Thursday, December 14, 2006

Daily Show reviews Al Jazeera English

On Wednesday's Comedy Central Daily Show with Jon Stewart, correspondent Samantha Bee gave a report on the recent launch of the English-language Al Jazeera news channel. Having watched quite a bit of the new Al Jazeera English channel, I was pleased to see several faces that should rapidly become familiar to every news junkie.

First, the transcript of the Daily Show segment:
Jon Stewart: The Holocaust conference [in Tehran, Iran] probably won't do wonders for American perceptions of the Middle East, but one institution is working to make a difference. Samantha Bee reports.

["Newsweak," produced by Miles Kahn, edited by Mark Paone]

Samantha Bee (voiceover): Al Jazeera: the Arab-language news network has swept the Middle East, and they've got plenty of fans over here.

Donald Rumsfeld (archival footage): What Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable....

Bee (v.o.): So it's no surprise they've launched an English-language network.

Ghida Fakhry: Good evening. The top story on Al Jazeera tonight ...

Bee: But how many people are watching in the U.S.? Al Ja-zero! Who's with me? Folks? Everyone's so fucking serious around here.

Bee (v.o.): U.S. cable companies have refused to carry the new network. It's as if they've confused Al Jazeera English with Al Jazeera.

Will Stebbins (Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera English): We're looking to produce a journalistically quality product.

Bee: Aren't you trying to appeal to an American audience?

Stebbins: The principle behind the structure of Al Jazeera English is the recognition that geography and culture clearly affects one's view of the world.

Bee: Congratulations. Your mom and dad are watching; I get it.

Bee (v.o.): It was clear that Johnnie Prep-school didn't know the first thing about the news game so I studied their programming.

Sir David Frost (Frost over the World): You're such an expert on the worlds of terror and spies and ...

Bee: Oh my god, he is so old!

Riz Khan (Riz Khan): I started out mentioning you were a high-school dropout, picked up the guitar —

Riz Khan's guest: Yeah, thanks for that.

Shahnaz Pakravan (Everywoman): I'm Shahnaz Pakravan; thanks for joining me.

Bee: Does this thing have picture-in-picture? Anyone?

Richard Gizbert (Listening Post): If you don't like the angle on a story, you can report it your way.

Bee: [inhaling from what appears to be a joint] Oh no, this just makes it go slower.

Ethan Zuckerman (guest webcam commentary on Listening Post): American and Chinese companies, in providing a search engine...

Bee (v.o.): If they were going to succeed in American television, I'd have to become their Al Ja-hero, so I took a look under the hood.

Bee: Where are all your graphics?

Al Jazeera staffer: We usually put graphics at the end of the news hour.

Bee: Whoa, whoa, whoa — news hour?

Bee (v.o.): [over the Al Jazeera News theme] and that music ain't helpin', either.

Bee: [starts synthesized beat loop] Okay, what's that the sound of? [rhythmically, to the beat] People, working, in an office. [pause] Fingers, clacking on a keyboard. What's gonna happen in the world today? Oh no! Something terrible. Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera.

Bee (v.o.): Next, I had to reshape the network's star anchors.

Marash: Welcome to Al Jazeera television, I'm Dave Marash.

Bee: What's going on with all this?

Marash: You mean the beard?

Bee: It strikes me as a little ... Muslim-y.

Bee: What's gonna happen next? I need some banter. [to Ghida Fakhry:] Maybe talk about your mama. [to Dave Marash:] Maybe talk about your ma. Let's talk about segués. I need you to hold my hand and take me with you. You want me to show you how that's done.

Marash: Yeah, give me — yes.

Bee: [clears throat] The President's advisers will continue to reach out to the Iraqi leader. Anyhoooo — kittens: how cute are they?

Marash: I'm Dave Marash ...

Fakhry: ... and I'm Ghida Fakhry. We begin tonight in Iraq....

Bee: I'm just gonna have to stop you there. What was that?

Fakhry: Ghida Fakhry.

Bee: Okay, that sounds really weird to me.

Bee (v.o.): Rebuilding this network from the ground up wasn't easy. But after ¾ of an hour of hard work, we were ready, 3, 2, 1...

[new opening splash screen, with Al Jazeera English logo glistening in front of a U.S. flag, followed in rapid succession by Mohammed Ali, a burger with hot dog and french fries, the "HOLLYWOOD" sign, Bart Simpson, the Statue of Liberty, Babe Ruth, another U.S. flag, Mickey Mouse, Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, John F. Kennedy, Larry Bird, the Seattle Space Needle, the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley, a "Las Vegas" sign, and the Alamo, closing with the Al Jazeera logo again in front of a U.S. flag background]

Marash: Welcome to Al Jazeera televsion, I'm Dave Marash.

Fakhry: And I'm — Peppermint Gomez. Tonight's top story: Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki ...

Bee (v.o.): Don't blow this, Marash!

Marash: No wonder so many people want to off this Maliki guy!

Fakhry: Well, maybe he should come to the American heartland for a lesson or two on etiquette — and democracy. Oh, my mama could teach him a thing or two.

Marash: I know — I've met your mama, and he wouldn't be able to sit down for a week. Anyhoooo, up next: Immigrants — are they stealing your blonde teenagers?

Fakhry: And later we take a hard look at why some of Hollywood's hottest celebrities aren't wearing panties.

Bee: Yes, nailed it! Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera.

Stewart: Samantha Bee; we'll be right back.

Marash: Welcome to Al Jazeera television; I'm Dave Marash.

Bee: You're as dry as a biscuit! Give me some feeling. Get your pinky up America's bum and massage the prostate. Let's go, one more time.
The shows that were excerpted are all quite well done, with a depth and variety of reportage that make a refreshing change from U.S. corporate media. Of course, Al Jazeera has its own perspective, which filters through somewhat to the broadcasts. However, that perspective is biased in a very different direction from what most Americans think. The bias is towards the newsworthiness of events happening outside North America, western Europe, Russia, China, and Japan. Al Jazeera English has four broadcast centers, located in Doha, Qatar; Washington, D.C.; London, England; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; with bureaus in cities on every continent. Of course, the coverage concentrates on the Middle East, but Africa is also well represented, and the coverage of South America puts U.S. newscasts to shame.

Sir David Frost has been on television for more than 40 years, earning honors around the world. He is the only person who has interviewed the last seven U.S. Presidents (since Nixon) and the last six U.K. Prime Ministers (going back to the early 1960's). He clearly has been given free rein on his new program. Riz Khan hosts Riz Khan, a live call-in program with a U.S. telephone number, and One on One, an interview program. He has worked for the BBC and for CNN. This week's guest on One on One is CBS News Sixty Minutes icon Mike Wallace.

Shahnaz Pakravan hosts Everywoman, a program devoted to issues of interest to women, recently including issues of Sharia law and hajib, mixing hard news with "human interest" feature stories. Richard Gizbert was a correspondent for Canadian television and later for ABC News; he hosts Listening Post, a program featuring commentaries from somewhat more obscure media outlets, including bloggers and viewers. Dave Marash and Ghida Fakhry are the news hosts in the Washington broadcast center, providing 4 hours per day of news. Twelve hours a day originate from Doha, and 4 hours each from London and Kuala Lumpur.

Several other Al Jazeera programs are worth watching, though: Inside Iraq features Jasim Al Azzawi, a former translator for the U.S. State Department, analyzing the week's news from Iraq, with guests including Rend Al Rahim (former Iraqi ambassador to the United States — a woman), Ayad Al Samarei (deputy secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party), Dr. Buthaina Shaaban (Syria's minister of expatriates), and Martin Indyke (a former U.S. ambassador, now with the Brookings Institution). Jasim doesn't hesitate to call his guests — American, Iraqi, or otherwise — onto the carpet if they begin spouting sound-bite talking points instead of giving substantive answers to his questions. In particular, he called Dr. Buthaina Shaaban on a Syrian position that ignores the effects of their policies on the Iraqi people with whom they are supposedly in solidarity. Jasim is skeptical of the U.S. occupation, but he is equally skeptical of its opponents. If you want to know the truth about the situation in Iraq, there are a lot worse ways to spend half an hour a week than watching Inside Iraq, broadcasting live at 17:30 UTC on Fridays, repeating at 23:30 and on Saturday at 04:30, 10:30, and 20:30. Subtract 5 hours for U.S. Eastern Time; 8 for Pacific.

Witness presents documentaries from around the world. In counterpoint to the common U.S. perception of Al Jazeera's bias, they devoted an entire episode a couple of weeks ago to the story of a team of Israeli doctors who give life-saving surgeries to Palestinian children whose families cannot afford to pay. It's a far cry from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, much less Osama bin Laden. Inside Story is a news analysis program, dealing with issues such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the assassination of Pierre Gemayel (Lebanese cabinet member), and the gathering strength of the Taliban. People and Power investigates the use and abuse of political power around the world. This week under the microscope will be North Korea, Italy, and Chile. There are several other programs, including some I haven't yet seen (101 East, in particular).

Even the sports coverage provides an interesting angle on the world. For example, the Iraqi people had a moment of unity, transcending sectarian divisions, when their football (soccer) team made it through to the finals against the host team at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. I don't follow American football, much less soccer, but it's important to understand the level to which national pride is pinned on a soccer team in much of the world.

Another observation regarding the supposed status of Al Jazeera as a propaganda arm of Al Qaeda: this advertisement for QTel, the national telephone company of Qatar, illustrates the philosophical background behind Al Jazeera.
Can we tear down the walls that divide us?
Can we turn soldiers into peacemakers?
Can we learn from each other, no matter who we are?
Can man and woman be born equal?
Can we hear the earth dying?
Can we stop destroying life?
Can we promise our children, not just a brighter tomorrow, but a brighter today?
Can love be the most powerful weapon in the world?
Wherever we stand, whatever our point of view, can we forget what divides us and discover what unites us?
Hardly sounds like the ravings of a radical Islamic jihadist movement.

I was also impressed that the real journalists at Al Jazeera held their own with the fake journalists from The Daily Show much better than most members of Congress.

If you live in the U.S. and get your television via cable, DishTV, or DirecTV, you can't yet get Al Jazeera English: as Samantha Bee noted, no U.S. operator yet carries it. That leaves only two options: the serious hardcore large satellite dish tuning directly to their transponder, or the Internet feed. For free, you can watch 15 minutes at a time of webcam-quality images; the price for the near-broadcast quality feed starts at $5.95/month.

CORRECTION: In the original of this article, Kuala Lumpur was incorrectly identified as being in Indonesia; Kuala Lumpur is in fact the capital and largest city of Malaysia.

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