Al Jazeera America debuted its first batch of original programming last night, to some fanfare, slightly more catcalls, and many technical glitches. It didn't air as widely as it could have, in part because of disputes with carriers. I hope these get worked out in the network's favor, because it deserves wide viewing: it's the news channel Americans deserve.
The network is Al Jazeera's first channel intended for an American audience, and the promotions run during advertising breaks betrayed some insecurity about how that audience might view journalism ultimately produced by, you know, non-Americans. (Al Jazeera is headquartered in Qatar and its parent company is run by Qatar's former minister of information.) These promotions featured many smiling white people, and some people who were not white, but all Americans: they stated their names, hometowns, and gave a brief sketch of why they worked for Al Jazeera (hint: because journalism!). Imagine MSNBC's fidgety "Lean Forward" ads on the proper ADHD medication.
Indeed, the most immediate difference between Al Jazeera America and every other US news channel is its pace. It is not quite the leisurely stroll through conventional wisdom of the PBS News Hour, nor the dry-murmur-of-pages-turning-punctuated-by-crazy of C-Span. It is something entirely new to cable news: it is considered.
It looks and feels, for the most part, like the kind of cable news you're used to watching – but if you linger on the channel for any length of time, you'll notice something: the topic hasn't changed since you touched the remote. Stick around a little longer and you'll see the filmed segment you just saw followed up by an interview with an expert on the topic, who delves deeper into the topic – and maybe criticizes the report. (This happened with a segment on new cancer treatments with the hyperbolic headline – in an echo of typical cable coverage – "Cancer Cure?" A scientist, who spoke using scientific terms, talked about how the treatment was tantalizing, but then he downplayed the whole "cure" angle, as he should.)
This amount of contextualized information is disorienting to an average viewer. Indeed, I am personally so used to the blink-and-miss-it "debate rounds" of the other networks, I got frustrated by @ajam's sparing uses of identifying banners. The same person would be talking for minutes at a time, saying good things, but the chyron below them had moved on from name and organization to details about, gosh, the topic at hand and stuff. "Who was that again?"
There will be debates about the bias of Al Jazeera's coverage – Glenn Beck has already called it "the voice of the enemy" – but what's remarkable about it is, in fact, the use of the medium and not the necessarily the message. I would be talking about bias right now if I could, but chiefly, the programs presented information that was new to me. I wasn't thinking about the motivations of the network as a whole so much as I was, "Huh, didn't know that." This is an area of journalism other networks might consider exploring.
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The network's flagship news program, "America Tonight", opted to cover a mere five stories: the Egyptian protests and government crack-down as filmed mostly via cellphone by an on-the-scene reporter. The miserable conditions in the Orleans Parish Prison. The cholera epidemic in Haiti. The aforementioned experimental cancer treatment. And, the "softest" story of the bunch, a rare moment of optimism in Detroit, where an entrepreneurial young woman has parlayed a design-class project into a small factory employing the formerly homeless to make coats for the homeless.
None of these stories is that remarkable in and of itself – the Egyptian footage was an amazing "get", but contained no scoops; tarted up a bit and trimmed, they'd be at home on any channel. What's revolutionary about the show is what wasn't in it: no mention of "Obamacare" (indeed, I'm not sure there was a mention of Obama, specifically). No mention of rodeo clowns, or Ted Cruz's birth certificate, or Hillary. Nothing about gun control or Trayvon Martin, either. Nor voting rights, gay rights and the Olympics, nor the Tea Party.
It's as if the producers: a) knew that the first primaries for 2016 were a year away; and b) understood that some topics, while worthwhile, had not further evolved since they were last discussed. While there was a suspicious lack of "America" to the stories on "America Tonight", what stories did run bore more relevance to the contemporary lives of average Americans than anything on the other networks.
Oh, and for the record, these were the topics other major news networks led with: defunding Obamacare (Fox News), Dick Van Dyke's car crash (CNN) and North Carolina voting law (MSNBC). There is one network that looks good on that list, but none of them exactly was breaking news.
Good job, ajam.