If Obama's a socialist, why are we broke?
Best News Channel in the World
By Anchor DownsAmerica has a bad case of willful ignorance. We know fuck-all about the world, but pretend to know everything. Part of the problem is that we don’t read papers anymore. Instead, we watch the boob tube and pretend we’re learning something about the other five and three-quarter billion people out there because someone airs a two-minute segment on some foreign country. Usually, it’s some human-interest garbage, too. But these days things are different. There is real, world-class TV news out there. But you’ll never see it in America flipping through ten thousand channels on cable or satellite.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a print journalist. I like the way reading words gets information across, so I don’t end up watching much TV news. I encourage all the curious to take the same tack. But I understand American sloth and its close relationship to the love of TV. Sometimes I’ll switch it on to see what people are saying, too. There’s never any information, just headlines and sound bites and then short bursts of political hand jobs for the target demo. That’s what Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly both do so well.
But the problem is not just Olbermann and O’Reilly. The point of TV news is not actually to distribute information. People sometimes deride it as info-tainment, but TV, in general, isn’t really even an entertainment medium; it’s just an advertising medium. So the channels – network and cable alike – are all beholden to their corporate advertising structures: Appeal to the lowest common denominator, and sell them things. It’s pure commercialism. The exception to this mentality, of course, is TV news without commercials. You only find that on the international news channels.
There are three big-boy choices for channels for the 24-hour international news content in English. On all of them, including the big American one, CNN International, the anchors and some reporters speak in smarmy British accents. Their supposed mandates are to cover the world, for the world to watch. But they do an exceedingly poor job of it. (Hilariously, the other most common English 24-hour channel I’ve encountered in my travels has been Fox News, which just runs their American channel on satellite providers abroad. Imagine what the world thinks of us when they surf by that.) Until recently, the biggest daddy of them all, BBC World News, was the best at providing actual world news. After watching some CNN International from the U.S., switching to BBC must make international viewers yearn for the days when the Brits were stomping their way around the globe bringing civilization instead of the Americans. At least the limeys seem to have learned a little something during their travels and, as a result, provide some decent international content.
But the BBC isn’t the only game in town any more. In fact, it isn’t even the best. There’s a new kid on the block. And it ain’t born in Atlanta or London – or anywhere else in the Western world, for that matter. It comes from a little peninsula in the Persian Gulf called Qatar. You know these guys. The country of nearly a million (only about a third of them citizens) was a major base for the U.S. during the invasion of Iraq. The Emir of Qatar, who, hilariously, ousted his dad when the elder was vacationing in Switzerland, launched an Arabic Channel a few years back. He named it Al Jazeera, which literally means “the island”, but can be a reference to the “peninsula” as well. Al Jazeera Arabic got loads of buzz early. They were unafraid to air dissenting views, and not dissenting views like Pat Buchannan on Rachel Maddow, but real dissenters from the global order. One such outlier was Osama Bin Laden. His recorded tapes were news, just like Obama’s pressers, and Al Jazeera Arabic ran them that way despite much controversy. “Here’s what an important figure in world events is saying,” the channel seemed to taunt, “and we’re fucking playing it.”
That mantra applied doubly to the invasion of Iraq. The Arabic service covered the war intensely and critically, offering what they said was an Arab perspective. High-ranking and well-loved American officials like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld denounced the channel’s reporting and coverage publicly. If that isn’t an endorsement of their work, I don’t know what is. Nonetheless, even as public opinion turned against the Iraq war, and it’s leaders like Dick and Don, Al Jazeera was never quite vindicated.
Despite having been completely demonized in the world’s largest English-speaking television market during those early days of Iraq, Al Jazeera pressed on with the development of a channel in the native tongue of empires past and present. When Al Jazeera English (AJE) was launched in November of 2006, it would pay for its sins by getting no piece of the U.S. market. It’s a price the channel is paying to this day. AJE is only picked up by a handful of satellite and cable providers in small markets. None of the major TV distribution systems – big cable companies or Dish or DirecTV – will take on the channel and put the onus on American viewers to watch it or not. Essentially, it’s a blackout by the major media companies. Corporo-censorship. What’s worse, any reasonably informed viewer who’s checked out the channel abroad or on the net will tell you that Al Jazeera English is, if not the single best, one of the finest operations around.
The channel was laid out with a simple strategy: this was going to be world news from all over the world. BBC world and CNN International have bureaus in a lot places, but decisions come down to one place, the headquarters of the stations. Each has only one broadcast center, with CNN in Atlanta and BBC in London. AJE took its cue from the British Empire and declared that the sun would never set on the channel. They created four broadcast centers. The HQ is in Doha, the modernized, sky-scraping capitol of Qatar, but the other three locales operate with a high (though imperfect) level of autonomy. Located in Washington, D.C., Kuala Lumpur, and London, the different centers all have anchor desks replete with regular anchors that fill regular time slots. And they all create content from their own region, with editorial independence.
