I noticed a change in media tone yesterday that made me blink thrice at the screen to make sure I was watching the channel I thought I was.Here's a piece I wrote back in 2008 on Al Jazeera's struggle to go mano-a-mano against the mighty anchors of Fox and the other media barons in North America:
And I was. On Fox News yesterday afternoon, words of praise were being heaped on Al-Jazeera for its coverage of the demonstrations in Egypt.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Al Jazeera International in AmericaDon’t Think Twice It’s All Rat
Via the China media and politics site ESWN I came across a link to an interesting interview the Columbia Journalism Review did with Dave Marash.
Marash is the U.S. reporter who left Al Jazeera International because of what’s described in journalistic shorthand as emerging “anti-American bias” at the network.
Marash’s explanation is somewhat more complicated and interesting--and revealing, in an inadvertent way.
Marash was offended when the Al Jazeera’s Doha desk (the network’s mother ship, in Qatar) sent a film crew into America without his knowledge to gather material for what he saw as a crude and clueless piece of agitprop about American poverty:
Then they went to South Carolina and found a town that—I know this is going to shock you, Brent—had very rich people and, on the other side of the railroad tracks, very poor people. And the wretchedness of the poor people’s living conditions was enumerated. In fact this memorable question and answer exchange occurred: Q: What’s it like to live with rats in your home? A: Bad. [laughs]
It’s rather amusing in a sad way how easily Marash slips into pompous anchorspeak to inform us that, even if people are dirt poor and there are rats in their houses in America, it's only must-see-teevee if the proper journalistic rules of detachment, objectivity, and even-handedness are followed.
The economic divide is a story and the reasons why, over a long period of time in this South Carolina town there should be very little transmigration across the line between rich and poor, is a story. The sources of wealth of the rich may be a story. The lack of opportunities for the poor may be a story. But again, you gotta report all these things.
Yeah, and how do the rats feel about being forced to live with all those poor people? Where's their side of the story?
I won’t cheap-shot Marash any more on this issue.
He’s an intelligent, experienced, quintessentially American newsman with the objective, both sides of the story outlook who recognizes that a top team would have come up with a more illuminating coverage.
You know, like Rat: It’s What’s for Dinner; South Carolina Families Employ Determination, Ingenuity—and Barbeque Sauce--in their Struggle With Adversity.
OK, now really no more cheap-shotting.
The poverty piece was apparently well below Al Jazeera’s normal standards of professionalism.
Marash speaks quite highly of Al Jazeera’s standards, quality, and pre-eminent position outside of the United States, particularly in the southern hemisphere.
...in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Asia, on Al Jazeera [you] see state-of-the-art, world-class reporting, and south of the equator I don’t think anyone will give you much of an argument that Al Jazeera has become the most authoritative news channel on earth.
He attributes the decline in US coverage to a conscious decision by the headquarters in Qatar in 2007 to draw closer to Saudi Arabia as part of a trend toward regional independence from the United States in foreign affairs especially vis a vis Iran.
I’m suggesting that around that time, a decision was made at the highest levels of [Al Jazeera] that simply following the American political leadership and the American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation, was no longer the safest or smartest course, and that it was time, in fact, to get right with the region. And I think part of getting right with the region was slightly changing the editorial ambition of Al Jazeera English, and I think it has subsequently become a more narrowly focused, more univocal channel than was originally conceived.
... BC: This doesn’t bode well for AJE as a credible journalistic operation.
DM: If the goal is to be true to the idea of multipolar transparency, then this is very bad news. And I admit that I find that to be a higher goal than being a thoroughly respectable, thoroughly professional, but somewhat regional or region-specific voice.
The phrase “American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation” caught my eye.
It’s interesting that nowhere in the interview is it mentioned that Al Jazeera International is virtually unavailable in the United States.
It’s carried on two satellites and four other platforms: Globecast (French satellite provider) Fision (95000 viewers; going out of business) , JumpTV (internet TV), VDC (small , maybe even non-existent provider of video to desktop services). And you can watch it on Youtube.
The right-wing media watchdog site, Accuracy in Media, in a press release hailing Marash’s departure as vindication of its anti-Al Jazeera stance, stated:
AIM’s campaign had prevented Al-Jazeera from finding a major U.S. cable or satellite company willing to carry it. “We tried from the beginning to expose Al-Jazeera English for what it is – an anti-American, Arab government-financed propaganda operation,” Kincaid said. “Now, hopefully, more people will take note.”
In 2006, Variety reported that US cable companies and DirectTV weren’t interested in allowing Al Jazeera English on the big show, and were only interested in offering the English-language service either on the Arab language slate or in regions with significant Arab-American viewership:
The Associated Press last week reported Comcast had pulled out of talks but, in fact, negotiations continued, with Comcast offering to roll out the channel regionally. Comcast is the dominant operator in the Detroit area, which has one of the nation's largest Arab-American populations. But AJI execs were holding out for a full rollout across all of Comcast's 12.1 million digital subscribers (Comcast has 24 million digital and analog subs), and they believed a deal was imminent.
"We thought we were just awaiting signatures. We feel like we've been led down the garden path. It's a setback for us in the States, but I don't want this to overshadow the fact we've had phenomenal figures in the rest of the world," said one AJI employee who insisted on anonymity.
Sources within AJI speculated the reasons for the pullout had to do with U.S. uncertainty about Al-Jazeera's editorial agenda. Negative portrayals of the situation in Iraq are widely thought to have contributed to the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections.
But Comcast denied the decision had anything to do with politics. "It comes down to a capacity question. We're not adding a lot of new channels," said Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer.
Bear in mind, in Marash’s chronology, in 2006, when this article was written, Al Jazeera International was still committed to the whole high quality, global conversation thing—and running the North American operations from the Washington desk with Marash happily ensconced in the anchor slot.
But remember, the story isn’t about the rat—the political pressure to keep Al Jazeera out of American homes.
It’s about the economic divide, those reasons over a long period of time, the sources of wealth/lack of opportunity transmigration stuff. There were no channels! You gotta report all those things!
OK, this time the cheap-shotting’s really over.
The “American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation” is clearly pretty much a one-way street as far as the U.S. market is concerned. Arabic media companies need not apply.
On one level, it could be said that Dave Marash didn’t leave Al Jazeera; Al Jazeera left us.
It made the decision that the effort to become part of the U.S. elite political discourse by hiring our anchors, playing by our rules, and adhering to our standards of journalism and our definition of who and what was important and worth reporting was simply futile.
And, in the iron law of the media business, the least important market gets the fewest resources, the shallowest coverage, and the shoddiest product.