David Zurawik

Why Al Jazeera buying Current is a good thing for media, country

I don't care if Al Gore got more money than he ever deserved for his pathetic channel, or Glenn Beck got the short end of the stick in trying to buy it as an escape from his prison of media marginalization.

All of that is ideological and personality-obsessed, pop-culture nonsense that misses the point of the sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera.

What's important is that Al Jazeera has found a way into an estimated 40 million American homes through the purchase of Gore's mismanaged channel, and that is a good thing – a very good thing.

In fact, the cable industry's success in keeping Al Jazeera English off all but a handful of systems in the U.S. was one of the great wrongs of American media. And no one, it seems, wanted to address it. Media critics who looked the other way for whatever reasons should be ashamed.

In August, Al Jazeera English offered a powerful documentary, "Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City," on the politics and sociology of Baltimore's war on drugs.  In reporting on the documentary, I became outraged that viewers in Baltimore would not be able to see it on cable TV.

I had been a fan of Al Jazeera for its coverage of the Middle East for years, but this hit much closer to home. This was an informed and provocative critique of urban life, and viewers who could be enlightened about the city in which they lived were denied access to it.

Here is some of what I wrote, and why I am so pleased about this sale. It makes American media a smarter and more diverse mix – and that makes this a better country. If you don't believe me, at least listen to the experts I quoted.

The lack of access to Al Jazeera English on cable TV 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 under way 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 in 2011. "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.

So, I don't care what the Qatar-based company ultimately calls the channel (Al Jazeera America is the tentative choice).

And I don't care if they do or don't hire anyone from Al Gore's old Current operation. The channel was dreadful from top to bottom. If I were Al Jazeera, I wouldn't want anything but the entree to American homes that the sale offers.

What does matter now is how many cable systems that carried Current try to get out of carrying the new U.S.-based Al Jazeera channel, as Time Warner seems to be doing by exercising an option that came into play when the channel changed hands. (It now appears Time Warner has an option to carry Al Jazeera English, and says it is considering that.)

Comcast, Dish, DirecTV, Verizon and AT&T have agreed to the switch from Current to Al Jazeera America, which is good news for Baltimore and other Mid-Atlantic viewers.

Let's be diligent in watching and reporting on who does and does not carry the channel.

But let's keep fools like Beck, with his pitiful poor-me-I'm-a-victim-of-prejudice whining, in the margins of the American media conversation where they belong.

And let's also thank the TV gods for helping retire Al Gore from the media business, where he behaved even worse than most guys with too much money and ego -- and too little knowledge and respect for the role our media play in this democracy.