AJE, in an apparent bid for legitimacy, began poaching talent from the other major international news channels. Guys were ripped from the talent pools at CNN and BBC. Most notably in America, the station picked up Nightline anchor and longtime TV newsman Dave Marash. It was something of a coup for the AJE to score a guy who has legitimacy on network TV, by far the most powerful force in American news (though cable channels have been gaining ground, network nightly news still has about ten times more viewers). Marash was going to be the “American face” of AJE. Going to Al Jazeera was an easy move for many of these guys because, frankly, the money was right. The Emir of Qatar, who, like all Qataris, looks and moves like a fat penguin (seriously, have you ever seen an actual Qatari who is not shaped like a bowling ball?) dished out serious cash to get the network started, including putting money into launching the first global high definition channel. Ironically, it was because of problems with the HD technology, the station’s launch was delayed by a few months. But finally, in November 2006, the world – minus the U.S. – was treated to gloriously crisp international news.
The international success has been great. AJE gets into somewhere between 130 million and 200 plus millions homes (who can keep track with stolen satellite TV all over the place). The network has been rightly lauded for their coverage of parts of the world that no one else covers so closely, like Latin America and Africa. And even their coverage of the West is superb. They carry perspectives that others don’t – or won’t – and don’t shy away from asking tough questions (though sometimes strange: AJE’s unfortunate once-a-week Olbermann, “Empire” host Marwan Bishara, hilariously asked longtime U.S. Mid East adviser, Aaron David Miller, an American Jew, if it wasn’t true that American Jews, like Miller himself, ran U.S. Middle East policy--awkward!). But stateside, where our hangover from disastrous American exceptionalism means we badly need to show Americans a glimpse of the rest of the world, AJE still can’t land any sort of deals.
Contributing to this sad course of events was a sordid affair involving Marash, which may have set back AJE’s hopes of bringing the message to Americans just yearning for a little better news (and also that majority that isn’t yearning, but, for their own good, should be).
Basically, Marash left AJE in March of 2008. When he did, he threw the network under the bus. Marash, looking forward to shopping a big fat book deal for himself, decided to go on a little press junket after leaving. He splashed himself all over the media, including the incredibly balanced Fox News network, complaining about an “anti-American bias” at the network. Of course, Marash said it was British anti-Americanism, not Arab. But, as you can imagine, that didn’t fit very nicely on the Fox News ticker at the bottom of the screen, which only screamed about the bias part. The Fox online report had something else interesting, too: “Marash said there were other reasons for his exit.” Fox then wrote about the pace of the network changing. In fairness to Marash, and he deserved it because he’s been a good reporter for a long time, he was right about the few examples of bad journalism that he gave about Jazeera. But Fox, the Columbia Journalism Review, the New York Times, and everyone else that interviewed Marash did bad reporting of their own, too. They never explored the fact that Marash did, indeed, have other reasons for leaving the network.
The truth of the matter is – and this a scoop, albeit a belated one, for all you kiddies keeping track at home – there were other pressing concerns that caused Marash to quit his gig Jazeera. It’s the sort of typical bullshit, nausea inducing nepotism that happens everywhere, but there’s an especially acute infection of it here in DC. Lots of people with access, in many, many places, is based on who you know. The kids of, brothers of, wives of constituency, and all the other friends make up much of, well, Washington’s worse half. In Marash’s case, it was his wife. Amy Marash was a packaged deal with Dave, and when he took the job she got a position as a “video journalist” (whatever that means on an HD television channel…probably “webisodes”), and later had been described as a producer. The damnedest thing, though, is that while Dave was well liked, no one at the channel could stand or work with Amy. I can’t imagine why, though, after having checked out her blog on séance candles she travels with and littered with reposts of mostly new-agey, crap poetry. No, no. It’s probably because lots of people at AJE thought she was a difficult bitch.
Well, Amy Marash’s contract was up, and it wasn’t getting renewed. A week after her employment ended, so did her husband’s (the timing was noted by only by one website, which either didn’t make the connection and ask about it, or just didn’t report it). What makes it especially grotesque – Washington-style – is that instead of quietly going away, shining that bald dome of his, and applying for his job back at ABC, Marash made a big stink about the anti-American bias. Maybe no one back at the ol’ network could work with the ol’ lady, either.
