Why America Needs Al Jazeera
Time Warner’s decision to drop the Middle Eastern news channel is short-sighted, says Ambassador Patrick N. Theros.
I, for one, was delighted to learn this week that Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera had purchased Al Gore’s Current TV in a savvy move to bring the Middle East’s most popular news channel to 40 million American homes. After previous efforts to enter the U.S. market had largely been blocked by misguided politics, a healthy dose of post 9-11 Islamophobia, and a general lack of knowledge about the Middle East and the role of Al Jazeera, the channel’s entry into mainstream America will finally help fill a large gap in the public’s understanding of the two thirds of the world which remains—short of conflict and controversy—underreported by most media in this country.
But not so fast. A day after the Current TV deal was announced, Time Warner Cable, which carried Current, said it would drop the new channel from its roster. Despite the ongoing political developments in the greater Middle East/North Africa region unfolding before our eyes, Time Warner has decided the channel is bad for business. This is the channel that Muammar Gaddafi cursed in his waning days and that Hosni Mubarak physically attacked for its role in bringing transparency to Egypt’s popular uprisings and vicious crackdowns.
Al Jazeera changed the very nature of news reporting from the Arab world and from what many refer to as the "global south." As the first uncensored satellite channel in the Arab World, Al Jazeera reported widely dissenting news that put the lie to the sycophantic broadcasts of the region’s state-owned radio and television monopolies. It appeared to me that the first Arab network to spread democratic principles and free speech would be accepted with open arms in the U.S.
Time Warner’s decision, however, effectively blocks access to the channel for about 12 million American homes. The decision deprives a large segment of the American public of a whole new spectrum of domestic and international news reporting that has already won major international awards and acclaim.
Despite this setback, the purchase of Current TV presents Al Jazeera with an enormous opportunity. I am confident that it will open a new window in American news reporting equal to the best of current American news media. Americans will see high-quality, award-winning journalism and a badly needed alternative perspective. Although based in the Middle East, Al Jazeera can give Americans access to regions, opinions and perspectives that current American media have ignored. It will provide this unique service at a critical time in the Middle East’s political and social transition. In short, we should celebrate journalistic diversity in our country and not scorn it.
Al Jazeera has battled similar politics and resistance since its founding and is accustomed to a tough fight. I should know: I was the U.S. ambassador to Qatar at its inception, when the channel instantly attracted the wrath of repressive regimes across the region and even complaints from Washington for rocking the boat.
Al Jazeera, however, has faced down the opposition to become a media powerhouse and the voice of the region. I have no doubt that it will overcome the small-minded ignorance that seeks to block its entry into the U.S. Al Jazeera deserves a place on the U.S. broadcasting spectrum. More important, the American viewer deserves the opportunity to experience the network’s high-quality, uniquely positioned look at the Middle East and the world.