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.”