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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Should Al Jazeera English be available to American TV Audiences?

A few years ago I was among the chorus of Americans who would not have supported the idea of allowing the Arabic-language, Qatar-based satellite news channel or its sister network, Al Jazeera English, to broadcast in the United States.

Who can forget the skewed coverage after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington? I can still see Al Jazeera footage of Palestinians cheering wildly in the streets after those attacks killed some 3,000 people. I can recall how Al Jazeera seemed to be in bed with Al Qaeda when it allegedly broadcast the beheadings of Americans such as Daniel Pearl and Nick Berger.

Like many Americans this was the last straw for me. Al Jazeera deserved nothing less than a black out in the U.S.

Today, we know that in fact, Al Jazeera never did broadcast beheadings of Americans or of anybody else.

And now, in hindsight, those video feeds of Palestinians whooping it up probably were not a bad thing for Americans to see. For one thing, they drove home to us just how polarized much of the Arab world is vis-à-vis the United States. For another, it was only doing its job--providing post 9/11 coverage from the Middle East.

And while much of that coverage may not have been what we as Americans wanted to see, it was nevertheless, a case of a news organization doing what it should be doing in a part of the world that American news organizations largely ignored for years except when there was a war or a terrorist attack.

As a journalist it is problematic for me to say that any news organization should be banned or censored in the United States. That runs counter to the First Amendment which guarantees, among other things, a free press. And by the way, the First Amendment was not created to protect the press; it is there to protect the public from government censorship.

For the same reason, I find it wrong when people talk about "hate speech." I agree with the ACLU (not something I often do) when it says there is no hate speech, only free speech--and the way to defeat what some consider hate speech is to push for more free speech.

Yet there are many Americans representing the Political Correctness police who want to ban anything that they feel smacks of hate speech--including, of all things, Mark Twain's classic 19th Century novel Huckleberry Finn. They are upset because the book has the word "nigger" in it multiple times--a word, distasteful as it may be, that was part of the lingua franca when Twain penned his novel. For that reason, they insist, the book is unsuitable for use in schools unless the offensive "N" word is stricken from its pages. Never mind that Huckleberry Finn is an American classic, if not The Great American Novel, and condemned slavery throughout.

Sanitizing Huckleberry Finn in this manner is akin to forcing the Louvre Museum in Paris to put a bra on Alexandros of Antioch's Venus de Milo statue or the Academia Gallery of Florence to put jockey shorts on Michelangelo's statue of David because one shows a woman's breasts and the other a man's penis.

But let's not stop there. What about Uncle Tom's Cabin published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe which contains many stereotypes of black people but which was an anti-slavery tome that did much to create the abolitionist movement? Or Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': A Tale of the Sea about a West Indian black sailor aboard a ship called The Narcissus who is cared for by white sailors when he falls ill on a voyage from Bombay to London? Both of these masterpieces have already been purged from some school libraries by the PC police.

Where does this kind of censorship stop? Think about that for a minute. There are thousands, if not millions of books that contain passages the PC police deem offensive. Ironically, it is the liberal left that appears to be pushing this agenda the most, not the conservatives among us.

Which brings me back to Al Jazeera. In the United States, Al Jazeera English is available through the Galaxy 19 (and Galaxy 23 C-band) satellites. However, it is unavailable to cable viewers in the US, with the exception of those in Toledo, Ohio; Burlington, Vermont and Washington, D.C. This is effectively a "black out".

I am sure there are editorial positions that Al Jazeera takes that I am opposed to. And I may not like some of the stories it does out of the Middle East. But I am convinced that the more information Americans have regarding this troubled part of the world, the better off we will be.

We don't have to agree with the editorial commentary, but the fact is, some 1.6 million viewers in the U.S. streamed Al Jazeera English online when hundreds of thousands of people jammed Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising against the Mubarak regime. Why? Because Al Jazeera was providing some of the most consistent coverage of this historic event.

I believe there is no "bad information," just a "lack of information." In other words, when faced with propaganda the best way to counter it is to provide more information just as the most effective way to deal with so-called "hate speech" is to allow more free speech.

The problem for Al Jazeera English seems to be its Arab-language sister network's journalism which has generated a broad base of anxiety, if not outright enmity among Americans.

I am not sure what you can do about that. Does Al Jazeera have an Arab predisposition? Quite probably. Should it be banned because of that? Should we ban Spanish language broadcasts or Korean, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese broadcasts because someone on air speaks critically of the United States?

The answer to those questions is "no" for the same reason that the PC police should not be purging literary classics from school libraries and thus depriving students of the opportunity to understand the realities of their country and its history.

Similarly, Americans understand too little about the Middle East. That was apparent when Benjamin Netanyahu provided President Obama and the nation with some perspective about Israel and its Palestinian nemesis during his U. S. visit recently.

Not all Americans may have agreed with the Israeli prime minister and his perception of the Middle East, but one thing his visit did is make me realize that Americans need a lot more information from this part of the world--even information provided by Al Jazeera English.

And it strengthened my conviction that censorship of any kind is a slippery slope that will lead us all to a place we don't want to be--a country where we are afraid to disparage authority, write critically or speak our minds openly.
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