Al Jazeera move will challenge our beliefs

Al Jazeera logoI am disgusted by the knee-jerk reactions I’ve been reading about the news that Al Jazeera is buying Al Gore’s Current TV with plans to launch a version of its news network in the U.S. Completely disgusted. America cries “foul” at any wisp of censorship abroad — principally, when “our” version of truth is blocked from the eyes and ears of others — but we personify the term “hypocrite” in so doing. Nothing proves it like calling into question the character and motives of Arabs wishing to do business among us.

Time-Warner Cable immediately pulled Current TV from its line-up, even before the deal was announced. I am a Time-Warner Cable subscriber, but I won’t be one for long. The Atlantic Wire tried to explain:

The network did not give an official reason for the move, but many have speculated that it’s simply prejudice against the new owners, who are based in Doha, Qatar, and have seen their fair share of controversy over the years. The Middle East-focused Al Jazeera began as an Arabic-only network, before adding a English language version, and has been accused in the past of a decidedly anti-American bias and even of sympathy for terrorist organizations. More than a decade after the September 11 attacks first brought the network to the attention of most Americans, and despite its impressive coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, those stereotypes still persist.

Never afraid of spreading those same stereotypes, comedians are getting into the discussion. Here’s a transcript (courtesy Newsbusters) of Jay Leno with Joy Behar, who works for Current TV.

Leno opened, “Osama bin Laden is your new boss?”

Behar responded, “Current TV was bought by Al Jazeera, yes. To me it’s like Al Gore, Al Jazeera, Al Pacino. It’s all the same thing to me.”

“I just work there,” Behar continued. “I’m learning Farsi, you know.”

“So much for Jews controlling the media,” quipped Leno.

A commenter to the Atlantic Wire story called Al Gore a “traitor” for selling the channel to Al Jazeera. This view is shared by many, many Americans. And Fox’s Bill O’Reilly said Gore had “shamed himself” and called the former vice president a “hypocrite” and the deal “sleazy” and “disgraceful.”

the men of my Arab familyAl Jazeera has been a part of my life since I first watched the channel while visiting my daughter’s family in Amman in the winter of 2006. Here’s part of what I wrote back then:

My son-in-law, Waseem, took me through the cable channels that he has available, and it brought to mind the contemporary absurdity of Napoleon’s old saying about war, “the victor gets to write the history.” Let me tell you folks, that statement is no longer possible in war time, for the reality is that there are many versions of truth when it comes to war.

And all of them are present on cable TV in Jordan, including the channel that speaks for the Iraqi resistance. Numerous versions of propaganda are there for the average citizen to weigh, and I have to believe this is ultimately healthy for a region dominated by colonialism for centuries. Juxtaposition, for example, the American general saying everything’s fine on the Arab language channel created by the U.S. with the resistance channel’s video showing just the opposite. And much of this video (which shows up on Al Jazeera two hours later) isn’t shot by professional news crews; it’s our old friend “citizen journalism” telling the tale in picture and in sound. Cell phones, it seems, are a new weapon of war.

And my son-in-law’s window on the world is much wider than mine.

I wrote plenty about Al Jazeera during the Arab Spring, and I think they provide a much-needed point-of-view in the U.S., a counterpoint to the Zionist movement, which has torn the region apart since 1948. Our economic interests have aided in atrocities and the Palestinian genocide, over which the planet itself weeps and mourns. Consequently, we get a highly censored view of the whole Middle East, and the inbred hatred we seem to have for Arabs is now being played out over, of all things, a cable channel! Are we so fearful that we would deny the same free speech to Al Jazeera that we claim for those not under our governance throughout the world?

I want Al Jazeera, because I think we’d all be better off knowing Arabs as human beings instead of the dangerous fanatics that our government needs us to know. Loss of innocent life is loss of innocent life, regardless of whose “side” it is on, and we’re all going to have to make a decision sooner or later about the world we have taken for granted for so very long.

In addition to the nonsense about the deal, I’m also reading some thoughtful commentary, too, and that gives me hope (New York Times, Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, and even The New Republic). If this proves only to get us talking, that would be a net gain for everybody.

Dallas celebrates — local media misses an opportunity

This is a story about the value of the hashtag, that little Twitter phenomenon that everybody seems to get except media companies. Nobody seems to understand that Twitter will sell you a hashtag, which gets you an ad with a link at the top of the display on whatever software is being used to view Twitter searches. This is a significant opportunity for anybody, but especially for media companies covering a big event.

The Mavs sing 'We are the champions' from the balcony of the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Photo courtesy AP via the Denver Post

We had ourselves a huge (300,000 people estimated) public celebration this morning of the Dallas Mavericks victory in the NBA Finals, and it all began with a little parade. The hashtag #mavsparade was jumping with constant tweets from those attending the celebration. As a big Mavs fan, I sat here and watched live coverage on TV, but it was monitoring that hashtag that really allowed me to “feel” the event itself, to participate in the celebration. People put up pictures and videos and made wonderful comments. I’m not sure who originated the hashtag, but the local media companies blew a fleeting opportunity by not paying to sponsor the thing.

