Al Jazeera English will premiere a thought-provoking and hard-hitting documentary about Baltimore tonight, but viewers here won't be able to see it on cable TV.
That's outrageous, ignorant and maddening. That's the conclusion I came to last week while reporting a Sunday story on the documentary and the bleak picture of Baltimore it would be presenting to a potential audience of 260 million homes elsewhere in the world. Read that story here.
But that lack of access to Al Jazeera English on cable TV also makes me wonder what kind of sheep we are as media consumers -- and what kind of mice we have as media critics that cable companies can get away with not offering this option even as they they offer a sea of channels devoted to shopping and reruns of lame network shows from previous decades.
Philip Seib, author of "The Al Jazeera Effect: How the New Global Media Are Reshaping World Politics," had a one word answer when I asked him why the channel is not available in cities like Baltimore: "Politics."
"There's ample evidence that the viewership is there," he said. "It's still the hangover from the days when particularly the [George W.] Bush administration was blasting Al Jazeera. [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld was the main one."
Seib, a professor at the University of Southern California who directs the Center on Public Diplomacy there, added, "When things go crazy in the Middle East Al Jazeera English is where you go if you don't speak Arabic. And the television sets throughout the U.S. government last year when the Arab revolutions were getting underway were all tuned to Al Jazeera English."
Seib, who also edited a book of scholarly writings on the channel that was published in February under the title "Al Jazeera English," concluded, "It's depriving the American public of a different voice. No one is compelled to watch it. But it should be available."
Al Jazeera is available on three cable systems in Washington, D.C., two in New York and one each in Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island. That's it.
Mohammed el-Nawawy, author of "Al Jazeera: The Story of the Network That is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism," says, "I am really appalled to be honest with you, that even after the increasing popularity after the coverage of Arab Spring, that is not being reflected in the U.S. market."
El-Nawawy, an associate professor at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, explains the lack of access in part by saying, "The cable carriers are afraid to carry it, because they don't want to alienate their constituents, they don't want to alienate their viewers, they don't want to go out of the box, they want to stay in their comfort zone. They play it safe."
But how much of a risk is it when you have the secretary of state endorsing the channel as "real news"?
"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," Hillary Clinton told a Senate Foreign Affairs panel last year. "You may not agree with it. but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of millions of commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.
Fortunately, Al Jazeera English has a strong digital and social media footprint in the U.S.
Viewers can watch the documentary that premieres at 6:30 p.m. tonight at watchaljazeera.com. There are multiple replays throughout the week. It will be available on Al Jazeera's YouTube channel.
But while Comcast viewers in Washington can watch it on Channel 275, Baltimore viewers have to go online. That's ridiculous.
It's also outrageous that the false labeling of the channel by top officials of the Bush administration, which includes men and women who lied about weapons of mass destruction in leading the nation to war in the Middle East, can still be influencing our information and media options today.
"I would have expected to see a change in attitude about Al Jazeera English in the American market after the Arab Spring coverage, because everywhere else in the world, Al Jazeera popularity has skyrocketed, particularly Al Jazeera English," el-Nawawy says.