As Al Jazeera America Dies, the News Dies, Again: An Open Letter to the Liberal Media

(artist unknown)

Liberal-leaning American TV news is hopelessly lost in a Manichean tug-of-war with right-wing infotainment.

You might have recently heard that the basic cable and satellite news television channel, Al Jazeera America (AJA), plans to fold in April 2016. Or perhaps -- bombarded and befuddled by the media’s obsessive coverage of US presidential politics -- you didn’t. In its announcement of defeat, Al Jazeera America claimed it simply could no longer survive in today’s “economic landscape”, in which a dwindling pool of major advertisers (namely, insurance and pharmaceutical companies) presumably balk at the notion of partnering with an Arab-affiliated network.

Watching AJA several days ago, I was disheartened to see that its main sponsors are now shady, bottom-feeding financial ventures fishing for easy prey (“Thank you, ‘’, for giving me a second chance!” beams an actress in one ubiquitous ad), as if the target audience for AJA’s hard news lineup were an underclass bereft of buying power.

Knowledge at least marks the inception of the power that attends a global rather than provincial consciousness.
Since its 2013 debut, Al Jazeera America (not to be confused with the larger umbrella entity Al Jazeera English) was a risky venture, banking on a small but significant minority, perhaps ten percent of Americans, repelled by the casual fascisms of talk radio and the soapbox punditry of cable news. Surely, there must be an audience for unanchored, uncharismatic world news, especially as National Public Radio slips more and more from hard news into soft-focus, human-interest storytelling.

Unfortunately, AJA’s actual potential audience will forever remain unknown. The primary blame lies not with AJA (for overestimating its audience share) but with so many nationwide cable companies that found room enough for a dozen Bible channels but refused to carry a transnational enterprise falsely perceived as “Arabic”.

The economic climate that spells AJA’s demise becomes ideological in a media culture contracting around national self-interest and the flattering of American sensibilities. When American TV outlets deign to report from overseas, their concerns reflect parochial American interests; usually, the containment of terrorism or disease or the fluctuation of oil prices. Tirelessly advocating a democratic-socialist agenda, AJA broke with this parochialism, reporting events (brace yourself) that do not involve Americans; from West African refugee crises, to East European workers’ protests, to environmental crimes that escape the purview of American corporate news.

I recall some conservatives claiming that Al Jazeera’s Qatari-based financiers positioned the pro-democracy, anti-imperialist AJA as a smokescreen for the more anti-Western (and pro-Palestinian) sentiments of Al Jazeera’s main Arab-language network. This conspiracy theory does nothing to detract from AJA’s self-consciously secular agenda, however, and the station has covered innumerable horrors perpetrated by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram that American TV outlets have ignored. The station’s content alone should expose any bias. Judging by the stories it considers newsworthy, AJA is far less biased -- that is, less less parochial than any US-based cable news channel.

Indeed, the open biases of cable news’ liberal-conservative binary only serve to camouflage the deeper, common bias of an unwaveringly provincial focus. Mainstream news stations justify their provincialism with the notion of “currency”, but they conflate the temporal and the spatial, defining what is “current” according to what is transpiring in the US. We are supposed to panic when political candidates profess isolationism, but our media culture is already isolationistic, deaf and blind to geographically alien histories.

Relying on global reportage and the foreign news bureaus that American news corporations claim they can no longer afford, AJA has no nationalistic home base. Despite the “America” in its moniker, AJA has rarely privileged American news, emphasizing the transnational over the national and implicitly critiquing the artificial construction of the modern nation-state with its coverage of civil strife, corruption, and warlordism throughout postcolonial Africa and Asia. A recent afternoon’s broadcast included some widely reported stories, such as lingering Ebola fears in Sierra Leone and the Michigan state government’s mass poisoning of the poor in Flint.

Elsewhere, AJA did what network and cable news no longer do: created short, self-contained documentaries about sociopolitical problems unconnected to America’s military interests or economic advantage. One report dealt with the lack of hospital beds in bankrupt Recife, Brazil, where hundreds of women approaching labor are examined on plastic chairs in the waiting room.

