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A New Al Jazeera With a Global Focus

Hassan M. Fattah, NY Times
Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel that began a decade ago as an upstart, has became a thorn in the side of every dictator in the region as well as of the Bush administration.

Critics call it radical; its admirers lionize it. And the network continues to battle accusations that it is sympathetic to Al Qaeda and other extremists.

Several of its reporters have been jailed – one is in prison in Spain for ties to Al Qaeda – and its offices have been shut in almost every major Arab country at some point, and bombed by American aircraft in two wars.

Now, Al Jazeera’s journalists are working to transform the channel into a conglomerate with global reach.

By the end of the year, Al Jazeera will have news channels in Arabic and English, a pan-Arab newspaper, Web sites and blogs, sports and children’s outlets, and even a channel modeled after C-Span.

The network (it turned 10 on Nov. 1) is also looking to extend its sphere of influence beyond the Arab world. On Wednesday, it will start the English-language Al Jazeera International, its most ambitious initiative yet, which will go on the air from Asia to the United States.

The channel will broadcast from network hubs in Qatar, London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, offering news, talk and documentaries that its managing director, Nigel Parsons, said would have a decidedly different tone than on established Western channels.

In effect, Al Jazeera International intends to become for the developing world what Al Jazeera became to the Arab world: a champion of forgotten causes, a news organization willing to take the contrarian view and to risk being controversial.

“We want to be a channel that covers the untold stories,” Mr. Parsons said by telephone from Qatar. “We would be anchored in the Middle East, but we intend to cover the developing world fully.”

To do that, he said, Al Jazeera will use Asian reporters to cover Asia, and will have Africans talking about Africa, “rather than having instant experts land there and tell us a story.”

The channel has signed prominent journalists, including the host and commentator David Frost; the former BBC correspondent Rageh Omar, and a onetime CNN anchor, Riz Khan, as well as numbers of producers and reporters from Western networks and some unknowns with a decidedly international look.

“We will carry on the tradition of showing the ugly side of conflict,” Mr. Parsons said. “War has been too sanitized in the media.”

…“People are too concerned about how it will do in the United states, but I don’t think it matters,” said Marc Lynch, a political science professor at Williams College and author of “Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al Jazeera and Middle East Politics Today.”

“Al Jazeera,” he said, “has this huge untapped market around the world where people have English as a first or second language.”

This is a world increasingly skeptical of American intentions and frustrated with American foreign policy.
(12 Nov 2006)
Related coverage at the Guardian and elsewhere.

Several interesting things about this development. First, it’s another sign of oil wealth being transmuted into political and intellectual influence. How will this new Al Jazeera service cover peak oil?

Second, it’s an effort toward balancing North vs South. Most people in the global South (aka Third World) get their news from US and European sources. In trying to cover energy issues, we’ve found that it’s far easier to get information on the US, England and Australia than on the Third World. Sadly, the Third World will be affected to a much greater extent by Peak Oil and global warming.

Third, it’s another sign of declining US influence. US broadcast journalism has been declining in seriousness and depth, with only occasional exceptions. The political tendentiousness of much US broadcasting is out of step with the rest of the world.

The Death of News

Nicholas von Hoffman, The Nation
…While reporters are not yet as scarce as hen’s teeth, there are far fewer of them than there used to be. Here is an instance brought to us by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, one of those high-toned outfits that studies the state of things and issues reports: “There are roughly half as many reporters covering metropolitan Philadelphia, for instance, as in 1980. The number of newspaper reporters there has fallen from 500 to 220. The pattern at the suburban papers around the city has been similar, though not as extreme. The local TV stations, with the exception of Fox, have cut back on traditional news coverage. The five AM radio stations that used to cover news have been reduced to two. As recently as 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer had 46 reporters covering the city. Today it has 24.”
(15 Nov 2006)
Only the latest in a series of articles about the declining fortunes of traditional new media such as newspapers and broadcasting. For people concerned about peak oil and global warming, this is a problem. The traditional media are at least a semi-independent source of information. Without them, the field is wide open for overt propaganda through channels controlled directly by corporations, government and pressure groups. Yes, bloggers and independent web sites are a nice contrary voice — but we rely on the mainstream news — we can’t go it alone. -BA

The truth is out there … somewhere

Will Hutton, The Observer
The more ‘facts’ the burgeoning media give us, the further away we are from genuine insight

Information is everywhere. A couple of clicks of your mouse and via Google or Wikipedia, you can check out anything pretty much instantaneously. Last week, even the Chinese government gave up its futile blocking of the Wikipedia website, while British citizens can now watch an English-language version of al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV station. If you want a counterweight to the West’s view of Islam, terrorism, Iran and the Middle East conflict, here it is.

Thus the paradox. So much information seems to mean its degradation. As the websites, podcasts and narrowcast television channels multiply, it becomes easier to find information that suits your prejudices or, at least, is cast in a context that suits your prejudices.

…Pessimists say that we are living in an era in which objectivity is collapsing, in which the avalanche of information becomes the excuse not to seek after the truth, but, rather, to seek for what you want to be true. The greater this appetite and the greater the capacity to meet it, the more powerful have become those whose trade is fashioning information to meet our demands – the media – with little or no accompanying rise in their accountability.

…The pessimists are right except in one respect – they underestimate the ability of individuals collectively to want to understand, notwithstanding their prejudices and beliefs, and, thus, ultimately the power of truth to win out.

…I have been a pessimist in the way the media have developed over the last few decades but paradoxically, the freedom to express this pessimism is one of the very forces that may create some self-correction. The Chinese could not resist Wikipedia. The Western media, in the last resort, cannot resist the demand that we should be able to trust them – as long as there are honest voices prepared to be self-critical and media leaders prepared to hear. The battle, at least, has begun. And the ammunition is information.
(19 Nov 2006)
Also posted at Common Dreams.

America’s Media Bubble

Lawrence Pintak, Boston Globe
CAIRO — The United States no longer controls the script. That’s a reality Democratic congressional leaders must digest as they seek to recast America’s relationship with the world.

There used to be a time when the US media wrote the global narrative. The world saw itself through a largely American camera lens. No more. This week’s launch of al-Jazeera International, the English speaking cousin to the channel the Bush administration loves to hate, is just the latest reminder of that.

US foreign policy is being reflected through a blinding array of prisms. Yet America continues to pursue an analogue communications strategy in a digital age.

Just look at the satellite landscape. Here in the Middle East, we can watch more than 300 channels, from Hezbollah’s al-Manar (labeled a terrorist organization by the United States) to Fox News (which, to borrow Fox’s favorite line, “some people say” is the moral equivalent). Turkey, India, Singapore — wherever you look overseas, all-news satellite channels are de rigueur. Tri lingual France 24 launches in a few weeks to bring “French values” to global coverage. China has a channel. Russia Today will soon broadcast in Arabic. Latin America now has a continent-wide all-news channel. Africans are also talking about one. And then, of course, there’s the Internet.
(19 Nov 2006)
Also posted at Common Dreams.