If there is a coded message, it's this: Engage. Care. Get in the game
Watching Al Jazeera America, I've been occasionally shocked by what I've seen.
I knew going in that the new network, which premiered this week, would probably be out of touch with my American way of life. It is backed, after all, by a billionaire sheik and oil baron who once ruled Qatar. It comes to us from the Middle East, and doesn't hesitate to criticize my government.
Most stunning of all: It expects me to have an attention span.
The programming is a mix of straight news in the neutral tone of a traditional broadcast network — a far throw from the often-partisan tone of MSNBC or Fox News. Its flagship is the primetime show, “America Tonight,” in which anchor Joie Chen goes in-depth on stories ranging from new cancer treatments to gang violence with empathy, and no excessive flair.
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CNN vet Ali Velshi has “Real Money,” a financial show that aims to advocate for the little guy. Velshi boasts that his staff has read all 900 pages of the Obamacare bill, and this week went to a small Southern town to show the program's limitations. After one viewer said it felt like a Fox story, Velshi pledged to show all sides. In promos, he promises a local take on global issues, like how the cost of minerals in China will affect your cell phone bill.
Many viewers will be wary of a Middle East-based news service invading U.S. living rooms. But Al Jazeera's only agenda seems to be making Americans care about things we usually don't.
There isn't a celebrity story in sight. None of the hosts are big names, so they don't waste a lot of time huffing and responding to personal slights as if they were news. The scant sports coverage features games like cricket and soccer, whatever those are.
I found Al Jazeera surprisingly informative, even eye-opening. I saw Syrian children dead or trembling, victims of what looks to be a chemical attack by their own leaders. I heard again and again that my government has a credibility problem in the Middle East. I learned that Bradley Manning's lawyer was asking President Obama to pardon his client. (The other cable networks were playing commercials during the news conference, which Al Jazeera ran in its entirety.)
But I've been at a loss to decipher any political agenda, perhaps because Al Jazeera America isn't stuck in the Democrat vs. Republican bickering that seems to captivate every other U.S. news outlet. I felt, watching the new network, like Syria is as much a part of the world as Washington, and that I should be at least as worried about their dead kids as I am about whether the IRS targeted Tea Party groups.
At one moment Wednesday night, that really was the choice: On Al Jazeera's “Consider This,” we heard a plea from a Syrian opposition spokesman who said his people were dying of apathy.
“American resistance is killing us. The silence of our friends is killing us. The betrayal of the international community is killing us,” said George Sabra, of the Syrian National Council.
Meanwhile, on Fox News, a Republican fretted that the Obama Administration may have covered up politically motivated efforts to shake down Tea Partiers.
It occurred to me: They're worried about dying, and we're worried about money. Of course it would be wrong for the IRS to antagonize political opponents. But Al Jazeera gave me some perspective on how wrong it was, in the grand scheme of wrongs.
“Consider This” spent half an hour Wednesday night talking about what the U.S. government should do about Syria. The guests were unflashy, but strikingly informed. The screen was uncluttered except for a few crawling headlines, most of them about serious subjects.
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Janine Zacharia, a former Washington Post Middle East correspondent now teaching at Stanford University, and P.J. Crowley, a former spokesman in the Obama State Department, agreed the U.S. needed to do more in Syria. But they conceded they didn't know exactly what that should be.
That's typical of Al Jazeera America: There are criticisms aplenty, but no stock answers, derived from talking points and catch phrases. No one was playing gotcha over Benghazi or blaming President Bush.
If there was a coded message, it was this: Engage. Care. Get in the game.
Zacharia suggested that the U.S. might want to bring Iran into the efforts to condemn Syria's president, Bashar Hafez al-Assad.
“I know we don't want to talk to them because of the nuclear program, but it's a major crisis unfolding there, and we're acting like it's not,” she said.
I thought I might also have detected a subtle plea about engagement in a Thursday morning report about just-released recordings from the Nixon White House. In the tapes, President Nixon is heard asking Henry Kissinger to set up a meeting with Chinese leaders, even though China was considered an enemy.
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If Al Jazeera wants to indoctrinate Americans into the idea that we need to acknowledge the existence of other human beings, I guess I'm willing to be indoctrinated. But I may just be imagining things.
Talk to any U.S. national reporter, and you'll probably hear that they think their audience is smart – but that they also have to write for people who are coming in clueless.
Once its U.S. operations are up to speed, Al Jazeera America may start covering the same dumb celebrity feuds as its U.S. rivals. But I'm enjoying these early days, before ratings pressure leads to the probably inevitable influx of screaming panelists, mindless partisanship and oversimplified debates.
I hope Al Jazeera can make America smarter, before we make it dumber.