dennis Ross has returned to the staff of the State Department. Drawing upon their wire services, Al Jazeera English reported this story as follows:

Dennis Ross, a foreign policy veteran, has been appointed special adviser to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on the Gulf region, the US state department has announced.

Ross, a veteran of Arab-Israeli negotiations when Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, was president, will advise on Iran, the broader Middle East region and southwest Asia.

I found it interesting that any comment on this appointment in the Al Jazeera English account came only from State Department spokesman Robert Wood. As I observed in January, Ross' time in the Middle East was far from the brightest part of his resume; and I speculated that his book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World, was an attempt to theorize about the setbacks he experienced there. I am all for anyone with both the courage and smarts to learn from his/her mistakes; and, if Statecraft really is a document of lessons learned, then I suspect it is good to see that it aligns nicely with other opinions on how we should be approaching relations with Iran, such as those that Thomas Powers wrote in The New York Review this past summer.

Still, I found it interesting that Al Jazeera English should back-pedal on just what Ross' setbacks in the Middle East were, particularly since I tend to rely on them as a source for alternatives to conventional wisdom about American foreign policy in the Muslim world (the major reason why they are firmly ensconced on my "What I Read" list). For a more critical perspective on Ross, I had to rely on this morning's news summary at the beginning of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!:

The State Department has made official its appointment of Dennis Ross as special adviser on developing strategy toward Iran. During his previous stint as US envoy to the Middle East, Ross was widely criticized for backing Israeli settlement expansion and refusing to address Palestinian grievances.

To the extent that this low point in Ross' career might impact Iran's decision to work with him as an honest broker, why did Al Jazeera English omit it from any background material in their report? One possible answer may be that they are trying to raise their level of appeal to American audiences, and this possibility was addressed earlier this morning in a report that David Folkenflik prepared for Morning Edition on NPR. The headline of the print version on the NPR Web site was:

Al-Jazeera English Struggles For U.S. Audience

I followed this story with great interest, since I have never been shy about declaring my preference for Al Jazeera English; and, from time to time, I watch their broadcasts through their Web site (the Internet being the only medium through which I can watch them in San Francisco). I have even used this blog to document my frustrated attempts to persuade Comcast to allocate a channel for them (just as they still will not allocate a channel for a 24-hour BBC World Service television feed). Folkenflik's report offered some insight regarding my frustrations:

While actual ratings are hard to come by, Al-Jazeera English can be watched in more than 130 million households worldwide and is increasingly part of an international conversation, as its staff reports on and for people all across the globe. Executives say they hope to drum up public awareness and appetite here with an advertising campaign and a Web site: IwantAJE.com.

Among journalists, Al-Jazeera English has won some respect. Tony Maddox, vice president and managing director of CNN International, says his staff closely monitors Al-Jazeera English, along with the BBC and Sky News.

"They were serious in intent, and they've invested in a very sizable international infrastructure," Maddox said, "So their presence has been felt from an editorial point of view and certainly, within the industry, there's a significant awareness of them."

Yet there has been little hunger expressed by viewers — and therefore little pressure on cable and satellite TV providers to carry Al-Jazeera English.

Officials at the nation's two largest cable providers have signaled that nothing is in the works. "Our customers consistently tell us they want more movies, sports, music and TV show choices," Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Allen wrote in an e-mail. Note that there was no mention of international news, especially from Doha.

I see no reason to dispute Allen's claim; but it gives me a deeper appreciation for living under a government that is willing to recognizing the rights of the minority, even when the voice of the majority may steer most decisions. Of course our founding fathers did not view access to different approaches to reporting the news as "inalienable;" but that may be because they were used to so many different sources for reading the news that they just took that particular "right" for granted. How could the founding fathers anticipate that the view of the news media as a "public trust" would eventually degenerate into a business in the same mold as manufacturing, where balance sheets always prevail over the need to provide the citizens of a democracy with information?

IwantAJE.com is clearly a move inspired by the impact that "I want my MTV" had on promoting one of the earliest cable channels. This kind of sloganeering still works ("It's Not TV. It's HBO"); but it tends to work for the sort of content that Allen enumerated in speaking for Comcast. It is hard to imagine a news provider benefitting from that kind of strategy. For better or worse, Comcast customers may well be more interested in personalities than in the content delivered by those personalities. The American networks know this and play it for all it is worth. Al Jazeera English may want to consider doing the same.

For example, while we were living in Singapore, both my wife and I got to enjoy Riz Kahn as a news reader for CNN International. He had an excellent sense of delivery embedded in a style that encouraged confidence. He now has his own "in-depth" program on Al Jazeera English; and my guess is that he would make an excellent guest on the American talk show circuit. This would be more than presenting himself as a prime conversationalist with Charlie Rose or on NewsHour. It means (shudder) sitting down with Oprah and winning over her confidence! It is hard to imagine Comcast holding to its current position if Oprah decides that she wants her AJE!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i would love for Al Jazeera to be available all over the U.S... i would trust their objectivity more than CNN or Fox