Unexpected and Surprising

“Has anyone watched the English-language version of Al Jazeera lately,” Robert D. Kaplan asks in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly in an article titled “Why I Love Al Jazeera.” “The Qatar-based Arab TV channel’s eclectic internationalism – a feast of vivid, pathbreaking coverage from all continents – is a rebuke to the dire predictions about the end of foreign news as we know it.”

And in the October issue of Walrus Deborah Campbell, in an article titled “The Most Hated Name in News” and subtitled “Can Al Jazeera English cure what ails North American journalism?” quotes Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera’s director-general, “We would like to appear, later on [after the current financial crisis is over], as the player when it comes to English news internationally.”

His wish may well come true.

Al Jazeera was launched by the Emir of Qatar in 1996 a year after he overthrew his father. Qatar is considered the richest nation in the Middle East. (The criteria by which this claim is made are not entirely clear.) The coup ushered in an era of liberalization in the emirate, which has been called as significant as Martin Luther nailing his “theses” on the church door of Wittenberg, which triggered the Protestant Reformation. For Luther the technology that spread his message was the printing press; for the Emir of Qatar it is the satellite dish. “The birth of Al Jazeera marked the first time in modern history,” Deborah Campbell writes, “that a plurality of viewpoints was included in the Arab public discourse.”

Surely, this is good news. But what makes it unexpected and surprising as well is that in terms of journalistic quality it can already, after such a short time, be compared to its competitors, the BBC World Service and CNN International.

Like them, it has a distinct point of view. “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” writes Robert D. Kaplan. “Al Jazeera’s news isn’t so much biased as honestly representative of a middle-of-the-road developing world viewpoint. By contrast, in the case of the BBC and CNN you are explicitly aware that rather than presenting the world as they find it, those channels are taking a distinct side – the left-liberal internationalist side.”

Seymour Hirsch, the New Yorker’s eminent investigating journalist, said at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai in May, Al Jazeera has broken the West’s monopoly on how the world views conflicts in the Middle East.”

There has recently been a breakthrough in Al Jazeera’s quest for the American public. A non-profit educational broadcaster has agreed to carry it in Washington and twenty other American cities. It is hoped, of course, that soon other doors will open.

A year ago Al Jazeera appointed the former news chief of CBC Television, Tony Burman, to direct its English operations, Since Canada is regarded as the gateway to the United States, this was no doubt a good move strategically. The assumption was, moreover, that he will be able to persuade the Canadian regulator, the CRTC, to remove the conditions that had made its previous decision in its favour meaningless. (The Canadian Jewish Congress has said it will no longer oppose the application, nor will B’nai Brith.) But no doubt their main reason was that Burman is a first-class journalist, singularly well equipped with the professional and personal qualifications required for the job. In his first year he seems to have done extremely well. Incidentally, he is not the only Canadian journalist in Qatar: Avi Lewis, who is well known to the TVO audience, is hosting a talk show.

Al Jazeera’s achievement must be seen in the light of the dramatic decline in North American reporting of international news, both electronically and in print, made worse by the financial crisis, but it had begun before. It was the circumstances that brought about the descent of CBC Television News, at one time the renowned leader in the field, to the level of – in Tony Burman’s words – a C+ Global News that made Burman resign from the CBC a year ago. Since his departure, the descent has accelerated. (Global is the youngest of the three Canadian television networks.)

But it is a little hard to imagine that Al Jazeera will really “cure what ails North American journalism.” What it promises to do, however, is fill the gap created by the erosion of international reporting in North America, so that audiences for programs such as PBS’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer have equivalent programs to watch, with a point of view and a wealth of information about the developing world not yet easily accessible on this continent.

But the crisis in traditional North American high-quality journalism, brought about by the new technologies, is so deep that even the richest emir in the world cannot cure it.


One response to “Unexpected and Surprising

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