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Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz

This month something unusual happened on TV for many New Yorkers and other Americans – a news channel went blank. After four years, Al Jazeera America has ceased operations.

So an obscure foreign TV network goes dark. So what? The problem here is it leaves the US TV cable viewer almost without a serious international network. At all.  A news cruise around the dial of most cable operators will leave the viewers with a surprisingly small number of news channels.

One can watch cable giants such as CNN or Fox, MSNBC and the like, and be left with the impression that almost nothing happens beyond the borders of the United States.

They have occasional foreign coverage of big bleeding stories, anything about terrorism, and a small amount of international economic news. Cable news here is parochial at best.

Fox and CNN can hardly be called serious news, nor can they ever be accused of being anything except incredibly America centered and infested with two generally extreme and cartoonish points of view; a hard right fairytale on Mr. Murdoc’s side, and CNN’s ceaseless time filing Blitzeresque droning.

The picture is just as awful when it comes to broadcast; a sample of any of the large networks’ evening or morning fare gives the viewer a feeling they are watching TV which is pitched to the intellectual and educational level of a ten year old.

The decline of American  news bureaus outside the US over the past 25 years is a symptom and a cause of American TV news organizations’ ever decreasing geographical range and interest.

This lack of access, and perhaps the horrible possibility that Americans have been trained over the last generation to value a childish celebrity obsessed junk culture of morons, spelled lights out for Al Jazeera.

What’s left for cable subscribers is PBS and foreign news channels with an international bent like the BBC, and increasingly (though increasingly slowly) other Al Jazeera-like foreign government networks such as CCTV from China, NHK from Japan (often joked as being Japan’s BBC) in English, and the hilariously slanted Kremlin mouthpiece RTT.   RTT is what professors of journalism could show their students as an example of utterly biased “reportage”.

Al Jazeera America, a subsidiary of Al Jazeera Media (Qatar) bought Canadian Current TV and combined was the closest thing we had to a serious in depth American international news channel. They have 50 (but no doubt a decreasing number of) non US news bureaus, a large budget, and a wealth of international talent. Their award winning coverage has earned various accolades within their community and an impressive number of American, Australian, British presenters and writers have defected, if you will, to Al Jazeera. They attracted viewers and  journalists who care for more than “celebrities and shouting” – as Al Jazeera themselves put it in reference to US TV infotainment.

The closing of nearly all overseas news bureaus by American media companies is in part due to changed realities of journalism and modern mass communications, but this trend of reduced interest in overseas events  was established by the mid 1990s, well before the internet was a force in journalism.

The main reasons for Al Jazeera America’s death are firstly the dramatically lowered price of oil which effects all of the owner’s -the Qatari government – finances. There has been an across the board cut for everything the petrocarbon rich Gulf Arab country supports. Additionally, Al Jazeera used to be a very unpopular name in the United States with citizens as well as cable companies (in Time Warner’s case) hungry to use the bandwidth in favor of less controversial and intellectual stations. It required a grass roots effort in NYC to even have Time Warner Cable put it on its dial at all.

As a brand, the network has come a long way since before the Gulf War II when Donald Rumsfeld toyed with the idea of actually bombing their office in Afghanistan – mainly in response to their airing of Bin Laden’s tapes. But that is what it is remembered for in the American media sphere and it was often mocked by Fox as being a nest of Islamic terrorism and apologists.  Its general liberal bent has earned it further ire from the big cable and broadcasting establishment.

Being Qatari government funded they are not beholden to advertisers – as their unimpressive advertising suggested. Ads didn’t pay the bills and their advertisers were like those of late night infomericals;- cheap face creams, personal injury attorneys, and late night drunk dial impulse purchases.

Its not the end of the world – there’s still Al Jazera International in its various online forms, but not on our TV screens with American perspectives and talent, and not with a full network in New York with other US branches to provide its 24 hour a day news, analysis, documentaries and specials. Devotees can and will access it online, just as many Americans did before Al J America was on our TVs.

But it is sad fate for the hopeful standard bearer in grown up international news, and is symptomatic of a more isolated, parochial, dumbed down America.

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David Anderson has a B.A. (Hon.) in Middle East politics from Melbourne University and did post graduate work at Georgetown University. He grew up in Australia and is a retired attorney in New York City.

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