By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
6:00 AM EDT, August 22, 2013
Watching the debut this week of Al Jazeera America, I couldn't help but remember reviewing the first week of Erin Burnett's show on CNN in October 2011.
I say this not to rip Burnett again, but because her attitude toward the Occupy Wall Street protesters in that first week in 2011 offers such a clean snapshot of the difference in orientation between CNN and Al Jazeera America.
And it's important to understand that difference, because unlike Fox News and MSNBC, which wave their ideological flags openly, CNN and Al Jazeera America both claim to be doing down-the-middle, straight journalism.
Here's a bit of what I wrote under the headlines: "CNN's new host Erin Burnett: Smug, superficial and acting like she knows... And I was prepared to love anyone who wasn't named Eliot Spitzer."
I promised myself I was going to give CNN's new weeknight host Erin Burnett a full week of shows before I reviewed her.
It was hard keeping that promise Monday night when I saw her pay a visit to the Occupy Wall Street encampment so she could look down her nose and mock the folks there. I thought it downright cruel the way she and her producer cut one kid from the herd and then tried to make him look like a fool. This was cool kids mocking outsiders on the playground, and it made me angry ...
Two of the fundamental attributes of good journalism are curiosity and a respect for the people on whom you report. Burnett got an "F" on both those counts with her Occupy Wall Street piece. Not only didn't she listen hard enough to learn anything from the people in the group, she and her producers positioned the speakers to be seen as objects of derision. That is deplorable.
There is another large issue here, and that involves her producers and management at CNN. Don't they understand ... where this nation is and the desperate pain it is in?
I guess not, or they would have understood that Occupy Wall Street is an eruption of that pain, a sign of something deeply disturbing that has happened to the quality of middle-class American life and the ability of some young people to believe in the future any more. And the worst thing your new host could do is go out and look down her nose at the encampment and ignorantly dismiss its residents.
Did I say how much I hated her flip description of the encampment as having a "kind of a Tent City meets Woodstock kind of feel," as if she even starts to understand what it felt like to be in either of those communities -- or the deep social forces that led to those profound cultural moments?
You get the idea. Here's a link to the full piece if you want more.
CNN management would not have given her a key hour at 7 p.m. leading into prime time nightly and new president Jeff Zucker would not have kept her on if she didn't reflect the news organization's values. At her core is a pronounced deference to big corporations and great respect for the movers and shakers of Wall Street -- the very people who took this country to the brink in 2008. That's whose p.o.v this corporate cheerleader was articulating in her mockery of the young people in the tents.
Al Jazeera America is the direct opposite. Its sympathies are with the street, lower case "s" -- as indicated by one story Tuesday night on a young woman who made coats for the homeless and another that explored child labor in sweat shops in Bangladesh.
I have been so conditioned by American TV's aversion to taking on advertisers that I thought, "Sure, they will shred this place in Bangladesh, but they won't be too specific in chronicling the U.S. corporations for whom the cheap labor is being exploited."
Was I surprised.
Al Jazeera America named Old Navy and The Gap. And then, they read portions of what they said was a letter from lawyers for the firms saying the sweatshop was a rogue outfit that had no connections to the U.S. companies. The products in the shop, the letter allegedly said, had nothing to do with the two companies.
Except Al Jazeera America then tracked down numbers on the products they had seen in the shop and said they found products with those same numbers -- in this case, pants -- in Manhattan stores.
If that's anti-American, maybe we need more of it. Most of the American media look right past the armies of homeless people sleeping in doorways and underpasses in places like Washington, D.C., but not Al Jazeera America. And Al Jazeera's journalists explored a bit of homelessness with a positive story about a young woman trying to make a difference.
American media don't need any more Erin Burnetts. We've got them by the bucket. Twitter is choked with their narcissistic selfies.
And we don't need to ratchet up our commitment to capitalism. We are almost nothing but gung-ho even as the wealthiest Americans seem to be getting positively Gilded Age in their excess.
I think U.S. media and our conversation of democracy can use a cable channel that has some empathy for those Americans not in the boardrooms, penthouse apartments and exclusive gated communities.
But corporations like AT&T and Time Warner Cable are sure doing their best to keep that voice out of American homes.
Comcast viewers can see Al Jazeera America on Channel 107.
Verizon FIOS subscribers will find it at Channel 114.
DirecTV subscribers can find it on Channel 358, while those with DISH can go to Channel 215.
Otherwise, if you had Current TV in your channel lineup, look for Al Jazeera America there unless you are a Time Warner or AT&T subscriber.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun