Few things could be more anti-American – and anti-free market – than the effort to keep Al Jazeera English off the air.
Al-Jazeera English recently entered into talks with cable giants Comcast and Time Warner, giving many U.S. news consumers hope that they will soon have greater choice in international news. But the move has alarmed some conservatives and prompted a petition to keep the news network out of American living rooms.
In a country that prides itself on being the world’s leading defender of free expression, the debate over whether or not Americans should be allowed to decide for themselves to watch Al Jazeera English is more than a bit surreal.
Why would one of the world’s largest democratic nations – especially one that is so deeply involved in the international community – be one of the few remaining countries that, with the exception of three cities, wilfully shuts itself off from a respected and vital source of global news?
Even in Israel, AJE is available and widely watched. So why not in the U.S.?
Read more: Al Jazeera Rising
AJE has created quite a stir with its coverage of the events currently underway in the Arab world. Most reviewers in U.S. and international newspapers have lavishly praised AJE for the quality and balance of its reporting. And there should be no mystery as to why this is so. As the only international news organization with journalists throughout the region since well before this “Arab Spring” began, AJE has been able to provide unique and comprehensive coverage that has captured both the drama and the context of the wider story.
Not surprisingly, millions of Americans have responded to this, indicating that they see these crucial events as central to U.S. national interests, and that they are intensely passionate about learning more about them.
But the major U.S. national cable and satellite distributors have so far refused to carry AJE. In a network of hundreds of television channels – many of them barely watched – it seems that, so far at least, there is no room for another international news channel.
What’s odd about this is that there is a clear and widespread American appetite for AJE.
Millions of Americans have sought out AJE’s coverage through its online streaming. At the beginning of the Egyptian revolt, AJE’s web traffic jumped by 2,500 per cent, and most of that viewership was from the U.S.
In addition to the three American cities that currently broadcast AJE 24/7 (Washington, D.C.; Burlington, Vermont; and Toledo, Ohio), AJE has made its signal available to American broadcasters in many other cities and towns, and most have reported extremely high viewing audiences for these programs. As well, more than 50,000 Americans have flooded their local cable and satellite carriers with demands that AJE be included in their broadcast line-ups.
So what’s the issue here? Why would an award-winning, international news-channel that is currently viewed worldwide in more than 220 million households in 110 countries not be widely available in the U.S.?
The answer becomes clear when we look at the petition being organized for Comcast; the revealing clue is found in who is organizing it.
Accuracy in Media is a marginal and tiny outfit with a dubious reputation for promoting a narrow and often racist political agenda. It traffics in lies and distortions about all sorts of media – including Al Jazeera – that conflict with its own biased worldview. Accuracy in Media is rarely challenged in mainstream U.S. media, but is that really surprising?
The distortions in this petition are too numerous to list fully, but here are two examples:
Accuracy in Media writes about “Al Jazeera’s shameful reluctance” to cover the recent arrest of a Qatari blogger, despite the fact that AJE gave a full TV news report with details of the story, led a current-affairs interview on the subject, and covered the story on its website. AJE has also given extensive coverage to anti-government protests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, two countries that are allies of Qatar.
Accuracy in Media also alleges that AJE “covered up the sexual assault on CBS News reporter Lara Logan,” which is a truly offensive accusation. Al Jazeera’s journalists and crews, because of their fearless reporting, have experienced far more physical harassment, pressure, and interference than anyone else covering this story. The tragic climax of this abuse came this week with the premeditated murder of Al Jazeera cameraman AIi Hassan Al-Jaber in Libya.
From the beginning, Al Jazeera’s policy has been to focus not on the journalists who are willingly taking these risks, but on the thousands of innocent civilians in the Middle East who have been injured or killed during this period. One can disagree with this approach, but to distort the motivation behind it is shameless, and is obviously politically motivated.
In loose and alarmist language, Accuracy in Media also attempts to associate AJE with a spectre of anti-Americanism and damage to U.S. national security.
The underlying premise of this petition is that if you can’t win your argument in a free and fair debate among the American public at large, then do what you can – however dishonestly – to smother and disparage all dissent. And that is anti-American and undemocratic in the most profound sense.
Furthermore, keeping Americans in the dark about what is really happening abroad so as to further one’s own narrow, political self-interest is as clear an attack on U.S. national security as one can imagine.
But I don’t believe this trick will work for long. As we navigate our way through this challenging and historic period, I think the vast majority of Americans – and their cable and satellite companies – are now too smart to swallow this nonsense. Americans want to decide for themselves what news channels to follow.
But stay tuned to see whether they will be allowed to.