Al Jazeera: a glimpse of journalism’s future

UPDATE: I have corrected this piece to reference the work of Al Jazeera anchor Folly Bah Thibault, mistakenly identified as Lauren Taylor earlier. I apologize for this, due primarily because Al Jazeera does not emphasize the names of its anchors, concentrating instead on the content of their presentation.)

Like most of you, I first heard of Al Jazeera in the late 90s, when it was presented to the U.S. as an Arabic propaganda machine. After September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration vilified Al Jazeera as anti-American, and its reputation in the Middle East as shining a needed light on Arab suffering made it a voice that often conflicted with U.S. interests in the region. One remarkable thing about Al Jazeera is that for many years, it has made its material available to other media outlets through a “Creative Commons” copyright license, which is the opposite of how traditional media companies in the U.S. behave.

Today, thanks to its dynamic and aggressive coverage of the popular protests in Egypt, Al Jazeera English has become THE go-to media source for the world. The demand is putting pressure on cable operators in the U.S. to carry the channel, and the Los Angeles Times is suggesting that might happen.

The network’s on-the-ground reports from Cairo — as well as its confrontations with Egyptian authorities, who have tried to shut it down and on Monday briefly detained six staff members — have brought Al Jazeera English new prominence in the United States.

American viewers have flocked to its website as it provides a nonstop live stream of its television feed. Traffic is up 2,500% since Friday, with nearly half of it coming from the United States, according to network officials.

Al Jazeera live coverage

My view of Al Jazeera changed completely when I visited my daughter in Amman, Jordan in 2006. The window on the world that my daughter and her family has is entirely different than what we see at home, and I was excited to find that Al Jazeera English was providing live coverage of the historic events in Egypt this weekend. If you’ve not had the chance to watch, you’ve missing some amazing live television, not so much because of the pictures, but because the “pro-people” stance of Al Jazeera has shone through clearly. Specifically, there’s no sense whatsoever that the company is trying to protect its access to high ranking “officials.” In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Al Jazeera anchor Folly Bah-ThibaultOn Saturday morning, I witnessed a remarkable encounter between Al Jazeera anchor Folly Bah Thibault and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, who was a guest on the telephone. The guest kept referring to the protestors as “mobs of looters” and “setting fire to our beloved Cairo.” Ms. Bah Thibault, herself seemingly miffed at the accusations, struck back. “Sir, that’s not what we’re seeing right in front of us,” she said. “This is a popular uprising. These people are unhappy with your party.” The man responded that these were thugs intent on mischief, robbing and looting and setting fires. Ms. Taylor went back on the offensive, and the man wouldn’t answer her questions directly. The encounter ended with Ms. Bah Thibault saying, “Well, we’re just going to have to disagree on that.”

It was the kind of live encounter that you’d never see in the U.S., but I found it refreshing and highly authentic. Folly Bah Thibault knew her stuff and handled the constantly breaking news with grace and skill. I tried to think of an American anchor who could perform similarly, and I couldn’t. Why? We’re really not familiar with the complaints of the people, because we’re too busy cultivating sources from the elite. What Folly Bah Thibaultpossessed in the midst of the story was a deep knowledge of the Arab people and why they were displeased with the rule of dictator Hosni Mubarak, experience she has gained from reporting on the issues of the people for years. Meanwhile, Egyptian state television was showing peaceful protests by small pro-government crowds. This was the subject of much talk among the major protest locations and why the Bureau of Information was one of their targets. According to Al Jazeera, where people were gathered around TV sets, they were watching Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera employees have been detained by authorities and their camera equipment seized. This is because the network is telling a truth that the government doesn’t want seen, and in that sense alone, this is far different than any other major network news coverage in history. With a media company like Al Jazeera shining this pro-people, pro-democracy light in the Middle East, status quo disruption is assured. There was much discussion about a “new” Middle East, which sends shivers down the spines of those who benefit from the status quo, those who believe that a Muslim state would be anti-West.

I think we’d all benefit from access to Al Jazeera English via cable in the U.S. The LATimes suggests this is more than a remote possibility.

Al Anstey, Al Jazeera English’s managing director, said the channel would use this event to press its case with American cable and satellite operators. “What has been demonstrated is a genuine demand for what we are doing,” he said in an interview from Doha. “This does prove that once you lay down the content, once people actually see it, any misconceptions about what Al Jazeera stands for are dispelled immediately.”

Al Jazeera anchor Ayman MohyeldinOne of the remarkable things about this event is that it has grown from the bottom up. Many times during coverage, the network has noted that no one is “in charge,” which leaves the position of “spokesperson” for the movement up for grabs. Al Jazeera’s young correspondent on the scene, Ayman Mohyeldin, has continually demonstrated a connection with the protesters so strong that he could actually become a spokesman for the group.

Mohyeldin’s grasp of the geopolitical inner workings of each nation in the region and his ability to extemporaneously speak of the relationship, for example, between Egypt and the United States, is something that I find remarkable from a network correspondent. But more so that his knowledge is the license to speak so candidly about the events without the inhibiting bondage of another “side” to the story. This is the future of journalism, for Al Jazeera’s intent here is pretty clearly to influence the situation on behalf of democracy,

Is such advocacy a part of journalism’s real time future? I find Al Jazeera English to be a fascinating new player on the world news stage, and once you taste its spice, it’s pretty hard to go back to the tame blandness of what Jay Rosen calls “he said/she said” journalism. We’re far too concerned with not upsetting anybody’s apple cart, and frankly, we wouldn’t have our First Amendment if the pamphleteers had been more “professional” in the 18th Century. So, yes, I think we’re witnessing the future unfold before our eyes.

This is a people’s revolution in Egypt. Let’s just hope that if the people get their way, Al Jazeera English will hold their feet to the fire during and after the transition.

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  2. […] note I have updated the piece below on Al Jazeera to correctly identify the brilliant work of news anchor Folly Bah-Thibault. I mistakenly identified […]

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