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Danny Schechter
Danny Schechter
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel1.org. He is the author of The Crime of Our Time.
Al Jazeera: Has the future arrived?
Arguing that the "Al Jazeera effect" has transcended reporting by other major international news outlets.
Last Modified: 17 Mar 2011 14:05
The 6th Al Jazeera Forum brought together distinguished academics, politicians and pundits to discuss the new geopolitical environment of the Arab world [Al Jazeera]

DOHA – When I arrived in the capital of Qatar as one of the guest participants in the 6th annual Al Jazeera Forum focused on the Arab world "in transition", it was clear the mood had changed.

In years past, the humiliation and oppression of the region was driving the discourse, but this year, events had taken a positive turn, with popular youth revolutions catapulting the Al Jazeera TV network into the global spotlight with governments falling and a new future emerging.

A revolt in Libya was topping the news, being described as civil war - whether it is or isn't - with Western intervention in the form of a no-fly zone on the horizon to either protect that country's people from a mad dictator, or in Gaddafi's view, use humanitarianism as a cover for an armed effort by foreign interests to seize the country's oil wealth.

Just as the Forum began, we learned that an Al Jazeera cameraman, Hassan Al Jaber, who I met at an earlier Forum, was killed in Libya - likely a targeted killing. Beliefs have been circulating among Al Jazeera staff that Gaddafi put out a bounty on their heads.

Soon, the revolution story that the Forum had convened to discuss lost its standing at the top of the media agenda; the disaster in the east had displaced the unrest in the Middle East.

Fiction vs faction

News waits for no man or TV network, so within a few hours - as fate would have it - the natural calamity in Japan riveted the world.

Even Al Jazeera was leading with it, with some excellent reporting from the scene. The channel also tapped some of the images and analysis on Japan's NHK, which offered a round-the-clock funeral telethon of a region dying, along with so many of its people. It was as gripping as it was so unbearably sad.

A natural earthquake and tsunami had displaced a man-made one. We clearly need to know more about Japan's nuclear plants, especially since the Obama administration was planning to shovel billions to the same company whose plants are exploding and melting down.

The sounds of freedom in Tahrir Square had become yesterday's story, even though that revolution is unfinished and demands follow-up. Where the cameras go, public awareness often goes with them. 

There have been rising death counts in the battles in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. Now Syria has seen protests, and even Qatar has braced for a "day of rage".

Political disruptions pale in importance as the world's attention is mesmerised by the dreadful sights of villages and peoples being destroyed by a crush of water and moving earth.

Exploding nuclear plants gave us all something new to worry about just before Hollywood releases a new wave of terrifying disaster movies. Apocalyptic fiction can never keep up with harder-to-comprehend "faction".

Opulence of change

Back at the opulent Sheraton Hotel, ironically and perhaps prophetically designed to look like a ziggurat -similar to a pyramid - the young bloggers and activists who came to tell their story seemed a bit out of place.

Sleeping in a posh hotel certainly beats sleeping in the streets, but the setting added to the surrealistic spectacle of a people-oriented gathering held where the elite meet to eat.

On the other hand, why not some luxury for these media warriors? Why shouldn't some of the gazillions earned in Qatar from fuelling the cars of the West go into funding Middle East movements for justice?

The Gulf states can pay back (or forward) - and should - even as the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have invaded Bahrain to try to contain protests that could come their way.

The theme of the event was "winds of change", a term that first gained currency with the fight against apartheid.

"The success or failure of these political transformations will determine the future of the entire region," the Al Jazeera's programme read.

"What are the odds that these uprisings will give rise to a new political order, given the forces of the old regimes and external forces exerting pressure to retain crucial levels of control?"

Two days of panels explored these issues in the context of social justice, democracy, transparency, global politics and more local concerns.

As someone who focuses on media as politics, I didn't have far to look for a media angle.

This revolution itself is amplified by media. It is promoted, in part, by new social media and publicised in "old" media. Blogs, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter are all part of it.

Yes, this revolution is also being televised as the ultimate state-of-the-art multimedia experience.

The Al Jazeera anchorwoman who opened the Forum made clear that social media and TV media can work together. They converge as much as diverge, building a cumulative impact and reinforcing each other. But it is the people who stand up to resolve their grievances that made it happen. They deserve the credit.

Yes, the media-genic images and interactive energy has an appeal for a media savvy, web-focused generation that doesn't just watch someone else's tubes but wants to shape their own.

Al Jazeera was, nevertheless, at its centre, providing visibility and legitimacy. It is no longer a small alternative outlet, even though most Americans don't know that because the world's most important network is barely available in a land that touts its "free" media.

Fighting for viewers

Denigrated by politicians and shunned by nervous cable outlets, Al Jazeera is still fighting for air time in the US, even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now praises it as "must-watch, real journalism". (Her remarks, of course, served a promotional agenda since they were uttered at a hearing seeking funding for government propaganda outlets).

Even she is using Al Jazeera's popularity to better fund networks that she hopes can compete with it.

Started in 1996 out of a failed BBC experiment, it has grown into a mega network with documentary, children's, sports and news channels in Arabic, English and soon in Turkish, Balkan, Spanish and Swahili.

It has a studies centre, a training centre and offers a range of social media platforms. Its websites are big and getting bigger.

  • The Al Jazeera network has more than 65 bureaux across the globe, and the majority are rooted in the global South.
  • It has more than 3,000 staff members across the world, including more than 400 journalists from more than 60 countries.
  • Al Jazeera English has more than 1,000 highly experienced staff from more than 50 nationalities, making AJE's newsroom among the most diverse in the world.

I was told that a recent commentary of mine about Bernie Madoff drew a whopping 238,000 pageviews worldwide.

The CNN effect supplanted

One of the panels here was focused on discussing how what was once called "the CNN effect" has been displaced by "the Al Jazeera effect". The former was about a cable network that won influence with the men at the top; the latter is about winning credibility and respect from people at the bottom.

I heard a term there on the lips of an Al Jazeera executive that I never heard uttered by any American media exec in my years of media watching and working at ABC, CNN and CNBC, among others. The term is "oppression" - as in being a voice for the voiceless, standing up for oppressed people.

Al Jazeera explicitly links its media efforts to fight for democracy and free speech.

CNN these days, like Fox and MSNBC, is more about supercharged domestic, partisan opinion. Al Jazeera is more about universal human rights, facts and journalism, although when it does offer opinions it always offers more than one.

Its slogan has always been, "the opinion and the other opinion".

Al Jazeera credits its success to being a trusted and vital source of information. It does real reporting and its own investigations.

Their multi-ethnic army of global correspondents come from the world's leading media outlets, while it also taps diverse freelancers. It can compete with and often out-scoop BBC and CNN because top staffers once worked for those outlets and know how to do it.

And it has no sacred cows. Its "Palestine Papers" exposed the Palestinian Authority's complicity with Israel in negotiations. The PA is now among the channel's detractors, even as the audience in the region was glued to its embarrassing findings.

Some of the panels seemed uneven with predictable discourse, but speeches by Turkey's foreign minister and Brazil's ex-president Lula livened it up.

The Al Jazeera Forum asks: Has the future arrived?

The answer is a qualified yes, but not as an end point. Most of the delegates seem to agree - change is a process, and it is underway. One speaker compared the recent uprisings to the events of 1968, which I played a small role in.

The future is always arriving, and whatever happens, it will continue to do so, as long as the sun rises in the morning.

News dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. His new film, Plunder: The Crime of Our Time, tells the story of the financial crisis as a criminal tale.  He can be reached at: dissector@mediachannel.org

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.  

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Al Jazeera
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