As street protests toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, many Americans turned to Al-Jazeera English for the most comprehensive, informed coverage of those historic developments.
But they mostly weren't watching the channel on television. That's right--perhaps the best television coverage of the uprising in Egypt wasn't available on your TV set.
Of course, you could still watch live broadcasts of Egyptians standing up against U.S.-supported dictator Hosni Mubarak on standard network channels. Journalists from CNN and CBS have bravely reported from the protests in Tahrir Square. But to many media watchers, Al-Jazeera English (AJE) is setting the standard, offering viewers a chance to hear more from Egyptian activists and experts and less from U.S politicians, pundits, and former government officials. (Not to worry: If you really wanted to know what Henry Kissinger thought, public television's Charlie Rose had you covered.)
Since the Egyptian uprising began, Al-Jazeera English has reported an impressive 2,000 percent increase in web traffic. That's proof, if one needed any, that many Americans are starving for a cable news channel that covers international affairs through a non-U.S. biased lens.
So why can't you watch great TV news on, you know, television?
It's mostly politics. The Arabic-language channel Al-Jazeera has been maligned as an al-Qaeda propaganda outlet and a purveyor of vile anti-Semitism. That's a gross misrepresentation and has nothing to do with what you’ll see on that network. The English version, in any case, maintains editorial independence from its Arabic counterpart. The distinction is akin to the difference between CNN and CNN International or a national network and its local affiliates.
Many Americans' first exposure to Al-Jazeera came during the Iraq War. To discredit its news and commercial value, Bush administration officials repeatedly attacked the channel, making it unlikely a cable company would choose to carry the network. Viewers, of course, should be able to judge AJE’s political slant for themselves. Cable companies claim there's no room on the dial. That's a funny excuse, since most viewers receive a staggering number of channels they have no intention of ever watching.
All of this gets to the heart of one big problem with cable television--something that's rarely talked about. In most areas of the country you can't watch Al-Jazeera English. But you do get Fox News Channel. And if you're like most people, you don't watch it--and don't plan on starting anytime soon. It's a good bet that the actual viewing audience for Fox News is smaller than the number of folks who are disgusted by Fox's far-right bloviating and fear-mongering.
Nonetheless, Fox News Channel is very profitable. How? Part of the answer is that we all pay for it. That's right--even you non-Fox viewers are making a contribution to Rupert Murdoch's media empire, helping to pay the salaries of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly.
How? Cable companies make carriage arrangements with big providers like Murdoch--business deals that stipulate how much a cable company must pay to carry a given channel. While Fox News cultivated its conservative audience, Fox’s parent News Corp aggressively negotiated with the cable companies. And so, the price of carrying Fox News Channel rose.
According to some media industry analysts, cable operators send Fox almost 60 cents per subscriber per month, whether the subscribers are Fox viewers or not. Do the math, and you begin to see how much money they're making. Fox is already more expensive than CNN and MSNBC, and they're warning that they want a raise from the cable companies this year.
So you can't watch Al-Jazeera English on cable, but part of your monthly check to the cable company goes to support the news brought by Rupert Murdoch. Think of it as a Fox News tax. In the meantime, viewers and activists are mobilizing to bring AJE to U.S. TV screens.
Given that we have to pay for a daily dose of Glenn Beck--whether we want it or not--allowing viewers the chance to watch an actual news channel doesn't seem like too much to ask.