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Continued: Midwest needs to hear Al Jazeera

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 19, 2011 - 7:25 PM

Despite their slogans, U.S. cable news networks' prime-time schedules have settled on an ideological spectrum.

MSNBC says "Lean Forward," but hosts Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz clearly lean left.

Fox News is "Fair and Balanced," unless you're a liberal going into the lion's den with Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly.

CNN tries to claim the middle ground as "The Worldwide Leader in News," but its two newest hosts are known more for a tabloid scandal (Eliot Spitzer) and tabloid publishing (Piers Morgan) than for global news gathering.

American audiences acknowledge, and accept, this divergence from the objective news model.

But when it comes to an international news channel that's accused of framing events through an ideological lens, cable and satellite systems have had a different standard.

Such is the case with Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar. Despite having 400 journalists from 60 countries reporting from 65 news bureaus, its English-language version is carried on only six small systems in America.

That's because of its initial image as a toxic TV option in the post-9/11 era. First came its controversial coverage of Al-Qaida -- it's usually the first to air statements from its leaders.

Then when the insurgency intensified in Iraq, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Al Jazeera "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable."

That almost completely curtailed carriage of Al Jazeera English when it launched in America in 2006. But two systems in Washington, D.C., were undaunted.

Many foreign-policy professionals in Washington, including Rumsfeld's Bush-era colleague, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, are viewers.

Last August Armitage told PBS's Charlie Rose that he watches every day, "Because it's news. I'm not interested in what Lindsay Lohan is doing."

It's likely he and other D.C. elites have watched Al Jazeera nonstop recently, riveted by images of upheaval that has toppled tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt and appears to be spreading.

American leaders aren't alone in accusing Al Jazeera of being more a provocateur than professional journalism organization. The network is the scourge of the region's repressive regimes, which have alternately tried to discredit and disconnect.

"Do not listen to foreign television and radio broadcasters whose aim is to cause chaos and weaken Egypt," Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman pleaded to protesters on the eve of President Hosni Mubarak's capitulation.

It's too late.

In Egypt and elsewhere, "Al Jazeera is more influential than any media organization, any government and any individual" in the region, said Hugh Miles, who wrote the book on the network ("Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World"). "They are the most popular channel in every Arab country, and satellite TV is the most important way that Arabs get their news."

Al Jazeera's role even supersedes social networks such as Facebook and Twitter that many credit with sparking the revolutions.

Tweets and web posts are citizen journalism that Al Jazeera builds into a broader narrative, making social media a mass message. The resulting feedback loop may not only have swelled Tunis' and Cairo's crowds, but created them in other combustible capitals like Tehran, Sana and Manama.

In the process of targeting tyrants, Al Jazeera has become a target itself: Its journalists have been attacked in Egypt, Lebanon and other Arab hot spots, including the West Bank, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused the network of trying to destroy him after it broadcast the "Palestine Papers."

The report revealed that the Palestinian Authority made deeper concessions to Israel than it had acknowledged. As a result, the Palestinian's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has resigned, and Abbas has called new elections.

Al Jazeera is a powerful transnational actor, but it's mostly missing from the American stage.This should change.

Events in the Mideast impact the Midwest, as well as every corner of our increasingly interconnected world. And pan-Arab nations will only grow in importance. The Pew Research Center recently reported that the number of Muslims worldwide will grow at twice the rate of non-Muslims over the next 20 years.

Cable and satellite systems wary over conservative backlash should instead worry about consumer backlash, as witnessed by the burgeoning "Demand Al Jazeera" campaign and the 2,500 percent surge in traffic to Al Jazeera English's website at the peak of the Cairo chaos.

Some community access stations briefly carry the feed, and it can sometimes be found on Link TV. But a permanent home is needed.

It shouldn't be too tough: Comcast estimates that many subscribers get up to 420 channels, yet when asked about Al Jazeera the cable company would only say it is constantly examining its lineup to best serve customers.

One need not approve of all of Al Jazeera's media methods to find it essential viewing.

There is some anti-Americanism on the network, and some anti-Israeli bias -- although it was the first Arab network to invite Israelis to appear, as it did with Hamas and Hezbollah and other political actors at odds with Arab monarchs and presidents.

But just as viewers can decode MSNBC, Fox and CNN, they can decipher Al Jazeera English. To truly understand events in the Middle East, it's important to have the key communications tools.

Just ask the experts. Over the last year, the Star Tribune has editorialized about Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel-Palestine and Pakistan-India.

Elites from a fleet of think tanks were consulted, and each acknowledged Al Jazeera as an incredibly influential voice in a region that itself is speaking up, loudly.

Al Jazeera's role in recording, amplifying and at times orchestrating the news shouldn't be a reason for it not to be carried. Indeed, it's the reason it should be seen.

The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter @rashreport.

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