As a student last year, Bilal Lakhani helped monitor these international channels for the Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism’s “Global Media Wars” project. He told me that after the death of Osama bin Laden he went on Facebook and was surprised to find “lots of people sharing RT and Press TV videos. That’s when I realized that on major turning-point events like Osama’s death, these channels are going to find an audience whose viewpoints align with theirs.”
Columbia’s Ann Cooper started “Global Media Wars” after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified in March before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, “We are engaged in an information war, and we’re losing that war.”
Who’s winning? “Al Jazeera has been the leader in . . . literally changing people’s minds and attitudes,” Clinton said. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials, and, you know, arguments between talking heads, and the kind of stuff that we do on our news.” (Full disclosure: I was an anchor for AJE from its debut in November 2006 until March 2008.)
Al Jazeera English’s hallmark has been video reporting. “We have better visual content than anyone else,” brags Snorre Wik, a director of photography at AJE. He says he’s regularly allowed to give the viewer a “sense of adventure, the feeling that they are experiencing something tangible and not in theory . . . which is why real video is more valuable and more powerful than anything that anyone can tell you.”
AJE, he says, offers a marked contrast to his years at NBC, not just in creative opportunities but, more importantly, in terms of being there, where news is breaking. Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS News Middle East correspondent turned academic, says that AJE stands head and shoulders above all the other English-language news channels, because of its dominance in eyes-on coverage. AJE, he says, “just plain has so many more boots on the ground. It has more boots on the ground than the BBC and armies more boots on the ground than CNN International.” (See Pintak’s May/June cover story in CJR, “Breathing Room: toward a new Arab media.”)
The unfortunate bottom line, as Pintak sees it: “That’s why, after 9/11, Americans didn’t understand the impact American policy was having, because we didn’t see it from the perspective of the people on the ground, because there weren’t people on the ground covering the story.”
But things are changing at Al Jazeera, too. They still have people on the ground almost everywhere, it seems, but the endlessly breaking news of the Arab Spring has pushed aside prepared packages in favor of live updates, and even as the crisis settles into a turbulent routine, the change in formatting continues. As one video journalist at Al Jazeera English told me, “the new boss just loves his live shots. He thinks people relate to them better than to packages.” Uh oh.
As amateur video from the Internet grows like kudzu across the digital universe, TV news producers have to figure out how they can winnow and add value to it, to hold their audiences. One way might be to provide better professional video packages—better shot, more knowledgeably written and assembled—to provide context and balance and a storyteller’s touch to what can be just distorting fragments on YouTube or Twitvid.
Or, conversely, American TV news can cede the video field to the amateurs and add value to what they harvest from the Internet with talk, two-ways, or panel discussions about the news and all those images.
Of course, the challenge of dipping into that hurricane of Internet video is determining who made each one, how accurately it represents reality, what context it requires, and whose interests it might serve. Unfortunately, the very people needed to sort those questions out are only rarely on the job anymore. The American television journalists will be visiting the field occasionally, but the bulk of their reporting will be done from home. The bulk of the video they will use will be compiled from other people’s work, and will reflect no original reporting of their own.
And veracity and authority, where will that come from? Old recollections and unsourced pictures? If a tree falls in the forest and all you’ve got is file footage and some guy who once was a lumberjack, the sound produced is likely to be bad news.