Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Al Jazeera's Presence in the U.S.

For various reasons, ever since its founding in 2006, Al Jazeera English (AJE) has struggled to gain a foothold in the U.S. It's presence has been very limited on cable and satellite services. But it looks like times are slightly changing. As of Monday, the network is getting expanded visibility in the New York area. For 23 hours a day, New Yorkers can view AJE on the cable channel RISE, which is carried locally by Time Warner and Verizon FiOS.

In my view this is a good development. In fact, I believe all Americans who subscribe to cable/satellite should have an opportunity to watch as much or little of AJE as they desire.

To be clear, my support for an expanded presence for AJE is not an endorsement of what's said or aired on the network. My support is given because, to my estimation, wider access to AJE is in America's best interests. The more citizens who understand foreign policy issues, especially those pertaining to U.S. stakes in and relations with the Arab world, the better it is for U.S. policymaking in general and national security in particular. Put simply, individuals who are knowledgeable about foreign policy are more likely to be active in and engaged with American politics, pushing their elected officials to embrace sensible policies that deal with political and security realities.

First, let's set the record straight. AJE is not nearly as repugnant as many Americans fear. Is it to the left of the left wing of the Democratic Party? Absolutely. Is AJE pro-Arab/pro-Palestinian? Definitely. But AJE is not nearly as loathsome, not even in the same ball park, as Hezbollah (Al-Manar) or Hamas tv (Al-Aqsa).

AJE is a legitimate news organization, with some novel shows and documentaries ("People and Power," "Egypt Burning," "The Arab Awakening") anchors and reporters (Ayman Mohyeldin), and interviewers (David Frost). It has done a good job covering the Arab Spring. And AJE has a wide reach across the world. Indeed, it has four broadcast centers (including Washington, DC) and 21 additional global bureaus. 

But to be blunt, AJE is not a non-partisan source of news. Rather, it (and its sister network AJ-Arabic) is very much an activist news and broadcast organization. It takes sides on a host of issues and often puts forward an agenda. For good and bad, it frequently covers issues and events through the lens of powerless ordinary citizens. That's one reason AJE is despised by many corrupt dictatorships, especially those in the Middle East.

Second, most people who do have an opinion on AJE have never watched it or have never watched it on a regular basis. Let's give more Americans a chance to watch it so they can make an more informed decision about the station.

Third, by watching AJE, even if only occasionally, Americans will get a better feel for Arab politics, economics, and culture. Specifically, they will get to hear in-depth coverage of the debates that are ongoing in the Arab world. Moreover, they will get a sampling of the kind of information that's transmitted to Arab audiences. And with AJE's focus on the Arab citizen, at times though interviews with ordinary Arabs and at other times via direct citizen journalism, Americans are able to discover what Arab people are thinking and saying. Aren't these good things? Why should Americans rely solely on U.S. politicians or news sources to gather and disseminate this information to them, especially when both groups frequently have their own political agendas?

Oh, sure, Americans already have access to a host of English versions of foreign news web sites. But I suspect the average American will have an easier time locating AJE on their cable/satellite service than international news web sites via online search engines. Additionally, if people don't have a fast enough Internet connection, and many don't, then they won't be able to view news videos like AJE online. And lastly, given the importance of the Middle East and North Africa, which is AJE's main area of focus and expertise, to contemporary U.S. foreign policy, it's beneficial that Americans get acquainted with the AJ powerhouse.

In the end, an expansion of AJE's presence here in the States would likely lead to three different outcomes. Of course, many Americans won't tune in. And of those who do watch AJE, some will outright dismiss the programming as Arab propaganda. But another group will use the opportunity to get further insight into foreign countries. To me, however large or small that group happens to be, that's indeed a very good thing.

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