In another segment of 30 minutes (on a program misleadingly called “America Tonight”), reporter Sheila MacVicar followed politically displaced, Italy-bound refugees -- not only from Syria but also from Guinea Bissau -- who now constitute what MacVicar calls “invisible minorities within Europe’s refugee crisis.” After exposing the shantytown ghettoes of the Guinea-Bissauans, the bulk of the report focused on problems of migrant contractual labor and agrarian unionism, issues unknown to chattering TV roundtables obsessed with America’s personality-driven politics.

I am neither misguided nor naïve enough to be believe these stories, or their reportage, constitute something “good” in themselves or that ubiquitous human suffering is inherently newsworthy. Rarely, in fact, do images of politically or economically wrought misery enlighten, challenge, or stir one to action. If 1,100 garment workers die in a shabbily constructed sweatshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as one AJA report revealed, there is little I can do, except perhaps boycott Dhakan shirts or disinvest monies in companies supportive of unethical Bangladeshi fabric manufacturers (assuming I ever have monies to disinvest). If, as the report continued, 15,000 cases of labor violations in Dhaka are waiting to be heard, I have no way of influencing the Bangladeshi judicial system or accelerating its appeals process.

No, knowledge doesn’t necessarily equal power, for knowledge is not agency. However, knowledge at least marks the inception of the power that attends a global rather than provincial consciousness.

Al Jazeera’s constant barrage of suffering admittedly does depress, particularly when solutions are nowhere to be found. After police in the Western Tunisian city of Kasserine use tear gas and water cannons on a crowd protesting city corruption, an unemployed protestor says to the camera, “We have nothing… We are completely abandoned… there are men who graduated [from college] six years ago and who have nothing.” As a single flaming tire rolls behind him, headed toward a ramshackle Shell station overrun with protestors, his face registers a mix of contempt and resignation.

His helplessness is also ours. The reportage of distant suffering inevitably reinforces this sense of masochism: the act of witnessing injustice only reminds us of our own passivity -- until the point at which we’re no longer passive.

In a 2009 article in The Atlantic, journalist Robert D. Kaplan took Al Jazeera to task for its suffering-centering programming, arguing that the channel’s “pacifist-trending internationalism” pretends that the “politically weak, merely by being so, are automatically in the right.” (“Why I Love Al Jazeera”, October 2009) This doesn’t strike me as much of a criticism, unless one rejects sociology and believes the underclass is responsible for its own exploitation. There's no reason to be offended by (or envious of?) the moralism of the downtrodden. By acknowledging the moral righteousness of anticorruption protestors assailed by government water cannons, we hardly make righteousness an exclusive trait of the oppressed.

Perhaps it’s the “internationalism” (not the trendy pacifism) that Kaplan objects to? Would he say that the protestors in Selma in 1965 were merely guilty of “pacifist-trending nationalism” (rather than “internationalism”), and therefore their moral righteousness was less irritating?

The political frustrations that attend Al Jazeera broadcasts hardly amount to criticisms in themselves. That a Western journalist has voiced such a criticism seems both petulant and ethically bankrupt.

We already know the “liberal” media aren’t terribly liberal. Progressive commentators, buckling under neo-McCarthyite fears of being labeled un-American, aren’t nearly as progressive as their conservative analogues are reactionary. This timidity not only disserves progressivism but distorts its potentialities: seeing only mild to moderate liberalism, we behave mildly and moderately, even when radicalism is warranted.

The surge of Bernie Sanders' popularity is perhaps changing this. Witness the many media hacks unable to wrap their heads around the supposedly “sudden” popularity of democratic socialism. The hacks nevertheless insist that young rabble-rousers and an old Jewish socialist cannot change society. After all, Americans will never understand social justice, let alone make sacrifices themselves. But what have you, allegedly liberal media, done to help people understand? Have you offered them education and enlightenment? Or only endless commercial interruptions?

