Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Al Jazeera English Shifts To Al Jazeera America: News, Quality, and A Remarkable Agenda

If you haven't been watching Al Jazeera English, you should.

Although, if you are in the U.S., for now, you can't.

Al Jazeera English (or AJE, as it is commonly known), is probably best known in the United States for its association with the "War on Terror" during the years of the Bush Administration. For those who know no more of it than this, they may have a vague sense of associations of un-American messages related to those years.

As someone who is finely tuned to the nuances of propaganda--and who had also grown tried of the increasingly intensifying drumbeat of desperation of commercial news here as it wrestles in the ambiguous struggle for survival, the constant sense of selling, dumbing down, falsity, and the shrill desire to grab eyeballs that moment--I first turned on AJE during the events of Arab Spring.

I found it to be the immediate, the most detailed and the most reliable reporter of those events. While they too were growing and changing over and since those days, it was clear that if you wanted ongoing coverage of those events, AJE was filled with on-the-ground coverage.

What increasingly emerged--and what I think has also grown with the increased attention that the network has received since that time--is the remarkably intelligent, serious quality of the network.

It produces news and original programming that is better than anything in English cable news being produced--at a much higher level of intelligence than CNN or PBS. Unlike either of these, for the most part, it does not pander. It does not assume that the news needs to be shaped in order to play to a lack of intellect or understanding. It does not--except in certain circumstances, to be discussed--sell or hype for the sheer sense of attempting to add drama, excitement and therefore extended attention to the news.

News presenters are not "personalities" in the American sense, nor do they have the complete, more icy remove of BBC presenters. Rather, they are dignified, articulate, usually female, presenting largely without inference as to personal position or belief (with one exception).  When they shift into the role of interviewers, they show intellect, knowledge of the subject, a willingness to question closely and on the facts--they shift with a degree of sharpness and usually a great degree of informed intellect on the issue at hand. There is utterly no attempt to "hype" an issue in order to draw greater viewer attention--without the commercial imperative, this simply falls away.

Its original programming is superb.  The program "Witness", an hour-long documentary series, produces some of the most keenly observed, human, perceptive documentary programming that I have seen.  Some of this is produced for Al Jazeera, while some is purchased from other production companies.  In both cases, there is a coherent mission--multiple in fact--one of which is to portray human experience with the complexity and nuance with which it occurs in life.  Whether it is Kari Ann Moe's superb documentary "Bravehearts", on the Breivik Norway shootings; a portrait of a Riga photographer, or countless other weekly efforts, the consistent level of quality is remarkable.

They seek to grasp the thought of the human mind from myriad directions--and keep trying new approaches.

A debate series from Oxford Union is one example. The debate with Richard Dawkins, rather than the pulled-punches half-questions of American programming, always fearful of offending sensibilities, was entirely absent. It was high level, an extremely well-prepared interview who had Dawkins on the run--tremendous programming, and probably the most difficult debate that Dawkins had faced. I don't think that he had expected this.

"Inside Story", one of its tent pole programs, provides multiple subject interviews on a news topic of the day, with experts chosen for authentic expertise, questions asked that do not shrink from centrality or complexity, and guests given space to give complete answers and to fully interact.

Newer efforts attempt to stay directly connected to new approaches. "The Stream", which had a bit of clunky start but now is a vital part of the network, integrates Twitter, Skype, and in-studio guests for extremely lively and informed topics of immediate concern. "Earthrise" attempts to inspire via new approaches to environmental issues.

There is a constant and consistent theme to these and other Al Jazeera programming, and it pulses through the channel as its clear purpose and mission--a remarkably nuanced, patient attempt to cause viewers to re-evaluate their current perspectives, to gently, persistently, like water against the cliffs, erode and change long held patterns of thought.

There is one particular pattern of thought that AJE addresses centrally, as its core mission, across programming: That oppressed people, removed from their land, by an unfair oppressor, should be allowed to return.

Through analogy, through portrayal of individuals, groups of all kinds, AJE constantly brings this message. And, with fair consistency--never too stridently, often by inference, but always present--is its one ideological position--that Israel is oppressing the Palestinians.

It is fair to surmise that the AJE enterprise is a remarkably brilliant, extraordinarily executed concept. Based on the realization that the only way to truly resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict is not through short-term, repeated efforts at agreement, which are always met by the same unchanged minds representing unchanged populations, but through the long-term, nuanced effort to change minds.

Never pushing too hard, which only raises resistance, provoking once again the long-held beliefs to the surface, but easing in, again and again, through analogy, through representations of the conflict through countless modalities--oppressive polluters vs. oppressed victims, Crimean refugees forced from their land seeking return--AJE appears to be based on the conclusion that the only way to bring sympathy to the Palestinian cause in a transformational form is to adopt the broad, long-term, multi-modal strategy of transforming minds.  And they wrap this message--provided again and again--in news and programming that is otherwise of extremely high quality. How could this message--their sole ideological constant--not also be true?

As such, they are a genuinely remarkable project--unmistakably an anti-Israel network, with an entire 24-hours of news and programming formed, ultimately around that purpose.  This may be the most sophisticated, nuanced propaganda that has ever been produced.

This is not to say that the network, and certainly many who work their as journalists, writers, reporters, do not have other purposes.  Certainly AJE is part and parcel of the Qatari mission to impact culture more generally--as we have seen in art, for example--and to wield influence, including influence that may affect its own fortunes (see, for example, its current series on the French-Algerian connection and the role of ELF Petroleum in French and African politics).  And there is a frustrated, angry passion, which sometimes boils over, but clearly is part of the network mission and culture not to show overtly--that media is dominated by unfair "others".

This leaves AJE as an extraordinarily enterprise. Of the highest quality--as it must be, to reinforce its view and mission. Filled with programming that, lacking the commercial imperative as it exists in the US, deals with the viewer with assumptions that they can be given intelligence, complexity, and nuance. Filled with a persistent human imperative--to pay attention to the position of the oppressed.

And with a particular vision of who the oppressed might be.

Now, as AJE departs from America, and AJA begins--today--a new mission begins.

The decision to block AJE with the start of AJA, while based primarily on cable system carriage issues, is no doubt also intended to cleanly establish the "American" image of the channel. And, indeed, they have gone to great lengths to construct an image that will both feel "American" to viewers, rather than English-International, and at the same time something new. A number of former CNN personalities--Ali Velshi, Soledad O'Brien, among others, with Tony Harris having joined AJE earlier and now working for AJA--and other familiar faces will provide new viewers with a sense of credibility, familiarity, and transition.  Even the presence of commercials--while it always does help to have someone else paying some of the bills--allows Americans who still have uncomfortable associations with Al Jazeera and the GWOT to feel as if they are in a familiar environment.

I believe that, although it will take some time, the channel will be successful--far more than its "Current" predecessor--and, as particular stories begin to break out in which they have special expertise,  bringing new viewers and gradually expanding the audience--an alternative to CNN and MSNBC with which many will be surprised.

Nonetheless, you can see what the mission is, building upon the successes that they have already achieved. And it is a similarly sweeping vision as that of AJE. No less a gamble than to transform America--through the persistent, long-term modality of a news channel. Present each day. Delivering its message to the people. With an appeal to their sense of being oppressed, of not being told the truth, of being dealt with fairly.

And with particular messages that it also wishes--slowly, patiently, with nuance, and in a multiplicity of forms, surrounded by quality, to make more normal, comfortable, acceptable, changed--believed.