Thursday, 5 August 2010

Al Jazeera is the new standard - and that's a good thing

If you came here looking for a videotape of Osama Bin Laden, please go to aisle 13. Otherwise, be prepared to drop any pre-conceived notions at the door before you read this post. Al Jazeera is the new standard for news. Excuse me? Can you repeat that? Ok - Al Jazeera is the new standard for news. It is tough to make such a grand statement in the face of likely incredulity, so allow me to clarify.

Al Jazeera is a group of television stations based in the microstate of Qatar, situated in the Arab/Persian Gulf (depending on which way you swing). Qatar, by the way is a country that punches far above its weight. It is considered the richest per capita country in the world with a GDP of roughly $100 billion, shared amongst perhaps as few as 250,000 Qatari nationals. Of course the total population of the country including foreign residents is around 1.6 million. Qatar has one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world (Qatar Investment Authority), one of the largest oil & gas companies in the world (Qatar Petroleum), and one of the largest social foundations in the world (Qatar Foundation). It also is bidding for the 2022 World Cup, air-conditioned stadiums and all (given that it reaches into the 50s Celsius regularly in the summer).

In 1996, the Emir of Qatar, shortly after deposing his father in a bloodless coup ordered the creation of Al Jazeera (Arabic), a new media network that would broadcast regional news relatively unfettered. It was an absolute game-changer, and quickly became the "first forum for free expression" in the Arab world. Of course, most people in the West know Al Jazeera because of its airing of video statements by members of Al Qaeda, especially after 9/11. Undoubtedly, Al Jazeera's unfiltered coverage of war zones as well as an ingrained bias diminished its credibility in Western eyes. However, for the first time, a network allowed for dynamic discussions on a number of social and political leaders, airing criticism never heard on television. Al Jazeera also broke ground by interviewing consistently Israeli officials, leading to accusations that it was a Zionist network.

Now for a moment, forget that Al Jazeera is an Arabic news channel. Imagine that Al Jazeera is a 24-hour english news network, broadcasting around the world with a multicultural tag team of correspondents that reach every corner of the globe and provide in-depth coverage. Welcome to Al Jazeera English. It broadcasts from Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Washington D.C. and London, and is available around the world, online, but not in the United States on television (except on one satellite feed that is difficult to pick up, although this may change soon).  Even Canada authorized stations to carry Al Jazeera English only last year. With an editorial team distinct from the Arabic channel, it has taken the international news standard to another level, leaving BBC and CNN in its sandy dust.

Its operations are led by Tony Burman the former editor-in-chief of Canada's CBC News, and is truly an international network:

With nearly 70 bureaus run by staff drawn from some 50 nations, AJE on a typical news day might report on a nomadic camel-herding tribe whose members are key rebel leaders in Darfur, a lawsuit against Chiquita alleging financing of paramilitary death squads in Colombia, the effects of the global financial crisis on Pakistani carpet weavers, and the plight of political prisoners in China. (UTNE Reader)
In the same article quoted above, Burman explains the Al Jazeera advantage today:
The mainstream American networks have cut their bureaus to the bone. They’re basically only in London now. Even CNN has pulled back. I remember in the ’80s when I covered events, there would be a truckload of American journalists and crews and editors, and now Al Jazeera outnumbers them all.
If you didn't know it already, there's a revolution going on in international news, and you better be watching.

Here's a sample clip from Al Jazeera English. 

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