Six months in, there is more to say about Al Jazeera America than that its ratings stink. But that's about the only thing I see written about the Qatar-owned cable channel these days.
As of last month, Al Jazeera America was averaging about 10,000 viewers at any given time of the day, while CNN had 272,000, MSNBC 349,000 and Fox News 924,000. But it is important to understand that Al Jazeera America is only in 50 million to 55 million of the nation's 110 million homes. The others are in twice as many.
And given that the deep pockets in Qatar promise Al Jazeera America plenty of time to find an audience, I believe there are more important viewer-oriented stories for media critics to tell about the upstart channel than those written in the horse-race language of Nielsen ratings.
Is Al Jazeera America expanding the diversity of American TV with its programming, as some of us have hoped since the purchase of Current was announced? And does it look like the channel will become a true alternative for the kinds of news and information that U.S. viewers might not be able to find anywhere else on television?
In partial answer to those questions, I offer the documentary "On the Frontlines with the Taliban," premiering at 9 p.m. March 21 on Al Jazeera America. A second part, "This Is Taliban Country," is scheduled for 9 p.m. March 28.
As opposed to much American network and cable reporting on the fighting in Afghanistan, which is told from within a compound or fort looking out, this film is told from within the ranks of the insurgents. It opens with the camera among a ragged group of Taliban soldiers as they attack an Afghanistan army post. The sound of drones and NATO warplanes is overhead.
The documentary defines reporting from the ground-up, versus top-down. Instead of talking to PR-prepped generals and government officials back in their safe offices, this film gets down in the dust of the battlefield and captures the foot soldiers in all their fervor, bluster, frustration, finger-pointing, hope and fear as they launch an attack and then see it go mostly wrong.
American audiences have been offered some excellent on-the-ground battlefield storytelling out of Afghanistan in "Restrepo," the 2010 documentary by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington. The filmmakers followed American troops on a 15-month deployment in the Korangel Valley and captured profoundly touching moments.
But this is the first time I've seen the war from the other side with this kind of immediacy and detail — and that is thanks largely to the nerve, skill and sense of mission of Nagieb Khaja, a Danish journalist with Afghan roots who embedded with the Taliban to make this film for Al Jazeera's "Fault Lines" series.
That's the same series, by the way, that in 2012 produced "Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City," as honest and clear-eyed a look at this city as any outside TV news organization has ever done. But because there was no Al Jazeera America at the time, Baltimore viewers could only see it online. While I long admired Al Jazeera for its Middle East reporting, I only came to understand how enriched American media would be by its on-the-street reporting after seeing the Baltimore film.
"Documentaries are an important part of our programming because they give deep detail to important and controversial topics, which allows the audience to fully understand a complex story," Al Jazeera America Senior Vice President Shannon High-Bassalik said in an email. "This documentary in particular is an eye-opening look at how the Taliban are already ruling parts of Afghanistan, just outside the capital, and how their tactics have changed since being chased out of central power."
"On the Frontlines" is not Khaja's first project on Afghanistan. The 34-year-old journalist says he has been reporting on the country since 2004.
In 2008, Khaja says, he was captured by the Taliban and held hostage for a week before being freed. On a later foray into the war-torn country, he brought along 30 digital cameras, gave them to Afghan citizens and asked them to film their lives. The result, a 2012 documentary titled "My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone," transcends Western stereotypes as it takes viewers inside the harsh day-to-day reality of living in the midst of death and destruction.
In a telephone interview from Denmark last week, Khaja said he feels the West has a poor understanding of the country America has been fighting in for the last 12 years. And he believes the West knows next to nothing about the Taliban, who are poised in some regions of the country to try and take control once U.S. troops depart. He believes that comparisons to America's misadventure in Vietnam are inescapable.
"It's quite extraordinary that we've had 12 years of war in Afghanistan and we've actually had maybe only a handful of real stories from insurgent-controlled areas of the country," he says.
"One reason for that is that the Taliban are not at all interested in reaching the Western audience," he explains. "They don't care about getting the Western audience to have sympathy with their mission. And they fear the negative possibility of espionage if they allow Western journalists to have access."
Khaja says he's fought to gain access because he believes the truth about the country he loves is not being told in news coverage dominated by Western voices and narratives.
"For me it's extremely important, because I'm a Dane of Afghan origin and I'm also a journalist," he says. "And we've had soldiers there, we in the Western world, for more than decade. And most of us don't understand the psychology of why people are taking up weapons.
"The picture we have of the insurgents is very stereotypical," he continues. "It says that generally they are affiliated with a worldwide threat, al-Qaida. You know, that's the reason that we went into Afghanistan: to get rid of al-Qaida. But the big problem has been that we mix up the Taliban with al-Qaida way too much. It's not the same thing — the Taliban and al-Qaida — and the West needs to understand that."
In trying to explain why Afghan civilians are taking up arms and fighting with the Taliban against the Afghanistan army and NATO forces, he says you have to understand not only the desperate everyday existence of life in a war-ravaged country but also multiple layers of politics, economics and tribal history — almost none of which you find in Western reporting. Again, shades of Vietnam.
Khaja expects some Al Jazeera America viewers will watch "On the Frontline" and "This Is Taliban Country" with a critical eye, and he welcomes it.
"I want to remind people who are watching the documentary that I'm embedded with the Taliban — that's very important to understand," he says. "It's difficult to get an honest version of reality when you are together with a warring party, I'm telling you. But I have access, and I believe I have the experience to use it to tell a story that has largely gone untold in the West. And I think it is an important story to tell today."
As the U.S. prepares to pull out of Afghanistan, leaving behind another horrible tally of American lives and money lost, it is a story that must be told and understood in this country if we don't want more Vietnams, Iraqs and Afghanistans.
Al Jazeera does have a bias in favor of countries and people who find themselves under the control of armies from outside their borders — there is no doubt about it.
But whatever the reasons for Al Jazeera bringing Khaja's work on Afghanistan to a prime-time American audience, the channel is serving democracy in the best tradition of journalism. It's bringing viewers information about matters of life and death that they probably otherwise wouldn't have.
The question is whether American viewers are going to be wise enough to avail themselves of it
"On the Frontline with the Taliban" airs at 9 p.m. March 21 on Al Jazeera America.
"This Is Taliban Country" airs at 9 p.m. March 28 on Al Jazeera America.
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