And while there is much hand-wringing over how information and news from the west can be distributed in the Middle East, we tend to think less about how the news from the rest of the world is being passed along to us here in the states.
There are obvious reasons why a cable company would be reticent to broadcast a foreign-based outlet, beginning with the language barrier. If you're a cable provider, why do you want to cater to a very narrow Francophone niche? Or Farsi? But one channel – that magnet of Middle Eastern media controversies, Al Jazeera – has taken its programming to the English-speaking audience with a network that's about a half-year old. And it has succeeded in convincing one of America's top TV watchers – Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star – of its importance and value in the media landscape:
I've been monitoring the new channel for several months over the Internet, paying $6 a month to watch a video stream supplied by Real Networks. And I am convinced it is the most important English-language cable channel to come along since Fox News.What's that, you say? You've never seen Al Jazeera as you scroll down your channel listings? That's because only a handful of very small cable distributors – including one in Vermont and another in Toledo, according to Barnhart – have signed up to transmit the signal. Apparently, there's considerable discomfort on the part of cable companies to step forward and ink a contract with Al Jazeera, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from the time of the channel's launch last year:
It's everything our cable news isn't: global, meaty, consequential and compelling in the best sense of the word. And I'm not the only one who thinks so.
Many Americans see Al-Jazeera as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Both networks are based in Qatar, bankrolled by the emir.After taking a look at my local provider – let's call them Romrast – I saw that some of their "multicultural" tier of channels included Canal 52, Zee TV (?!), MHz Nigerian TV and the Africa Channel. (I'll admit I've watched this last one occasionally – you have no idea how vicious the Africa version of "Big Brother" gets, when they pit countries against each other. None.)
Given the political climate here, cable systems "will be wary of putting their hands on a third rail like AJI if they can avoid it," [Harvard University's Alex] Jones says.
My advice to the cable providers – considering, from what I've read, that they're being offered the channel at no cost – is to take the step forward and give us a look at Al Jazeera for ourselves. The drip-drip-drip of positive feedback stateside has begun, so you'd have some PR cover if people wanted to criticize you. And with Americans developing an appetite for new and different news sources, cable companies may be seen as encouraging a wider discourse. As for Al Jazeera English, let's see how they handle the American media marketplace. It's a smashmouth world over here, and if you're broadcasting content that could be decried as biased, there's an army of people here willing to point this out.
So a request to America's cable providers – Give Al Jazeera English a chance to succeed or fail on its own merits. It would be an illuminating experiment either way. And as for Al Jazeera English, you've already convinced the Kansas City star reporter. So here's one more Missouri man who says: Show Me.