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If you want the best, most comprehensive coverage of the uprising in Egypt, Al Jazeera English (AJE) is the place to tune in. The images and reporting have been nothing short of riveting. But most people in the United States, including here in Los Angeles, have no access to the channel on their cable systems. Instead, if you have Internet access, you can view AJE online through its live video stream. Thank goodness for that. As a result, the news channel has seen a 2,500% increase in traffic to its web site this week — 60% of that from the U.S., according to Tony Burman, Al Jazeera’s chief strategic adviser for the Americas. Clearly, many Americans want more in depth information about Eygpt’s revolution than the shallow and sensationalistic U.S. media provide.
Launched in 2006, AJE is the English language counterpart to Al Jazeera, the Doha, Qatar-based, Arabic-language news channel immensely popular around the Arab world. Unfortunately, Al Jazeera has had a bad reputation in the U.S., where it’s known mainly as the channel where Osama bin Laden liked to showcase his greatest hits. During the Bush years, administration officials and conservatives accused Al Jazeera of being anti-American. And Israel supporters aren’t big fans of the channel, which typically gives a lot more attention to the suffering of the Palestinians. Outside the U.S., Al Jazeera gets a better reception, and is known as a hard-hitting independent network that’s not afraid to cast an unflattering light on autocratic dictators. For example, in Egypt, the regime has kicked the network out of the country, arrested its journalists, and banned it from the airwaves there.
AJE is seen in more than 100 countries, including Canada and yes, Israel. But AJE is only available on cable stations in Washington D.C., Toledo, Ohio, and Burlington,Vermont, of all places. I have Time Warner digital, and I saw that one of the KCET digital channels – KCETM 239 – is supposed to carry a half-hour of AJE on weeknights. But when I actually checked last night, strangely, an Asian soap opera was running in the time slot. Anyway, I’ll go back to watching as much of AJE as I want on my computer desktop. But it would still be nice to be able to watch it on the TV while lying on my couch in the den or eating a snack in the kitchen.
So why the near blackout in the U.S.? Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim writes that there are political and commercial reasons, and he points to an illuminating essay from a former AJE associate producer, Paige Austin. Below is a video from Democracy Now! this week about the media blackout of AJE in the U.S. and of Al Jazeera in Egypt:
I’ve watched AJE occasionally for about two years. Being the news junkie that I am, and dissatisfied with the quality and dearth of international news in the American media, I was excited when I first learned of AJE’s existence. Initially, you could only get selected videos on YouTube. Later, AJE’s streaming video became available through a site called LiveStation, which has several international news channels, including BBC World Service (audio only), Deutsche Welle (audio only), RFI, Russia Today and France 24. I only discovered this week that AJE now streams directly from its web site. All of these streams are free.
Seeing how the news is reported outside of the American (or even Western) prism is refreshing and revealing. Instead of an over-reliance on a couple of pundits carping at each other in a two-sided debate, you’re likely to see more academics, representatives from non-governmental organizations, human rights activists and regular people from the street give their views on issues of the day. While watching the coverage of the Egyptian protests, I heard analysis from several Middle Eastern experts, a human rights activist who was jailed by the regime, a blogger, several protesters and a U.S. congressman I’d never seen on American TV before.
Al Jazeera executives are actively trying to get American cable companies to offer AJE, and they are using the Internet stats to bolster their case. It’s probably still going to be an uphill battle, just because of all the ignorance and prejudice against anything that isn’t American, especially if it comes from the Arab world. BBC World News, the BBC’s international channel, also isn’t widely available in the U.S. Its only Los Angeles presence is a few half-hour segments on local public television and a four-hour block on the cable channel, BBC America.
BBC America, a channel specifically created for the U.S. market, shows re-runs of popular U.K. programs (Los Angeles stations: Time Warner Cable Channel 131, AT&T U-verse Channel 188, DIRECT TV Channel 264, and DISH Network Channels 135 and 879). It only has three hours of BBC World News, which unfortunately, airs very early in the morning. On weeknights, however, the channel airs a one-hour news show tailored to the American audience called BBC World News America. This program broadcasts from Washington D.C. and reports on domestic American news, often times from an angle you rarely see on American television. For example, I found the channel’s coverage on the financial crisis from the point of view of ordinary Americans particularly good. BBC World News America is also a good supplement to the lack of comprehensive international news on American media. If you don’t have cable, you can watch BBC World News America videos on its web site.