During the revolution in Egypt, Al Jazeera English bought the hashtag “#egypt. That meant they controlled the top of that hashtag. Here’s how it looked:

Al Jazeera English uses Twitter

Al Jazeera English had a problem with reach in the U.S. It’s only available in three cities here. By employing this strategy — and by consistently delivering high quality content on the ground — the company’s online live stream jumped 2,500% in a matter of days, and they’ve become a major global player in the news industry. Al Jazeera English used Twitter to report the news, position itself as the authority on the hashtag and drive viewers to its livestream. It was, frankly, brilliant strategy.

Media companies here use Twitter as a notification system, and it’s great for that. But it also affords opportunities for good old fashioned marketing, if we can think and move quickly. But isn’t that the real challenge for news organizations these days anyway, to be nimble, fleet of foot, adaptive and flexible?

So the celebration here in Dallas is over, and it’s been a lot of fun for the fans. To the media companies here in Dallas: store this missed opportunity away for some other day. It’ll come in handy.

Living history

Egypt's revolution, courtesy Al JazeeraMy heart and mind are swirling this Friday morning, as I consider all that has taken place in the last 18 days thousands of miles away in one of our world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt. It’s the story of everyday people overcoming despotism and the tools they used. It’s the story of rising media stars working for a fairly new media entity in the Middle East and the tools they used. I’ll leave the geopolitical and street level analysis to others, because the narrative that interests me is history and how the Woodstock that was Tahrir Square changes things forever.

Tim Shey tweeted “We’re all Egyptians today.” In Berlin, Peter Glaser tweeted “The 21st century begins here, not on 9/11.” These two profound thoughts strike me as completely true, and the path they illuminate is one of cultural upheaval and change (chaos). It’s the essence of everything I’ve written about in the last ten years, and I honestly don’t know where to begin. I wish I was 20 and not 65, for I’d love to witness the fulfillment of prophecy.

We’ve entered the Age of Participation, a great cultural shift equivalent only to the combination of Gutenberg’s printing press and Wycliffe’s common English bible. The industrial age — the age of Modernism — is gone (or going), with its institutional command and control and its “expertise.” Jay Rosen, brilliant 21st Century writer and observer, has a new term that I like, the Great Horizontal. It describes the mass, yet intimate, horizontal connectivity that is disrupting everything. As I wrote recently, the Web is about 3‑way communications: up, down and horizontal. Power can talk to us. We can talk back. But the one that disrupts everything is our ability to talk to and with each other. In Egypt, this has played out for all the world to see: tangible, revolutionary results of simple tools with silly names, like Twitter and Facebook. That — along with the omnipresent “eye” of Al Jazeera English — made today’s outcome inevitable and opens the door wide now for despots and dictators everywhere to fall. Egypt’s victory is not the end; it is very much the beginning.

I’ve written previously about how impossible it is to maintain an autocratic, totalitarian government in the presence of horizontal connectivity. It’s not the spreading of new ideas that strengthens the people, although that’s certainly a part of it; it’s the ability of people to react among themselves — in big and small ways — that creates the disruption. Witness Egypt 2011.

I have a step daughter in high school in the U.S. and four grandchildren in school in Jordan, and I can’t help but think that every school everywhere should be exposing their students to what’s taking place today instead of the usual reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. This is their world. They will be responsible for creating and implementing the form of democracy that will suit the Great Horizontal. The time to talk about it is now.

Egyptian military “detains” AJE correspondent

 Ayman MohyeldinWords aren’t adequate to express my disgust at the Egyptian military in detaining Al Jazeera English correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin. Mohyeldin has been a constant voice of solid information at Tahrir Square in Cairo throughout the anti-government protests of the last 13 days. While other correspondents chose not to be identified, Mohyeldin put his face on camera and spoke the moods, attitudes and demands of the people in an effort to keep the world informed.

Shortly before 9 o’clock CST this morning, Al Jazeera English’s Mohamed Nanabhay tweeted “Our @AJEnglish Cairo correspondent, @aymanM, has been in military custody for four hours,” adding a few minutes later, “Ayman Mohyeldin, our detained Cairo correspondent, is also a US citizen.”

Since his detention came at the hands of the Egyptian military, it’s hard to believe orders to do so didn’t come from much higher up. Mohyeldin has been relentless in his shaping of the events as a popular uprising and speaking the “demands” of the people on the street. As I noted in an earlier blog post, Mohyeldin is representative of a new breed of journalist who’s unafraid to call a spade a spade in live coverage of events. Doubtless, this has not gone over well with the Mubarak régime.

One hopes that the military will realize the utter foolishness of seizing such a visible journalist in the Middle East and let him go immediately.

(UPDATE) Mohyeldin is a very familiar face to AJE fans and was at the very heart of the network’s coverage of atrocities in Gaza. A report on Twitter suggests he was taken into custody after questioning/suggesting that perhaps the military was responsible for snipers with laser-targeting killing protesters, even one who was trying to save a friend.

(UPDATE) Mohyeldin was release late this afternoon. I don’t think we’ll hear from him until tomorrow, and I’ll write something then.)

Al Jazeera Correction

Folly Bah ThibaultPlease 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 her as Lauren Taylor. It can be difficult to understand who is speaking during this coverage, largely because Al Jazeera emphasizes content over the presenters, something I find terribly refreshing. I apologize for the error.

How long before somebody in the U.S. offers her a bundle to do her thing here? The only problem would be she actually expresses point-of-view. Tsk-tsk.