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.