Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Making the Case for Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera English has found a new advocate, television columnist for The New York Times Alessandra Stanley.  Thus far her advocacy has been quarantined to a post to the ArtsBeat blog;  but that is one small step for a television channel that can only be viewed through its Web site unless you happen to have an independent cable provider in Burlington, Vermont, Toledo, Ohio, or Washington, DC.  That last one should be the real kick to the head of the American public.  Here is a source that probably influences our country’s policy making as much as any other television channel;  and the country as a whole cannot see the same things that our policy-makers are viewing.  For anyone wishing to mount a campaign against elitism, this would be a great place to start!

Stanley’s strategy is somewhat different, however.  She invokes the old rhetorical device of arguing through comparison.  What makes her post interesting is that her object of comparison is sure to attract reader attention:

On Monday’s episode of “Skins,” MTV could show minors in the kind of flagrante that is usually reserved for mature audiences. Yet most adult Americans still can’t watch Al Jazeera English on television – even now, when the world is transfixed by images of Egypt in revolt.

It seems like a perverse application of free speech. But sex is sexier than foreign affairs and it certainly sells better. Freedom of expression is guaranteed to all, but mostly it follows the money.

That last sentence tells us all we need to know.  I actually once wrote a letter of my own to Comcast not too long after the CNN Headline News channel had thoroughly obliterated their service of providing a comprehensive news summary every half hour.  I observed that there was no longer any place to turn on the Comcast lineup for a comparable offering of “straight news.”  I then cited two channels that would almost fill the bill, admittedly only by half.  Both BBC World Service News and Al Jazeera English provide such a summary in the first half of every hour.  Surprisingly, my letter received a polite response that stated tersely that there was insufficient customer demand for either channel.

I suppose this all boils down to the great misconception that has plagued television almost since the days of its invention.  As the idea of television made its initially slow progress from invention to marketable product, it was hailed by its advocates as providing a major advance in how we could communicate in the service of education and other information services.  This was a noble ambition;  but, once the television became a product, it was quickly absorbed by the broadcasting industry that ruled radio.  Radio, too, was initially promoted as an information service;  but the broadcasting industry saw it as a medium for entertainment through which products could be marketed.  Rather than advancing the communication possibilities of the newspaper, radio (and then television) provided large audiences for new generations of patent medicine shows.  This was the direction the ball began to roll, and it continues to roll with more and more inertia.  (It also goes without saying that, while the Internet had similar “ambitions of information,” it is now just another element adding to that inertia.)

Let’s go back to those in Washington who can watch Al Jazeera English on television.  It’s not just that they are elite;  it’s that control of information is one of the ways in which they maintain that elite status.  Having already written last week about how this strategy is put into action by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the basis of a story on  the Bloomberg site, this morning I discovered another Bloomberg story, filed on January 30, which is all about the sort of information filtering that takes place at Davos.  This one concerns a press conference given in Davos at the conclusion of the annual WEF meeting but given “off the reservation,” so to speak.

The purpose of this “alternative” gathering was to present the result of a 24-page study entitled “The Financial Crisis of 2005:  An Avoidable History.”  The results were presented by Barrie Wilkinson, a partner in the consulting firm Oliver Wyman specializing in risk analysis.  This presentation was covered for Bloomberg by Christine Harper, who offered the following summarizing quote by Wilkinson:

The fundamentals haven’t been addressed at all.  The things that caused the previous crisis -- loose monetary policy and trade imbalances -- they’re actually bigger now than they were then.

Once again, it is all about maintaining power by maintaining the status quo and sidelining even the slightest evidence that might lead more reflective minds to question that status quo.  Like Al Jazeera English, Wilkinson’s is a lone voice with points to make, points that will be kept in remote isolation by a consciousness industry managed by those who do not wish them to be made.

This situation is not without its little ironies.  When I lived in Singapore during the first half of the nineties, I used to watch the CNN International channel regularly.  This was a pretty heady time for world news, what with Desert Storm, the Gandhi assassination, and Yeltsin climbing on tanks.  CNN International was there for all of it, doing such a good job that they could recruit world leaders to do little promotional spots on the merits of their efforts.  One of those world leaders, who spoke with passionate enthusiasm and advocacy for the CNN mission, was Hosni Mubarak.

Post Script:  After finishing this post I encountered two additional signs of support for Al Jazeera English.  For those in cyberspace, YouTube has now set up an Al Jazeera English channel.  I just checked it and, given that the demand for news about the current rallies is probably very high, I was quite impressed by the quality-of-service.  The other source was reported by Brian Stetler for The New York Times.  It came from Sam Donaldson, who interviewed an Al Jazeera reporter during last Sunday's This Week on ABC and concluded that segment by saying to the reporter, Thank you for what you're doing.”  I am not always a Donaldson fan;  but in this case he is the perfect antidote for the infection spread by Bill O'Reilly's accusations of Al Jazeera being anti-American.  Nevertheless, Stetler also reported that, as of yesterday, Comcast has refused to comment on whether or not they plan to add Al Jazeera English to the channel lineup.

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