Anyway, Marash left AJE, but boy did he leave at the wrong time. Within a year of his deaprture, he would sit out dozens of great stories that he could have brought to an audience of millions – the election, the financial collapse, and the inauguration. But the things he really missed, and which AJE, with or without Dave and Amy, hit right on the head were the two flare ups of war the world has seen in the past six months. Dave Marash walked away, and, within a year, AJE was far and away the best channel to watch to cover either of them.
The first was the brief but destructive row between Georgia and Russia, over the South Ossetian breakaway province. I was on vacation in Europe when this little Caucasian tussle broke out, so I actually got to sit there and flip between CNN Int’l, BBC, and Al Jazeera English. What a pleasure it was. For about the first five days of the war – we’re talking full out war here; Russian tank battalions rolling through Georgian towns near Ossetia and bombs and shelling deep into Georgia – CNN and BBC were broadcasting almost exclusively from Tblisi, the Georgian capitol sitting about 50 miles from the heavy action, and with a few, widely scattered reports from Moscow. By day two of fighting, AJE had camera crews and correspondents in South Ossetia itself as well as Gori, the nearest Georgian city across the border that took the heaviest beating and saw a brief Russian occupation. Is it any wonder the Western media got the story totally ass-backwards and pretended that Russia was the initial aggressor in the war? AJE even had the audacity to play translated clips of Russian press conferences where the military leaders clearly explained what was obvious to plenty of print reporters on the ground there: that Georgia had, after warning American officials, made the first offensive moves.
But the place where Al Jazeera really came into its own – and, in my humble opinion, established itself as the best game in town – was in Gaza. During Israel’s three-week rampage into the tiny strip of land, there was only one English-language news channel on the ground in Gaza. Only one! Guess who it was? Ding-ding. Tell them what they’ve won! How about a real perspective on a war – the one of the people living in a glorified refugee camp who are being attacked by 21st century weaponry? Perhaps you’d like the see the videos that Al Jazeera, and no one else, captured of kids kicking around the extremely dangerous and volatile (and banned for use against civilian centers) chunks of burning white phosphorous from American-made shells? Palestinian hospitals in Gaza with no power and overflowing with bloodied and broken human beings, with more always streaming in? There was only one place to see this stuff.
The rest of the news crews were up on what became known as the ‘hill of shame’. That was where Israelis came to picnic and watch the fighting from afar (in the first Battle of Bull Run, the same thing happened, but, in a moment of divine justice, the Yankee spectators were driven back to Washington by the surprisingly-triumphant rebels…no such luck in Gaza). The hill was where cameras with powerful zoom lenses were perched on tripods and aimed over the fence of that area where the war was actually happening. The action – the war – was behind Gaza’s now famous walls. Everyone but AJE was doing encampment reporting. The Jazeera crew was the only ones actually doing actual war reporting. The other guys were back there with the picnickers.
For the Gaza war, I was situated firmly in DC following developments on AJE at the only place I could get them: on-line (check out livestation.com for the best feed). In fact, it was where CNN was getting their developments from, too. Their video they carried from inside Gaza was all from AJE, bearing the signature frame and logo, and with a courtesy to Al Jazeera. But even CNN and I weren’t the only ones watching. A source at the U.N. tells me that when the Arab ambassadors and ministers were working long hours to try to get a resolution passed to end the fighting, they were meeting in a small room in the basement of the U.N. building in New York. The only coffee shop in the joint where you can smoke is down there, and, apparently, during the breaks of meetings all these Arabs would file out, smoke butts, and watch AJE on the television in the shop.
This winter, I went to an event for the DC crew of AJE. Everyone drank their fair share, just like all good journalists usually do. If you still had Al Jazeera pegged as just the Arab network, you would have been surprised to see the crowd there. No one wore their religion on their sleeves (and if there were Muslims, they were drinking, too), and the AJE crowd was like a melting pot -- people from all over the world, of all the world’s colors (Australia, India, Africa, American, European, Asian). After everyone was good and drunk, the whole room spilled out onto the dance floor. The brave ones stepped up one or two at a time and sang Karaoke -- mostly poorly -- to mostly oldies, like bubble-gum eighties stuff or Motown classics. I turned to a friend there: “Y’know, if you guys taped this and broadcast if for an hour, no one would call you the terrorist network anymore” -- as some xenophobic residents of a small Colorado town did when AJE sent cameras there to cover the regular man’s perspective on the election last fall.
The travesty is that, while these high-ranking Arab officials, the guys at CNN, me, and a host of others know what the real deal is, regular Americans aren’t ever going to be privy to this serious news about the world that they could really benefit from. Supposedly, foreign policy in the Obama era presumes that what the world thinks of us does actually matter. Maybe if people were willing to endure real international news from the best international news channel around, they might actually start to get an idea of who the world is, and, perhaps, slowly piece together what they think of us and, most importantly, why.
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