With few exceptions -- PBS’s Democracy Now, for one, which foregoes the usual rotation of political hacks in favor of local activists -- liberal-leaning American TV news is hopelessly lost in a Manichean tug-of-war with right-wing infotainment. Yes, there's some fleeting pleasure in seeing an exasperated Chris Matthews reprimand platitude-spouting Republicans who presumptuously use the third-person plural (“After seven years of Obama, the American people want to take their country back…” and so forth). But it saddens me to see MSNBC’s lineup of nightly commentators -- more intellectually nimble than their Fox counterparts -- beholden to drudging news cycles, corporate-directed curricula, and boardroom-approved foci.

I cannot truly believe that Chris Matthews longed to devote an hour’s worth of urgent live newsfeed to Sarah Palin’s gibbering endorsement of Donald Trump, as Hardball did on 20 January 2016. Did some suit put a gun to Matthews’ head? Could these corporate journalists, exerting whatever power they might have, report on whatever they wished? Could they happily ignore squabbling American personalities and discuss the human condition in Lithuania, Uruguay, or Angola? Or have they, arbiters of newsworthiness, been themselves arbitrated to death?

The nonstop fascination with a distended presidential process reveals an obvious anti-democratic tendency in American life. Our two-year presidential contest -- what in saner countries lasts only weeks -- fetishizes the powers of executive authority beyond all measure, evincing a quasi-fascistic belief in a transformative, charismatic leader symbolic of popular will. Or perhaps the impulsive worship of executive power harkens back to an even weaker, more Neolithic impulse suffered by our distant ancestors, who believed only chosen chieftains held the secret cures for their ills.

To disguise this primitiveness, journalists now engage in constant statistical analyses of every voting bloc and gerrymandered strip of land. But the disguise is too thin: a year’s worth of deadening statistical prediction only exposes a lack of content with an excess of form.

Though morbidly wrapped in their metanarratives, cable TV journalists,even the well-meaning ones, continue to believe they are justified in their provincialism. On a 13 January 2016 edition of All In With Chris Hayes, the host asked journalist Robert Costa a seemingly routine question about rising Trumpism. To paraphrase: Does the Republican establishment realize that its base, at once loved and held in contempt, genuinely believes its own racism… or is the Republican base just under a false consciousness? One might say that there’s little point in continuing to ask such a (rhetorical) question on 13 January, months after Trump had asserted his dominance over the angry and deluded. But Hayes’ question more deeply reveals that even the better journalists aren’t as smart as they think they are.

In this context, one cannot contrast “genuine belief” and a “false consciousness” with the conjunction “or”. As Marx emphasized, the danger of a false consciousness is its genuineness: that the afflicted person is ideologically blind to the falsity of his consciousness only makes him more susceptible to professions of authenticity and purity. More simply, that Trump’s supporters “genuinely believe their own racism” is the defining feature of their false consciousness. If their belief were not genuine, they would not have a “consciousness” at all, only disconnected and arbitrary ideas.

It takes little stretch of the imagination to see that journalists, too, operate under a false consciousness when they believe that unwaveringly trivial reportage of the two-party system is in the best interests of the public. Yes, they criticize the infantilizing traits of the two-party system and analyze its every fault and stupidity. They also criticize themselves and their own house-of-mirrors reportage; sometimes with a nihilistic smile they express frustration that they are obliged to report on every bit of Ted Cruz’s unctuous sophistry or Ben Carson’s bent worldview. But the more attention they draw to their own trap, the more entrapped we all become.

What none of them do is step outside the self-made trap. That would involve ignoring the presidential race and their channels’ daily corporate-derived news curricula. But is such a revolt possible? Could cable journalists dare to step beyond a comfortable frame they believe they are powerless to transgress? Their timidity only forces a revolution from without -- for even masochists can grow impatient. The premature death of Al Jazeera America aggravates this impatience, and our rising frustration with the parochial should one day spur a revolutionary consciousness that will eclipse the scope of any short-lived, economically precarious television channel.

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