By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tuning in to Al-Jazeera

Globalvision‘s Danny Schechter and Rory O’Connor have posted a three-minute video commentary on the debut of the English-language Al-Jazeera International channel. It’s worth checking out. Schechter and O’Connor want American cable operators to carry the channel, which they have so far declined to do. But I’m not sure whether that’s all that important.

After all, you can watch a live stream of Al-Jazeera International right here. And if you don’t mind a low-quality stream that has to be refreshed every 15 minutes, you don’t even have to pay. It’s a great example of the increasing irrelevance of big media companies, and it will become more of an option over the next few years, as television and the Internet become one.

Two dissenting voices.

First, the extremely predictable Jeff Jarvis responds with his standard critique: They’re clueless! To wit: “It’s foolish that they try to charge a monthly fee for watching the stream and even more foolish that they based the business on getting cable carriage. If they’d just put the channel up online, they’d be getting a huge audience today.” Hmmm … well, maybe. Somehow, though, I don’t think HBO would be doing as well if it were streaming for free on the Web. (And, as Jarvis acknowledges, Al-Jazeera International is streaming for free — just not the way he’d like.)

Second, a woman with the unlikely name of Cinnamon Stillwell has written a commentary for a Web site called Family Security Matters that begins with this introduction:

It is unthinkable that America would allow avowed enemies to move here, set down roots, flourish and grow, and then manipulate our citizens into thinking that our own government is the enemy rather than they. Yet as FSM Contributing Editor Cinnamon Stillwell points out, this abomination is exactly what has happened with Al Jazeera International as it sets up shop right under our noses in Washington, D.C. Imagine that!

I’m going to confess that I have not slogged all the way through Stillwell’s screed. I just wanted to point out that the notion that Ignorance Is Good is alive and well. I mean, why on earth would we want to know what Al-Jazeera is reporting? Is Stillwell afraid we might learn something?

Personally, I would rather see the regular, Arabic-language Al-Jazeera channel with subtitles than Al-Jazeera International. Though I don’t think Al-Jazeera is quite the spawn of Satan that its critics would have it, I am curious to know whether the message it tells its viewers in the Arab and Muslim world is different from what it streams to the West.

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  1. Anonymous

    I don’t know much about Al-Jazeera, but Cinnamon Stillwell would be an awesome name for a Bond Girl.

  2. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, you make a very good point about the following:I am curious to know whether the message it tells its viewers in the Arab and Muslim world is different from what it streams to the might have some insight on that issue.I don’t know about the cable channel inclusion issue, but I’m certainly not going to be happy, given that it will only result in an increase in everyone’s total cable bill. From too much past experience, Comcast certainly isn’t going to eat any charges for Al Jazeera out of their profits. And this isn’t a political issue at all; look at the ESPN, NFL Network, et al fights for positioning or higher rights fees, or for that matter the Red Sox’s recent signing of Dice-Kay – $10 beers next year at the old park, anyone?

  3. gyrfalcon

    Because of my work, I had occasion a year or so ago to hear daily for several months an independent translation of all the interviews conducted during Al Jazeera’s primary primetime broadcast. These ranged from Hamas and Hezbollah leaders to various Western diplomats and journalists.Try as I might, I could find no hint whatsoever of anti-American or pro-terrorist or any other kind of bias.In fact, the interviewers were noticeably more thoroughly informed than we’re used to seeing here in the States, asked no softball questions of anyone, as we’re all too used to here in the States, and at least appeared to me to be a good deal tougher and more aggressive with the Hamas types than with the Westerners.It’s not a complete picture, of course, but I was led to conclude at least tentatively that all the hoo-hah about Al-Jazeera’s slanted coverage is simply false. This is no Fox News Channel of the Arab world. What I heard was honest, knowledgeable, energetic journalists trying to pry apart the Middle East puzzle and inform their listeners.I’d have to see/hear more of it, obviously, to come to a firm judgment, but it stretches credulity to think that all the different Al-J people I heard doing these interviews have one face for this particular chunk of daily air and another for everything else.

  4. man who's not a VOA fan

    I am curious to know whether the message it tells its viewers in the Arab and Muslim world is different from what it streams to the West.Well duh, of course it is.That’s like saying you’re wondering if NPR has different news than the Voice of America, even though they’re both “paid for by the government of the USA”. (I say with a healthy touch of irony)Lest we forget, the much-hated partisan hack Kenneth Tomlinson, who headed the CPB for two disgraceful years…also used to be director of VOA. He now is essentially the head of VOA again, serving as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. That should tell you all you need to know about VOA.There’s a reason why it’s illegal to transmit VOA in America; if we ever heard the drivel that passes for “news” on VOA, we wouldn’t wonder why the rest of the world “hates America” so much.Then again, given how numb everyone must be to think that Fox News is “news”, maybe we wouldn’t notice how bad VOA is either. Come to think of it, compared to Fox News…VOA isn’t so bad! :-/Jeez…there’s a depressing thought right before the holidays…

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Man Who’s Not: It’s really not right to say that NPR comes from the government. It is almost entirely privatized. I would argue that it’s actually more responsive to market forces than commercial radio, since such stations can increase their profits with ultra-cheap syndicated programming, even if their audiences shrink. If NPR tries to do that, underwriters and listeners refuse to pay.

  6. Anonymous

    I am probably in a related, if not similar, line of work to Gyrfalcon, and I have watched Al Jazeera in Arabic for the better part of two years. I have to agree with G, the network does its homework and the anchors and reporters are actually articulate and informed. A stark contrast to today’s US news anchors. And if they broadcast something from the “enemy,” then so be it. Isn’t that what journalism is about, after all? I would also echo Dan Kennedy’s words about NPR, in case nobody believes him. I just can’t believe myself that the non-VOA fan and Cinnamon Stillwell pass for thinking adults when they obviously have their facts so wrong. And if my credibility is any issue here, I’m an officer in the United States military and I’m not a traitor for admiring the work that Al Jazeera does. After watching it, I almost can’t bear to watch American media. Seems anybody in the US who likes anything Arab these days is “with the Taliban,” to paraphrase our Commander in Chief. I look forward to the day when Al Jazeera is broadcast online in a 350K stream that is reliable — unlike JumpTV’s spotty stream. And…this is just for you non-VOA guy…I contribute to NPR every year. American just needs to get over itself, I think.

  7. purpleXed

    Those spending over $2 billion of US tax payers’ money on Iraq every week need to get the hearts and minds situation right. An Italian scholar of the Arab media, Donatella della Ratta rightly suggests: the West should seriously consider before blaming or blocking channels like Aljazeera that are in fact educating tools to inform rather than provide a version while embedded on a tank. Instead of making wrong choices, pursuing approaches that are but goose-chases and witch-hunts exercises US need to befriend with the those capture and portray the facts professionally and far effectively. A demeaning approach towards any pluralistic media initiatives, especially when coming from the Middle East, will be counter-productive. An interesting observation made about Al Jazeera is the prominent presence of women as news anchors and reporters. But surprisingly bids to empower women boost diversity and pluralism largelygoing unnoticed.A news organization that has its roots in the Middle East, where the status of women is undervalued, and yet demonstrates its willingness to showcase women in roles of responsibility and authority. Going global will hopefully demystify certain arcane views about the Arab women as solely house- and husband-bound!Why not give Aljazeera English at least a few weeks before circulating our opinions? One tends to agree with Sunday Times, A.A. Gill who wrote: “It’s too early to make a judgment, but its opening line-up of journalists and ’casters looked impressive…. The look is clean and professional, without all the video-game confusion of too many sidebars and tickertape subtitles or Star Wars set.”

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