If I have one beef about BBC World News America, it’s that the show’s anchors interview some of the same American media pundits and Beltway lawmakers who have no fresh ideas, and whom I wanted to get away from in the first place. Also, I wish the anchors would get a lot tougher with their questioning, especially when Congressperson So-and-So is playing fast and loose with the truth. I find that AJE anchors tend to be a bit more challenging, especially with American government officials and lawmakers.
A few years ago, I signed a petition BBC World News circulated to get its channel into more American homes – including Los Angeles – but it looks like that effort went nowhere. So regrettably, most Americans are stuck with the provincial and mind-numbing American news media, that do their best to shield the public from much of what’s really going on in the rest of the world, and from the uncomfortable truths about their own country. I find it quite interesting that it’s just fine for the Beltway politicians to watch AJE on their TV sets, but most of their constituents can’t be exposed to such alternative views. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I believe most Americans do care about international news and want a diversity of viewpoints if given the opportunity. What are they really afraid of if AJE, or even BBC or another foreign news service were widely available in the U.S.? That Americans just might form opinions contrary to what the ruling Washington and corporate elites want them to think? The best the public can do at this point is to keep putting the pressure on their cable companies. One can hope that AJE’s new-found publicity and popularity among Americans will cause the cable companies to cave.
ABC is officially the least trusted name in news. That’s according to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling. A plurality of respondents, 35 percent find ABC trustworthy, while 43 percent find it untrustworthy. But 50 percent of respondents find PBS trustworthy, while 30 percent don’t. Fox, or “Faux” News as its detractors like to call it, has seen its credibility with viewers hit the skids recently. Though the cable outlet was in the middle of the pack in trustworthiness, it had the highest percentage of people who found it untrustworthy at 46 percent:
The fact that commercial television news has so little credibility with the public is no surprise. Much of what passes for “news” on these stations are screaming talking heads, stealth advertising, fluff, misinformation and disinformation. It’s little wonder that the public is hungering for alternatives like public television – which should be expanded – and the Internet. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that more and more people, young and old, are turning away from television as their main source of news and fleeing to the Web. But if the enemies of net neutrality have their way, the Internet will come to resemble the putrid cesspool that television has become.
How did so much of American radio and television turn from a marketplace of diverse political ideas into a cesspool of Wall Street propaganda and violent-tinged ranting? In the aftermath of the deadly shootings in Tucson, Arizona, filmmaker Sue Wilson appeared Jan. 12 on Nicole Sandler’s Radio or Not show to talk about how media consolidation destroyed the ability of communities to control local programming and led to the rise of hate speech on the public airwaves. Sue also talks about her plans to start an organized effort to legally challenge the radio licenses of broadcasters who abuse the public trust. Sue’s excellent film, Broadcast Blues, outlines the history and consequences of the deregulation of radio and television. The interview starts at 1:16:55. Click here to listen.
I found this hysterical video through Mother Jones. Scott Goldberg, a former reporter for South Carolina’s KARE11, does a mashup of some incredibly stupid stories his bosses at the station made him do. This, despite the fact that he went to journalism school to learn how to expose wrongdoing. The video is a wicked skewering of the wasteland that local television news has become.
It appears that KARE – like many TV news broadcasters - cares more about delivering viewers to its advertisers than actually informing anyone about anything of substance. As a former reporter myself (newspapers), I can identify with Scott’s frustration. I remember having to report and write on some pretty useless stories. But Goldberg will now be skewering the news regularly, as a “correspondent” for Comedy Central’s fake-news show, Onion SportsDome.
Last Saturday, when I saw the headlines blaring from Internet that a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had been nearly assassinated in Tucson, my blood ran cold. My initial shock turned to anger as I read that the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, allegedly gunned down another 18 people, killing six of them, including a young child. I had been fearing this day ever since President Obama’s inauguration two years ago, when incidences of threats and actual political violence suddenly exploded, amid a noxious stew of violent rightwing rhetoric emanating from our public airwaves.
