Al Jazeera’s English-language channel launched yesterday as (AJE) Al-Jazeera English, not Al-Jazeera International as previously hyped. While viewers around the world were able to watch the glossy production on their televisions via satellite and cable, Americans for the most part could only see it in 15-minute free streams on the Web, or uninterrupted with a monthly subscription.
CJR Daily tuned in for the first 10 hours. While the experience did not turn us into Holy Warriors, there were a number of messages — some subtle, others less so — that caught our eye:
Yesterday on AJE, Africa was not one monolithic continent evoked by hardscrabble savannahs and children with distended bellies. Rather, AJE presented an Africa of individual countries with individual realities. Those differences were made accessible to viewers through stories with human faces and voices: an interview with Joseph Kabila, who was elected president of the Democratic Republic of Congo; a conversation with people in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe who sit in their cars for seven days for a tank of gas; a Sudanese mother in a refugee camp who is missing her garden of okra and tomatoes; a profile of the founder of a non-profit that trains teenage girls to be car mechanics in Nigeria.
While the accents were for the most part British, the faces and names of the AJE cast yesterday came from all over the world. One consequence? No one bungled “foreign” names and places. One segment on Sudan that was repeated throughout the day was filed by a correspondent who was an African woman. This may be a first for U.S. news consumers, and what a difference from the typical white, female reporter who is invariably posed against a backdrop of war-ravaged or impoverished or disease-stricken Africans. In one visual frame the monolithic nature with which we see African women was no longer tenable because an African woman was cast as both reporter and subject.
Palestinians Suffer, Too
AJE carried the breaking news as Israel retaliated for the death of an Israeli woman by hitting Gaza, but it also had a segment on the devastation in Gaza caused by the withholding of crucial international funding in the wake of Hamas’s victory in elections; a story on a day in the life of a Palestinian ambulance driver; and Riz Khan talking separately with Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, and Shimon Peres, Israel’s deputy prime minister. Also, each time correspondents mentioned the Israeli woman who was killed, they also noted that she was the first Israeli casualty in six months of rocket attacks on southern Israel launched from Gaza, and that in the same period Palestinians had suffered 350 casualties at the hands of Israelis.
Several spots hammered home what AJE seems to hope will be its brand: “Every angle, every side.” These house ads included multiple images of world leaders, from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to Condoleeza Rice, each with different questions hovering above the image: “Deceptive?” “Role Model?” “Next President?” Then the words, “every angle, every side” appear next to the delicate Arabic filigreed calligraphy of Al-Jazeera’s logo. Similarly, another ad flashed the number of kilotons of ozone-depleting emissions that various countries produce, while still another flashed the sizes of countries’ nuclear arsenals. The kicker on that one, after flashing the names of countries with considerable stockpiles (i.e. Russia, Israel, India) was “Korea: 1? Iran: 0?” Not subtle, but rather effective in forcing viewers to consider the possibility of another side, another angle.
And in what was perhaps the best first-day advertising AJE could ever have hoped for, both Haniya and Peres prefaced their remarks to Riz Khan by congratulating the network for launching in English. One of Al Jazeera Arabic’s trademarks has been its interviews with Israeli officials, who often can only communicate to Arabic speakers through AJA. While Peres mostly spun the official Israeli line yesterday, he appeared unscripted when he said, rather poignantly, that he was glad to be on Al-Jazeera English and that maybe in English Israelis and Palestinians can better talk peace where they had failed in “the other two languages.”
Whenever referring to Israel’s claims that it would retaliate against the “terror organizations” that had launched the rocket attacks, AJE inserted “so-called” before terror. And in spots for another program, the announcer referred to Bush’s “alleged war on terror.” For better or worse, such tactics put these loaded terms back up for debate, indicating — accurately — that there are different perspectives across the globe on what such words and phrases mean, and how objective they are. However, a spot for a show called “Inside Iraq” crossed a line from challenging commonly accepted language to imposing AJE’s own language when it characterized the sectarian violence plaguing Iraq as being in “a spirit of defiance.”
We Are the World
The shifting focus of the broadcast, from Kuala Lumpur to Doha to London to Washington, is novel and makes the world seem a more connected place. It demonstrates in just seconds how the day’s events are in fact digested, experienced, and viewed differently across the world. Depending on who’s in primetime, that regional broadcast center becomes the network’s headquarters with the other three weighing in more like bureaus. But at the top of each hour, AJE checks in with each center for the top stories out of Asia, the Middle East/Africa, Europe, and the Americas. When it was time to hear from the Americas, AJE led with a story from Brazil—no doubt to make the point that the Americas span well beyond the U.S., and to force viewers to redefine the centrality of the U.S. not only in understanding world affairs but also those of the western hemisphere. The point was well taken, though the choice of an evergreen story on suicidal Amazonians was disappointing, especially when Mexico legalized gay unions, for example.
The question posed on a show called “Everywoman,” in a segment about the damaging effect on women’s health of skin bleaching creams that are popular in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, was arguably the best illustration of why AJE will be so different than CNN or other U.S.-based networks. The host asked her two guests, one an African academic in Canada, the other a south Asian dermatologist in the UK, “Why is whiteness so desirable?” While the issue is sometimes explored in women’s studies classes on university campuses, or with much less sophistication on the Tyra Banks Show, we bet that particular question is not about to cross Paula Zahn’s lips anytime soon. Yet the question set off a fascinating discussion which was hardly esoteric: These creams, though banned in Europe, are still allowed to be manufactured there and marketed to the developing world’s women who are conditioned to believe that lighter skin will bring better jobs or better yet, better marriage prospects.
Arabs Are Fun
The first episode of AJE’s travel show “48” (as in 48 hours in a city) was on Damascus, the capital of Syria, a charter member of the Axis of Evil. And the pretty correspondent, Amanda Palmer, was happily whisked around the city by an even prettier, young, Syrian man. Who knew evil could be so handsome and fun-loving? And if that weren’t enough, we also got to meet a Syrian rock group, complete with long ponytails for the guys and a sexy female lead. Palmer also joined a group of mixed-religion Syrian girlfriends for a girls night out, where they bemoaned the disadvantageous ratio of women to men; traveled through the abandoned but preserved Jewish Quarter; toured an Iraqi refugee neighborhood; and attended Good Friday services, the most solemn and important of the Eastern Christian calendar. Regrettably, when her handsome escort called it “Great Friday,” Palmer broke into giggles as Syrian Christians carrying candles moved in a funeral march mourning the crucified Jesus. (Riz Khan, meanwhile, featured a highlight from an upcoming show on the Fourth Annual Arab-American Comedy Festival in NYC.)
Granted, it was only AJE’s first 10 hours, and given that the Emir of Qatar is bankrolling the operation there will likely be many, many more to come, regardless of whether it’s a commercial success. (Regarding the Emir, note to AJE: At one point the Emir’s address to the European Parliament was featured as a news item. Whether or not it was a significant enough news event is debatable; however, AJE should have noted it was the same Emir who is its benefactor, much as CNN always discloses Time Warner is its parent company when reporting on the corporation.)
Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.
Still, the most regrettable thing about AJE is the fact that it’s not available on our TV screens. That is due, in part, to U.S. cable companies’ fears of being associated with a news operation that has been labeled (wrongly, we say) a mouthpiece for al Qaeda. CJR leaves it to its readers to watch and judge for themselves.