Friday, January 26, 2007

Signs of Intelligent Life on Television

President Bush may or may not get to complete his military "surge" in Iraq, but the television news organizations are calling all hands on deck. The greed motive is at last beginning to align with aggressive skepticism of the White House: nobody wants to be the last "Me, too!" in echoing the really big news story. MSNBC is giving CNN a real run for the news junkie demographic, Al Jazeera English is must-see TV for anyone who wants to pretend to be globally well informed, and PBS has ever-so-politely thrown down the gauntlet to the White House. The gloves aren't coming all the way off, but they're at least trading the boxing gloves for long black evening gloves, the better to bitch-slap you with, m'dear. I have some thoughts on where best to catch the action over the next few weeks.

MSNBC was the reason that I switched cable companies, specifically to see Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Keith Olbermann is to real news what Jon Stewart is to fake news. Even if you think his political views are fucked up, you can't escape the fact that he's far smarter than Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and George W. Bush combined. And then there's his follow-up act on MSNBC, former Republican Congressman (and Newt Gingrich "Contract with America" revolutionary) Joe Scarborough. Lately, Joe has been quite aggressively taking on much of the neocon power structure, including calling Billo out on some of his irresponsible comments. He expresses a healthy skepticism about the proposals coming from the White House. Of course, we mustn't forget Chris Matthews, whose program is living up to the name Hardball. Chris was a staffer for Jimmy Carter and Tip O'Neill, so he's no mossback, but nor is he a wild-eyed leftie. He's smart, and he shows the tenacity he honed as a high-school wrestler. There's also Tucker Carlson in the mix, and there are some respects in which Tucker is smart, but he's so often jaw-droppingly foolish. Just a quick for instance: he not only asserted, but defiantly repeated that we Americans know better than the Iraqi people what is best for Iraq. If you want to know why so much of the world hates America, you need look no farther than statements like that.

Al Jazeera English was six months late launching, but it was worth the wait. They have assembled a team that meets or beats the BBC and CNN International on just about every front. It's not just the Middle East — their coverage of sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia and even South America, leaves the other English-language news channels (in which category I count neither Fox News nor Sky News!) in the dust! Many people in America are convinced or just assume that Al Jazeera has a jihadist, or at least anti-American and anti-Jewish, bias. Not in the least! Al Jazeera English bends over backwards to be fair and balanced, shining a bright light on some of the dirty laundry in their own back yard and also on positive aspects of the Other. As a sign of their success, the largest Israeli cable TV operator bumped BBC World in favor of Al Jazeera English. And yet no conventional U.S. cable or satellite minidish company dares even offer it; you have to get it on the web at Okay, but what's the best? The newscasts are consistently top-notch, including the whole cast of newsreader/anchors. Peppermint Gomez — umm, I mean Ghida Fakhry — merits special mention for Daily Show fans.

However, Al Jazeera English's crown jewels are its focus programs. Jasim Al-Azzawi is a former U.S. State Department translator; he now hosts the weekly panel discussion Inside Iraq, on which he has guests including the leader of one of the main opposition parties in Iraq, or this week a top aide to Muqtada al-Sadr. He strikes a careful balance, allowing the Iraqi side a voice, but at the same time challenging them when they make outrageous statements. He had a former Bush assistant on, as well, and Jasim stepped in to keep them from leaping across an entire ocean to throttle one another. David Frost is occasionally interesting, but honestly I'm more impressed by Riz Khan, Everywoman, Inside Story, People & Power, Witness, and sometimes Listening Post. The special series Mo and Me was surprisingly compelling. I had never heard of Mohammad Amin, a pioneering African journalist, but his son narrates the trail that Mo blazed, up to his ironically newsworthy death. I got the strong sense that Mohammad Amin would have been proud to be on the Al Jazeera team, and that Al Jazeera would have been proud to have him. The bottom line: you can't go far wrong watching anything on this channel. I live for the day I can finally TiVo my Al Jazeera. I want my A-J-Z!

PBS has long been viewed as the enemy of everything conservative, never mind neoconservative, but PBS is ever genteel about presenting not so much a liberal perspective as an educated perspective. PBS has done a bit of dodging and weaving in the face of infiltration and sabotage by the White House, but it is showing that it ain't givin' up yet. When I was a kid, one of our weekly rituals was the double-header of Wall $treet Week and Washington Week in Review, and more often than not we watched The MacNeil–Lehrer Report. The incomparable Paul Duke, the long-time host of Washington Week in Review, retired many years ago, but his successor Gwen Ifill is not only a worthy fill-in, she is a journalistic force in her own right. On tonight's show, she commented about the now admittedly standard White House practice (under both Republicans and Democrats) of trying to "bury" unfavorable news by releasing it late on Friday afternoon. Cathie Martin, aide to Vice President Cheney told the Scooter Libby court, "Fewer pay attention to it late on Friday"; Gwen Ifill responded, "We at Washington Week take that as a challenge. No news will be buried here! If you're watching it, we'll be telling it — that's a promise." That's a promise I can count on. Of course, there are many other wonderful news shows on PBS, including what is now The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, but another must-see program for a true global perspective is Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria. You know Fareed if you watch The Daily Show; he's one of their most frequent guests.

Or then again, if you don't have time to watch all that wonderful television, with the occasional C–SPAN binge, you can read my blog!

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