For years, I kept hoping that the President and Congress would do something to rein in the corporate media companies who continue to showcase hatemongering radio and TV commentators, and rake in millions of dollars at the expense of reasoned debate and civil public discourse. I wrote letters about my concerns to my congressional representatives. I blogged about it. I wanted our public officials to take this abuse of free speech on our public airwaves much more seriously.
I wasn’t as worried about President Obama’s safety, because of the fortress-like security apparatus afforded to American commanders-in-chief. No, I had a feeling that the first attempted political assassination of a government official in many years would be on a member of Congress. Now it’s happened. And so many other innocent lives were lost or ruined in the attack.
None of these extremist broadcast commentators told Loughner, or anybody else, to go and massacre people. But they and the companies who employ them have perpetuated an environment where violent rhetoric is deemed an acceptable form of entertainment, where media personalities steer close to or even commit incitement, and where alternative viewpoints are scarce. Unfortunately, our public leaders – Democrats as well as Republicans – have acquiesced to the wishes of Big Media by allowing deregulation and corporate consolidation. Our government has also gotten rid of equal time rules, and declawed the Federal Communications Commission, which is supposed to oversee broadcast outlets and protect the public interest. On top of that, the United States, unlike other Western countries, lacks a robust public broadcast system that can provide an antidote to corporate media’s worst programming. So we see large portions of the population whose only source of news and information comes from extremist radio figures and lightweight local TV news broadcasts. Add to this large-scale ignorance, a toxic brew of massive income inequality, racism and bigotry, and easy access to guns. It took Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who oversees Tucson, to finally say to the mainstream what many of us in the media reform movement have been screaming about for years:
“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,” he said. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
“It’s the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business. People tend to pooh-pooh this business about the vitriol that inflames American public opinion by the people who make a living off of that. That may be free speech but it’s not without consequences.”
Many are calling on the haters to tamp down the vitriol. Interestingly, Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, the cable network that is now synonymous with rightwing flamethrowing and propaganda, is asking “both sides” – meaning left and right – to tone it down. Other mainstream media outlets are also continuing to put out this false meme that liberals and conservatives are equally responsible for the venom polluting the public airwaves. Ailes and his ilk know perfectly well that it is conservative leaders, media pundits, TV and radio personalities who are primarily the ones spreading hate speech and violent rhetoric. Liberals just don’t have the kind of money or access to as many broadcast stations as do conservatives. And what liberals have said in public, while provocative, just doesn’t reach the same level of bloodthirstiness that we’ve seen from conservatives.
But the real point here is that no amount of pleading for calm will stop the behavior. There may be a pause for a while, but I doubt it will last. The media conglomerates are just making too much money from hate speech. That has to change. Unless and until laws with teeth are put back on the books to regulate the media companies, the invective will escalate and more tragedies will happen. What should be done?
- Break up the media monopolies: There are only a handful of companies that control almost everything Americans see and hear. That means only a handful of executives (typically white and male) are dictating what kind of information is available to an increasingly diverse public. This also means that a handful of executives are using toxic radio and TV personalities to sow divisions among the citizenry just so they can try to sell us their corporate propaganda. That must end. Allowing Comcast and NBC Universal to merge is taking American media in the wrong direction.
- Give the FCC and the public more enforcement power: When President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act in 1996, the interval between renewing broadcast licenses increased from five to eight years. That should be reversed. (FCC Commissioner Michael Copps wants to reduce the period to four) In addition, broadcasters whose media personalities routinely incite violence and threaten people or groups with bodily harm should have their licenses revoked. In addition, it should be just as easy to file a challenge against a station for hate speech as it is for profane speech. We may have free speech rights, but no one has the right to own or broadcast on a radio or TV station. Broadcasting on our limited public airwaves is a privilege, and broadcasters must be held to certain standards.
