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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Al Jazeera Finally Coming to American TV/ See these World-Class Documentaries

While the news that Current TV has been sold to Al Jazeera in advance of the creation of a US affiliate of the Qatari network has stirred great anxiety among some American Jewish Organizations over concerns about the network’s coverage of Israel, with Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations going so far as to say publicly that he has sought legal advice on how to have the sale prevented, I was quite happy to hear the news that the network will be more widely available to Americans.  In any case to be honest I don’t pay too much attention to the network’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as I already consume more than enough coverage of it from other sources from across the political spectrum to take the concerns of the organized Jewish world about being unduly influenced by “Arab propaganda” seriously.  Talking about it with a friend I realized that I may be the only person other than a professional researcher or journalist who regularly reads both the Palestinian news agency Maan and the Israeli settlers’ news service Arutz Sheva.  Additionally I read Haaretz on the left, the English Forward which publishes columns from across the political spectrum, the Yiddish Forward which is generally on the political right, El País which like most European papers is pro-Palestinian, the right-wing Jerusalem Post and the leftist Israeli website 972mag.  Additionally I religiously listen to Adam Gruzman’s weekly Yiddish language wrap-up of the latest events in the region, which despite its right-wing bias that sometimes irks me is the single best concise summary and analysis of events in the region that I've found in any language. I also listen to Israeli government radio in English, Spanish and Yiddish.  So, in short, I’m already over-saturated with coverage of Israel.  Of course, it’s nice to see how a network based in the Arabic speaking world covers revolutions in that region (their coverage of the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring more broadly earned them the admiration of Hillary Clinton among many other Americans in 2011) as long as one remembers that they too are sponsored by an authoritative regime which they will never dare to criticize.  No, coverage of the Middle-East is not what excites me about the prospect of seeing Al Jazeera in America; rather it is their coverage of Latin America and Africa. 

Why, you’re probably asking, would a network headquartered in Dohar have the best coverage of Latin America and Africa?  The answer is due to the fact that the major domestic channels available in the USA (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News) hardly even bother to carry news about these continents, leaving their already limited resources for foreign stories to focus on Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  Even the BBC and France 24 which have a more international focus than their American counterparts dedicate little coverage to the lives of the billions of people who live in these regions.  Russia Today (which unlike Al Jazeera is widely available and widely watched in America) does cover Latin America more thoroughly than the others but rarely touches Africa.  Russia Today’s coverage, however, is highly tainted by their transparent political biases (why Al Jaazera is constantly criticized for being anti-American but Russia Today’s thinly-veiled anti-American and pro-Syrian propaganda gets a free pass is beyond me). While I do have access to lots of decent coverage of news from Latin America through the Spanish language television networks based in the United States, most especially Univisión, their news follows a breaking-news format and rarely goes into much depth. This leads to my second reason why I look forward to Al Jazeera becoming available in America.

Due in part to its extremely deep pockets thanks to the Qatari government and therefore its lack of a need to turn a profit, Al Jazeera is able to invest far more resources into the production of high quality news reporting and especially documentary filmmaking than any other network.  While CNN does run decent specials on various topics, they’re very American in that they are usually as much about spotlighting the talents of their hosts (usually Soledad O’Brien or Anderson Cooper) as they are focused on telling stories.  Additionally, as is the want of in-depth American TV specials, most of the programs are weakened by their kowtowing to the imagined need to present the (false) appearance of balance by showing two experts with opposing views arguing with each other.  The idea is that the audience will receive both sides of an issue but what is usually achieved is that the viewers lose track of what is being discussed among all of the one-upmanship and ideological posturing.  Al Jazeera, in contrast, usually dedicates a show to giving one person an uninterrupted chance to make their case in depth, which although less “balanced” and perhaps less exciting to an American audience, is actually far more educational. Al Jazeera’s documentaries also cover a much wider range of topics than its rival news networks, being at times more akin to PBS in its range of subjects than a typical news network.  Their in-depth cultural programming is, in short, first rate and often seems like something more appropriate for a documentary film festival than a television news network. 

Want to get a taste of Al Jazeera's documentary programming?  Thanks to the network's decision to make nearly all of their programs available indefinitely online I've been able to watch many of their documentaries over the past two years.  Here are some of the strongest among them which you can watch in full.  

“The River Traders of Brazil” is a devastating documentary which follows the lives and deaths of several children working as river traders in the Amazon. 

“Kolkata Books” reports on Kolkata’s traditional book markets brimming with Bengali literature, being forced out by newfangled “bookmalls”. 

In “Alfred’s Free Press”, seeing that TVs and radio are too expensive for many of his countrymen, a Liberian journalist decides to begin a free newspaper by writing on a chalkboard displayed at an intersection in Monrovia. 

 “The Reluctant Outlaw” is a fantastic documentary on the unique economic niche occupied by Matutu drivers in Kenya who operate semi-legal taxis that are essential for daily life but yet are treated with great disdain.  I first learned about the paradoxical cultural roles played by the Matutu drivers in Swahili class at Rutgers. 

Ndiyindoda: I am a man” is an amazing documentary on traditional circumcision initiation schools in South Africa among the Xhosa and the controversy surrounding the growing death toll they are producing. The film explores how the issue of traditional culture colliding with modern medicine intersects with changes in gender roles and a rising educated Xhosa middle class in a country where a ritual undergone by millions of men at age 18 kills dozens and maims thousands every year...

And finally a short and disturbing news feature on Hart Island, a massive potter’s field off the coast of the Bronx where hundreds of thousands of people are buried in unmarked graves.   

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