Come On, Al Jazeera English

Election-night coverage another disappointment

There was something almost forlorn about Al Jazeera English’s coverage of the U.S. election Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. It was a bit like watching a local college TV station try to compete with the big boys—no matter how hard they try, it’s just not the real thing.

Make no mistake, AJE is not supposed to be CNN. Its mission is very different from that of the other English-language global news channels: to consider things through the prism of the developing world. By that measure, it failed, and what it did produce just wasn’t very good.

Where CNN was, literally, beaming holographs of its correspondents onto a set worthy of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, AJE anchors Ghida Fakhry and David Foster sat huddled in their coats on a rooftop overlooking the White House, looking like they wished someone would bring them a hot chocolate.

More important, there was a strange lack of gravitas to the AJE election team. Correspondent Rob Reynolds, a U.S. network veteran who has done an excellent job covering Obama, continued to produce yeoman work from Chicago. But where was everyone else? It was like the A-team had the day off. Random people would occasionally pop up – Josh Rushing made a cameo from Texas; we briefly saw Mike Hanna – but there was no continuity, no sense of a whole, no sign that AJE was taking this event seriously. Or that coverage had been planned with any vision.

CNN benefited from what it endlessly told us is “the best political team on television,” and the BBC tapped experts such as Ted Koppel and former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton. AJE, meanwhile, depended for analysis almost solely on former CNN White House correspondent Charles Bierbauer – brought back from obscurity in academia – and, a bit bizarrely, had U.S. political blogger John Nichols on the cavernous and seemingly abandoned set in Doha (yes, Doha, as in Qatar, 8,000 miles from the story), where Kamahl Santamaria was struggling with the slow and – in contrast to ones deployed by CNN and the BBC – dated-looking electoral map on the video wall (that they were not in the U.S. was never overtly acknowledged during my channel surfing).

Bierbauer, the dean of journalism at the University of South Carolina, and Nichols, a contributing editor at The Nation, both know their stuff. But during my lengthy viewing of the channel, the audience never had any way to know that. No onscreen ID, no verbal intro, nada. I had to Google Nichols to figure out who he was.

Meanwhile, AJE just didn’t advance the story. Where the other channels looked forward in their coverage, AJE seemed stuck in a time-warp. While other channels were making projections, the lower third on the AJE screen told us, “Economy top concern for voters.” No kidding.

On CNN, correspondents around the country interviewed top campaign officials; big-name political operatives, like Democratic consultant James Carville, parsed voter patterns in obscure corners of Ohio for their significance. The BBC roundtable explained developments in language the global audience could absorb. Meanwhile, AJE’s field reporters focused on yesterday’s news, endlessly asking McCain and Obama supporters why they voted for their candidate. Or the channel aired pre-cooked features on things like blacks in the U.S. struggling to get by. Been there, done that, guys; let’s move on.

Barnaby Phillips, one of AJE’s star correspondents, must have felt like screaming that at the executive producer – if there was one. Across the broadcast spectrum, the historic night pulsated with excitement. Other correspondents were shouting to make themselves heard over the roar of the crowd while poor Phillips stood all evening in front of some sort of government building in Columbus, Ohio, with nary a human being in sight. Boorrring. Actual exchange at 8:20 a.m. EST: “What’s happening, Barnaby?” “Not much…”

At times, it all had the feel of a Jerry Lewis Telethon. The low point came when Foster urged viewers to e-mail their friends in the U.S. to tell them to watch online. Memo to staff: Don’t beg.

With the exception of the anchor Fakhry and a few two-ways with Latin America correspondent Lucia Newman in Miami, the team was largely white, male, and British or American. A woman reporter with Goldilocks hair and an Eastern European accent, who I can only guess must have been an intern to whom they tossed a mike, did make a brief appearance from Chicago early in the evening, but she then disappeared. Another woman with an indeterminate accent and breathless Gee-whiz-I’m-covering-the-election delivery popped in occasionally from Phoenix (who are these people?). But they were bit players in an Anglo-dominated cast.

My viewing companions—media professionals all—and I frequently found ourselves cringing in sympathetic embarrassment. At 7:05 p.m. EST, AJE rolled out a “Breaking News” graphic and we waited on the edge of our seats for a major development, only to be told by anchor Foster that it was “too early to call” Virginia. That’s breaking news? Moments later, they cut to Doha, where Santamaria parroted the catchphrase “the world is watching” as he stood in front of the video wall projecting a variety of generic “international” scenes. Unfortunately, several of those monitors contained nothing but color bars.

Technology aside, the most disappointing aspect of the coverage was that AJE did not play to its strengths. For the most part, we didn’t see “the world watching.” Where were those “global voices?” Where was that multinational corps of correspondents around the world? Having live correspondent whip-arounds may be a contrived device, but it does make good TV – and would have emphasized AJE’s supposed global perspective.
Why no roundtable of foreign ambassadors or international editors providing analysis from Washington? What about a panel of former foreign ministers? Why no live shots from election-viewing parties in Harare and Katmandu or a few presidential palaces? No matter how knowledgeable, four or five individuals cannot carry twelve hours of coverage. It’s unfair to them and to us.

At very least, why weren’t the overseas broadcast centers leveraged? London and Malaysia were AWOL. Instead of live interviews with global newsmakers, we got three quick, canned sound bites – “World Leaders Comment” – from former (not even current) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, former (not even current) UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, and some guy from the “Re-Liberating Front” of Somalia (when was Somalia liberated in the first place?). They were recycled several times and looked like a product of the promotions department.

There were a couple of efforts that worked: a rooftop interview with experts in Beijing and a conversation with Afghan political figures in Kabul after the Obama victory was confirmed were effective, even if the Kabul segment looked like it was coming from a carpet shop (a conversation with the same group earlier in the evening had been mired in internal Afghan politics and way off the mark). A high point was a two-way with Bob Fisk, the Beirut-based correspondent for The Independent, who gave a no-BS assessment of what an Obama victory meant for the Middle East. Where was that same analysis from New Delhi, Jakarta, Moscow, and Buenos Aires?

Meanwhile, why weren’t the channel’s marquee names, like Riz Khan and David Frost, integrated into the special? Instead of recycling a four-day-old edition of Listening Post in the half hour before the polls started closing, why wasn’t Richard Gizbert on the set doing real-time analysis of how other media around the world were covering the election? Why wasn’t the host of Street Food watching events from the Seattle fish market? Etc., etc., etc. A little imagination would have gone a long way.

Instead, as one of our Arab students who watched coverage on both Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, which carried its own extensive broadcast of the election, put it: “That wasn’t Al-Jazeera. That was embarrassing.”

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Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.