- The United States must implement an independent, 100%-taxpayer-funded public broadcasting system with TV and radio stations available in every community – urban and rural. PBS and NPR, with their paltry taxpayer subsidies and commercial underwriters, just don’t cut it. We need something on par with the BBC. This new public system must have access to frequencies equally as powerful as the ones available to commercial stations. Public broadcasting systems in other Western countries have a much more expansive array of high-quality produced shows featuring culture, politics, science and documentaries. Citizens in countries with robust public broadcasting systems are exposed to a wider variety of political views and are therefore, more informed than Americans. Toxic speech must be counteracted with more diverse and better speech.
- All Americans deserve equal access to fast, affordable and high-quality broadband that is free of corporate manipulation and control.
Thanks to our First Amendment, Americans probably enjoy the most permissive free speech rights of any modern democracy. But this right is not absolute. Some are abusing the First Amendment by using the public’s airwaves to stir up hatred and division. They are profiting off the public trough and giving out only garbage in return. Extremist radio and TV commentators are not directly responsible for the political violence plaguing America today, but they have contributed to the creation of an environment of nastiness in our public discourse that can influence disturbed individuals like Jared Loughner. If this extremist speech isn’t soon ostracized from public life in the U.S., the lone, crazed gunman will morph into organized mobs hell bent on murdering political opponents and even committing genocide.
Last night, Rachel Maddow devoted her entire show to an interview with comedian and The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who explained what he was trying to accomplish with last month’s Rally to Restore Sanity. The rally, which drew more than 200,000 people to the Washington Mall, was criticized by some for being a pointless exercise rather than a call for civic engagement. Comedian Bill Maher had taken issue with Stewart’s charge that liberals and conservatives are equally to blame for the incivility of American politics today. Stewart doubles down on this belief, and goes on to comment about the corrosive effect of the 24-hour cable news cycle has on our public discourse.
I don’t agree with everything Stewart says here, but he makes a lot of good points about the problems with cable news. Stewart views himself first and foremost as an entertainer, as he should be, not a news sage or political leader. I like The Daily Show as much as anyone, but too many people turn to it as their primary source of news, when they should be getting the information they need from real news organizations, who, for the most part, are falling down on the job of exposing official corruption. Click below to watch the whole interview.
Well, last Tuesday’s elections went almost as predicted by Big Media. I say “almost,” in that even though the Democrats got creamed in the House races, they managed to barely hold onto the Senate. All year, Big Media were pretty much salivating over seeing a repeat of 1994, wherein the Democrats lost both the House and the Senate to the Republicans, a blowout many attributed to so-called liberal “overreach” on the part of then-President Clinton’s administration.
Aside from the Republicans, the corporate media were big winners in this year’s turbulent mid-terms. This election was the most expensive non-presidential election in history, with $4 billion spent by candidates. Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, independent groups were able to anonymously bankroll an onslaught of political advertising on behalf of mostly Republican candidates.
And Big Media was there to cash in. Hundreds of millions of dollars from political spots went right into the coffers of television and radio stations and cable outlets across the country. It’s no wonder that political pundits paid little attention to the corrosive effect all this advertising – much of it deceptive – had on the outcomes of the electoral races. The media barons would no doubt be the biggest obstacles to an effort to require all political advertising be free.
The corporate media is primarily interested in boosting ratings by pumping up the horse race between the Democrats and the Republicans. They are less interested in providing voters with accurate information about issues and candidates that the electorate needs to make sound decisions. Worse, we have radio and television outlets spewing propaganda 24-7, with no accountability demanded by advertisers or federal regulators. So what you end up with is a confused electorate, whose voting patterns give an unclear and distorted picture of what it is they exactly want from their representatives.
The profit motive, the quest for ratings, and false equivalency are killing the credibility and independence of the Fourth Estate in this country. They’re also killing our democracy. The mainstream media are largely to blame for a public that is increasingly ignorant and ill-equipped to make rational decisions about public policy.
The wall between news and entertainment must be restored. Journalists must stop giving fanatics, lunatics and shysters equal weight with academics, scientists and other experts in various fields. It’s time for all reporters, editors, producers and publishers to stop the “he said, she said” stories, and start informing their audiences as to who is telling the truth and who is lying. Exposing lies is not “biased,” because the truth cannot be biased. The news must become a public service again. The survival of our democracy depends on it.
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