This past Saturday, when I managed to pull myself away from Al Jazeera for a half an hour so I could run an errand, I discovered that the TV at the dry-cleaning store was on the same station. No Muslims work there and, although the TV is usually on, this was the first time I had paid any attention to the TV set. Maybe it had always been on Al Jazeera and I simply hadn’t noticed.
During the Bush years, Al Jazeera was vilified as biased in favor of the Arab world. I never heard the Bush administration criticizing American TV networks for favoring the United States. It wasn’t until three years ago that Al Jazeera began broadcasting in English from its offices in Fairfax, Virginia, not far from where I live. I watched the station sporadically until a year ago when I went to a local Midas automobile repair shop and discovered—early in the morning when I dropped off my car—that the channel in the lobby was set on Al Jazeera. When I picked up my car in the afternoon, it was the same. I asked the manager if there were any Muslims working for him and he said no, but his more revealing answer came when I asked why his lobby television was set on Al Jazeera.
“It’s the only channel that gives you the real news.” His response led me to conclude that if middle America had figured this out, something interesting was happening.
I increased my own viewing of Al Jazeera and realized that, yes, the manager at Midas was right. Sometimes events unfolding in the United States received better coverage and analysis on Al Jazeera than on American network and cable channels. That was particularly true during the run-up to the 2010 mid-term elections.
Where would we be today without Al Jazeera as events in the Middle East continue to unfold so rapidly—events as momentous as the fall of the Berlin Wall—that many of us find ourselves glued to our TVs? CNN’s coverage is interrupted ad nauseam for commercials that often string half a dozen mindless advertisements together. FOX “news” continues its infantile coverage of non-events as if nothing of significance ever happens outside the United States.
That leaves Al Jazeera, first chronicling the remarkable events as they occurred in Tunisia and now Egypt. Though their bureau in Cairo has been closed down by the Egyptian government, live feeds of voices from phone lines continue non-stop. Maybe Americans will not only learn something about a part of the world about which we are so woefully ignorant. Perhaps we will also begin to realize that while media organizations are generally faithful to their geographical and cultural places of origins, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are distorting information.
The on-going revolution in the Middle East will be brought to you by Al Jazeera, God willing.
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.