Tuesday, August 20, 2013, was a historic day in the world of cable/satellite television as Al-Jazeera America went on the air. Based out of New York City and Washington D.C., Al-Jazeera America is the first cable news outlet to launch since Fox News did in 1996.
Instead of the class-less programs (think The Jerry Springer Show and Maury) that I usually run in the background while I’m at home doing chores, today I decided to switch things up. I took a look at the American incarnation of the Qatar-based news outlet, now being distributed through some U.S. cable and satellite television providers and rebranded from Al Gore’s Current TV network. Despite my familiarity with cable news outlets CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, I have always preferred the least objective medium in receiving my news. I’d take the high road and consult the BBC and Al-Jazeera’s international online news portals. (This also goes without saying that I also prefer to stick to my other RSS subscriptions in my Digg Reader.) Last week, I watched the 2004 documentary Control Room, an exploration of Al-Jazeera’s relationship with the United States’ Central Command (CENTCOM) during the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. It is amazing to me how many people associate Al-Jazeera as being Al-Qaeda’s deliverer and an outlet for Islamic fundamentalist propaganda. (You will not believe the hate-monger bigots who have been in my Twitter mentions all day because of this.)
I am fortunate enough to be a part of the 40 million households it is reaching in these inaugural days, thanks to my television service provider DirecTV. The network is making quite the effort during its breaks to establish the culture and sense of the U.S.-centric, Qatari-based news outlet, promising to cover news from all viewpoints and objectives so the audience is able to derive their own informed opinions on the matters going on in the world. Joie Chen, Ali Velshi, and Soledad O’Brien are some of the journalists establishing the network’s identity, setting it apart from its rivals.
It started off a bit slow for me. I tuned in to a panel discussing climate change and it nearly put me to sleep. I even started to crack a few jokes about how dated it seemed to me at first. The camera work was rather primitive to my eyes, being used to the high-definition broadcasts of other news programs and networks. After about an hour or so, I warmed up to it; it had a real sense of aesthetic and I was beginning to consider that perhaps Al-Jazeera has a cinematographic style as part of its identity. My skepticism turned around when the programming switched to coverage of Pfc. Bradley Manning’s post-trial conference with his defense team, a case I have been following for quite some time. I flipped to other networks to quickly see who else was covering this press conference: NO ONE.
CNN was running a story on a leak at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, MSNBC had Chris Matthews blathering about something I didn’t even care to listen to, and Fox News was spewing the usual anti-Obama sentiment. Meanwhile, I flipped back to Al-Jazeera America and none other than Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, was providing commentary on Manning’s trial and relating to his own respective whistle-blowing over 40 years ago. The press conference continued and at one point, to provide context to viewers who were not familiar with Manning’s leaks, Al-Jazeera displayed photos of his “gender dysphoria” where he cross-dressed to express a desire to be female, an excerpt from the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike “Collateral Murder” video showing American military forces firing at Iraqi civilians, and thumbnail images of some of the cables, chat logs, and documents Manning submitted to Julian Assange’s site, all of which were on WikiLeaks. The entire time Pfc. Bradley Manning was being investigated and American news media was covering it, I don’t ever recall being exposed to these visual aids and contexts on television despite having seen some of them online before. There were no superfluous experts providing commentary in addition to Mr. Ellsberg and I do not feel that any of my time was wasted. After the conference, Al-Jazeera provided coverage of the chemical attack in Syria, the trials of Maj. Nidal Hassan at Ft. Hood and Staff Sgt. Robert Bales at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and the continued unrest in Egypt. Although the news coverage was of an international interest, there were specific points made as to how they affect the lives of the American audience. There was no spectacle, no superfluousness, no slant, and I was thoroughly satisfied with the information on current events I did receive.
Al-Jazeera America has not been on the air for even a week and there are already people dismissing it. Perhaps the biggest negative sentiment so far has come from Glenn Beck: in his program the day of Al-Jazeera America’s launch, he immediately regarded the network as, “the voice of the enemy,” attributing Al-Jazeera’s ownership by the Qatari Emir to Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists not far removed from Al-Qaeda. His unfounded and ignorant comment has zero base or merit. There is no pro-Muslim agenda. Despite the negativity, the launch of Al-Jazeera America is crucial to the world of true journalism, namely the cable/satellite television and Internet portals in which the Qatari networks seeks to establish itself and push its identity in serving 40 million American households. The Freedom of the Press as founded in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is being given another hard look with this new player in the cable news outlet game and is sure to bring an edge in competing with rivals CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
It is still too early to make any judgements on Al-Jazeera America: not even a week has passed since its launch, there are a lot of repeats of evening programs, and some journalists and personalities involved in establishing the network are yet to be seen. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that it will usher in a new sense of journalistic integrity for television news and deliver on its promises to dash the agendas other networks seem to have and provide insight on all sides of the matters that its audience, namely Americans, wish to be informed of. Al-Jazeera America is available through Comcast, Verizon FiOS, Dish Network, DirecTV, replacing Current TV. It is not available to stream online at this time but there is plenty of video content on its website. It is still in its early stages; however, I urge you to either look at the news coverage on their website or demand the network from your cable/satellite television provider if it is not presently available to you. It is important in a democratic sense to be exposed to a news outlet that aims to serve its audience impartially, credibly, and comprehensively, reaching people and covering stories that are underrepresented and overlooked by the mainstream media. As an informed American citizen, we should all expect and demand more of professionals in the world of journalism, holding them to a high regard in delivering our news about the subjects that matter the most to us. Consider the news media sources you turn to for information. Are they providing coverage that matters to you?
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. ” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.