Thursday, March 3, 2011

Watching the Watchers

As is true for many Canadians Al Jazeera  is part of my normal cable package. I would not be surprised if many Canadians had up until the recent protests in the Middle East been unaware of the fact that their television package included this channel.

I first started watching Al Jazeera on a regular basis just after Christmas because I was frustrated at the limited coverage other news outlets were giving to the protests in the streets of cities across the Middle East. Although I wasn't sure what the real story was I was sure that asking a limited number of white, male, non-Arabic speaking pundits to explain things was not the shortest and surest way to find out. 

I soon developed a mental catalog of the news channels available to me.

CNN  was at its best a good conduit of the 'received wisdom' of the American elite. One quickly learned that the 'received wisdom' was not particularly wise if by that word one means 'full of insight as to what is actually happening on the ground and with a better than average ability to predict the fallout of current events.'  What CNN gave me, when they bothered to cover the news from Tunisia or Egypt or Libya, was a clear enough picture of how the government/punditocracy of the United States thought about things that I could make fairly informed predictions as to how they would respond to the unfolding crisis.

Notice however, the phrase 

when they bothered to cover the news from Tunisia or Egypt or Libya 

since at what seemed to me rather inexplicable moments the news editors at that channel would decide to cover some other event. 

The cynical part of me decided that the best way for Egyptians to make sure that the news of their government sending thugs into the streets to attack peaceful protesters to get banner coverage in the United States would be to threaten or hold hostage prominent American reporters. Sadly what happened when CNN did realize that some of their reporters were quite seriously in harm's way was that the story soon came to focus on the American reporters rather than the events they had come to report on.

I am not surprised that CNN is driven by / responsive to parochial concerns however I do feel that they should dial back on their self-satisfied gravitas given the fact they they seem now to be equal parts 'unofficial platform for the chattering classes / government' and 'tabloid television.'

CBC/CTV Both the Canadian news channels had adequate coverage of the world shaking events happening. They did have reporters on the ground reporting things they actually witnessed as opposed to repeating things told to them by 'inside sources' however the scope and depth of the reportage was limited. I understand why so much of their concern was basically parochial (what is happening to Canadians in that part of the world / how will these events effect Canada) however I think that this was one of the times when the networks should have risen above short term parochialism in order to fulfill their greater parochial duty -- to make sure that their Canadian audience was well educated about events around the world.

The BBC did a good job compared to CNN or the Canadian news channels. They had more people on the ground in the area than did the Canadian or American channels and they had more access to the intelligentsia of the Arab-speaking diaspora than did their North American counterparts. Still, there was an aspect of their coverage (outside of the usual criticisms lodged against them) I had a problem putting into words until events in other parts of the world (specifically the earthquake in New Zealand) clarified it to me. What happened in New Zealand was, without question, horrible and yet the amount of time the BBC devoted to it seemed disproportionate to the amount given to events happening elsewhere in the world. Now it isn't surprising that the BBC would give more coverage to an event that happened in a commonwealth country heavily populated by expatriates whose descendants speak (almost) the same language. The problem is that BBC "sees" and presents the world through occidental eyes. They don't just give disproportionate coverage to things that happen in their own political/cultural backyard -- they have a specific and identifiable way of cataloging and evaluating world events. This is sometimes a subtle matter of line readings on the part of news readers or of the ordering of stories. It may be a matter of the implied lack of respect given to the people around the news reporter or the willingness to intrude on the private sorrow, grief and pain of those around them.

I started watching Al Jazeera because I wanted to see the pictures that weren't being carried on the Canadian or American channels and, if nothing else, I wanted to avoid the endless focus on cricket [1] on the BBC. (For those who haven't had a chance to watch Al Jareeza it streamed on the net both in Arabic and in English.) The coverage over the last few months has focused on the Middle East but they cover news from all over the world. They didn't ignore the earthquake in New Zealand, they carried news of the Super Bowl, they interviewed American political figures, they had a look-in at the Oscars. However, all of these stories are covered without the subtle occidental / western filtering and shading that I noticed at the BBC.

Would I make the claim that Al Jazeera is objective? Of course not. Neither is the BBC nor CNN nor the CBC. However I think it is vitally important at this moment in history for us in the 'western world' to be able to get news about the non-western world from a range of sources western and non-western. We need to stop seeing the non-occidental world only through occidental eyes.

Note to anyone who is thinking at this point 'what about Fox News?" Given the sorry level of basic fact checking and the open support of individuals and parties involved in American politics I do not consider FOX a source of news. My only interest in it would be see how they were going to frame events or to check to see if they had even acknowledged the fact that something had happened.

And now - a special comment on CNN.

CNN, like many news channels, mediates and frames its news coverage. I am not sure that most of its watchers are aware of how deeply that impacts their understandings of what is happening in the world. More than once in the last few weeks I have been watching someone giving a speech in Tripoli or Cairo and I turned to CNN to find that the speech wasn't being shown. At best there might be a crawl across the bottom of the screen announcing, for example, that Gaddafi was speaking on Libyan state television. Then a commentator would appear and tell the audience members what to think about that speech. 

I, like many of the people who were watching the BBC or Al Jazeera as Gaddafi spoke, understand no more than a few words in Arabic however I learned much by watching the Colonel speak. Of course, his words were being simultaneously translated, but I could also see and hear him. I could notice the times he seemed at a loss for words and also make note of how often when Libyan state television cut away from him he was silent.  I could compare his body language with that of earlier televised appearances. None of this was possible when the coverage was not of him but of other people telling me about him.

CNN was standing between me and a news event. This is common on almost all American news channels. They do not show you the speech: they show you clips of the speech and then tell you how to understand it.

And because they do not show you the raw, unmediated event they deny you access to the data you need in order to answer some very important questions:

Do these people actually understand events better than do you?
Could you make equally good (or bad) predictions given the same information they have?
Could you make better predictions given the same information they have?

[1] Although, truth to told, Al Jazeera also covers cricket too much for my taste. 


  1. My thoughts exactly on the NZ earthquake! (Even though I didn't actually hear about it until intercessions on Sunday... I was a bit out of the loop last week.)

    CNN.... gah. When we went to Iceland for our honeymoon the hotel had CNN so we thought we'd quickly catch up on the headlines by switching on on the hour.

    After twenty minutes watching Bill Clinton wandering around under some balloons (it was July 1992. I think they were less than 6 months from some primaries, or something) we gave up.

    -Julie paradox

  2. Re: CNN standing between you and the news - this is the same phenomenon that I find in basic US History text books - the thing where, instead of giving the students the text of a document, the students are told about the document. This has two negative results. First, it means that several generations of students have become convinced that history is boring. Second, it also means that, when presented with original documents, most students don't know what to do.

    I think there's a post in this.

  3. I was really shocked at my daughter's advanced-placement history text. I've never seen such a boring, poorly-written, use-it-for-a-doorstop in my life. She started that year with a strong interested in American history, and ended it thoroughly bored and disgusted.

    The book did, in fact, include quite a number of original source texts. But the surrounding verbiage so so uninformative and hard to follow, they didn't help much.

  4. And now, a young woman who could have been a good historian is convinced that history is boring.

    What was it about American history that interested her in the first place? If she's a reader, that interest can be encouraged, and this tragedy can be repaired.

  5. MTimonin, I think that history-in-school is widely considered one of the most boring subjects; I know I didn't take any interest in it at all until I started to read about it for myself. For the last forty years or so, the official answer in the UK has been to do lots of small-scale projects - "how does it feel to be a starving peasant in 1200AD", that sort of thing - to try to engage pupils' attention, whereas what worked for me was trying to assemble the big picture.


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