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Al Jazeera Finds a Home

Al Gore and his partners stumble into an act of genuine public service.

Al Jazeera, the Qatar goverment-funded news channel, has purchased Al Gore’s Current TV cable channel, which means it will soon be available to 40 million more American viewers than at present. This is excellent news –not that Al Jazeera is so good–though it sometimes is–but because much of American TV coverage of the Mideast is so bad. I’ve been on this case before: two years ago, when much of the world was riveted by Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian revolution, I was stunned to discover that the overwhelming majority of American cable viewers, with hundreds of channels to choose from, couldn’t access the one station providing hour after hour of live coverage from Egypt. Comcast, my provider, has room for about two dozen channels devoted to various kinds of porn–but a spokesman said the station had “limited bandwidth to devote to new channels…especially if it’s perceived as a ‘niche’ service.”

The rap against Al Jazeera is that it is “anti-American”–indeed it was explicitly called that by some in the Bush administration: this was apparently sufficient to persuade America’s cable operators to shield the easily offended or easily duped psyches of American patriots from the channel.

A few small points. First there is no reason why any sort of national loyalty oath should be required of television stations. The idea is simply Soviet.

Secondly, yes, important neoconservatives did try to smear opponents of the Iraq war as anti-American, but it now seems pretty clear that the war’s proponents had a far less solid sense of this country’s interests than the anti-war opposition. Indeed, one could argue that there is nothing more “anti-American” than ongoing neoconservative efforts to push the United States into expending more of its blood and treasure in launching  aggressive wars against various Mideast countries–and yet war-mongering neocons are all over the TV news. We ought to have learned enough from the last go-round not to conflate “pro-American” with war-mongering jingoism.

Finally, Al Jazeera can be quite good. I don’t watch it often. But, for instance this show — a talky analysis of media coverage of Israel’s recent war on Gaza–was considerably better than anything I could find on the same subject on True Red White and Blue American TV.  (I was writing about the issue, so had to do a fairly thorough search.) We have learned, or ought to have, from bitter experience that what passes as an “American” perspective, particularly in the Middle East, can be so narrow as to be simply false.

Al Gore and his partners were motivated first of all by profit–they will walk off with a tidy sum from the sale. But they have, probably inadvertently, stumbled into an act of genuine public service by giving millions of Americans access to more viewpoints and information about the world than they now receive. When one third of Americans are reported to still believe that Saddam Hussein was “personally” involved in the World Trade Center attacks, that can’t be anything but a good thing.