Now, there is poverty in America, and there is a very wide gulf between rich and poor in America and that is a trend for which there are stories to be reported. But this series reported nothing beyond the stereotype and the mere fact that there were homeless people living on the street in Baltimore, for example. Well, were they there as a consequence of mental illness that was not properly cared for because of a generation of a policy of de-institutionalization? Al Jazeera didn’t know because they didn’t ask. Frankly they didn’t know enough to ask. It was enough for them to show poor people living in wretched conditions in a prosperous American city and decry it. Then they went to South Carolina and found a town that—I know this is going to shock you, Brent—had very rich people and, on the other side of the railroad tracks, very poor people. And the wretchedness of the poor people’s living conditions was enumerated. In fact this memorable question and answer exchange occurred:
Q: What’s it like to live with rats in your home? A: Bad. [laughs]
The economic divide is a story and the reasons why, over a long period of time in this South Carolina town there should be very little transmigration across the line between rich and poor, is a story. The sources of wealth of the rich may be a story. The lack of opportunities for the poor may be a story. But again, you gotta report all these things. This series merely named them in a very accusatory way. This to me is the very quintessence of what television news should not be doing. And by the way is not the kind of reporting you see very much elsewhere on Al Jazeera English.
There was another story about the plight of indigenous people in Chiapas. Again, real story. But the point of this story seemed to be that they were victims of NAFTA. Now, again, does NAFTA create problems among rural farmers in Mexico? Yeah. But the situation in Chiapas is at best only marginally affected by that. It has much more to do with race and class issues in Mexico, their relations with the Mexican national government, the adversarialism of the Chiapas state government, and the cultural dislocation and deprivation that not only predates NAFTA, it almost predates the states of Mexico and the United States. And also has a lot to do with the command and control of the indigenous movement by the most peculiar Subcomandante Marcos and his Zapatista allies, who have an interest in isolating if not in depriving this group of people. So again, it was really shoddy reporting.
And you don’t see that in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Asia, on Al Jazeera. You see state-of-the-art, world-class reporting, and south of the equator I don’t think anyone will give you much of an argument that Al Jazeera has become the most authoritative news channel on earth. And so, I took it particularly amiss, and it was for me, as their voucher, endorser, and brand face especially problematic, that their standard for journalism on Al Jazeera in the United States didn’t seem consistently to be as good as their standards elsewhere. And let me rush to add that yes, Al Jazeera has in Rob Reynolds, one of the best TV correspondents in America, in the world, and Kris Saloomey in New York is a very competent and growing correspondent, and Mike Kirsch, their stringer in California, is network quality. But for more than a year Kirsch wasn’t even there and they were trying to cover the country with two people; can’t be done.
BC: You must have sought assurances that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen?