It’s been a week since Al Jazeera English went live, and the most-e-mailed story on the news channel’s Web site is still “Al Jazeera English goes live.” Please refrain from fussing about this special deployment of the word story—the article’s main source is one of the channel’s executives—and appreciate what so many people are excited about: The Anglophone extension of the 10-year-old pan-Arab network is beaming news to 80 million households around the world from broadcast centers in Kuala Lumpur, London, Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar. In the eyes of its constituency, the most urgent thing Al Jazeera English has said so far—topping cute little human-interest stories like “Why the West Needs Ahmadinejad”—is, “Hi.”
U.S. cable and satellite companies aren’t exactly tripping over one another to carry the channel, which maybe has something to do with the widespread belief that Al Jazeera has an anti-American bias. The vast majority of Americans who want to size up the channel for themselves have to head to its Web site, where you can sample 15 minutes for free or, for six bucks a month, stream it 24/7. Yesterday, delivering updates on an Israeli missile strike against Hamas officials in Gaza, the channel kept returning to images of two children wounded in the attack. Others might have detected something propagandistic in the way the camera lingered on their blood-splattered faces, but it just looked liked old-fashioned tabloid style to me. The last couple days of Al Jazeera English suggest that its main bias is the universal one in favor of juicy drama.
For instance, yesterday’s installment of People & Power, a magazine show, led with a story on “the fight for the future of Mexico.” What a silly duck I was to expect that it might concentrate on Felipe Calderón, who takes the presidential oath of office on Dec. 1, and the man he narrowly defeated, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who claims that Calderón stole the election. Rather, it was a look at two figures who “represent the extremes”—plutocrat Carlos Slim and Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos. This approach allowed for the introduction of theatrical elements (scenes of cops in riot gear, dancers in indigenous garb, and Marcos puffing on a pipe from behind his face mask) that combined with the report’s cinematic style (time-lapse footage of traffic, electronic funk on the soundtrack) to give the whole segment the flavor of a promotional video. What was being promoted? Political theater.
The next People & Power report promised “a rare glimpse of absolute power in Turkmenistan.” Pretending to be a tourist, correspondent Juliana Ruhfus tiptoed around the dictatorship of Saparmurat Niyazov, the kind of dude given to renaming the month of April after his mom. While Ruhfus told us that Niyazov controls the world’s fourth-largest reserve of natural gas, she left us in the dark about the implications thereof. No, the tension of hanging out in her bugged hotel room and chatting up an anonymous taxi driver was enough; analysis was less important than atmosphere. Even the sportscasters here are aching for controversy: The most recent edition of Sportsworld featured a preview of the Ashes, the England-Australia cricket series, that rejoiced in profiling the Australian player least likely to speak in pre-approved sound bites: “In this desolate media landscape, Shane Warne is an oasis.”
Al Jazeera’s focus is the Middle East, of course—today’s rigorous coverage of the killing of Lebanese Cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel has ceased only for a talk show dedicated to the Darfur crisis and featuring the reportage of, uh, Mia Farrow—but it’s truly a global channel: “Bomb blast in Thailand … ” “Evacuees leave Tonga … ” “For eastern parts of Europe, things are looking pretty miserable as well … ” Well, that last one was just the weather report, but you get the idea. Al Jazeera English is covering the world more deeply and broadly than U.S. television news does and with an even greater respect for the laws of show business.