Monday, May 19, 2008

Meet your favorite TV news program’s newest correspondent in Afghanistan

Is the long arm of Osama Bin Laden about to reach into your TV set and start spinning headlines during the news hour? Well, consider:

A while back, the American TV journalist Dave Marash joined the Al Jazeera network as its primary English language anchor. Turns out it was only temporary.

Marash, a respected journalist, quit again this past March because of what he cited as increasing editorial control from Qatar where the network is headquartered, and the increasing creep of anti-American sentiment.

Speeding “creep”

Creep? Galloping aggressive plans to penetrate the U.S. market is more like it. Now the New York Times reports that Al Jazeera pushing for a "breakthrough" that would make the channel available to American TV viewers and help it move beyond a turbulent start-up phase, according to its new managing director, Tony Burman.
The same New York Times article reported that,
Mr. Burman said he planned to increase coverage of American news, particularly as the presidential election approaches. Mr. Burman said Al Jazeera also planned to invest in new bureaus; it already shares more than 60 bureaus with its Arabic sister organization. And the channel plans 'more provocative” current affairs programming and investigative journalism, he said.
And if that doesn’t give you the willies, consider that,
“Our goal is to go in the opposite direction to so many other news organizations which are, sadly, cutting back on their coverage of the world," said Mr. Burman.
"News? We don't need no
stinking news! We need profits."

Unfortunately, Burman knows whereof he speaks. Here in the US, newspaper after newspaper is cutting back on staff in the name of preserving profits, or warding off the next Rupert Murdoch.

The networks are no better. They blame their falling ratings on their anchors (witness the ongoing sturm und drang over Katie Couric) while failing to shoulder any responsibility for having fewer of their own correspondents – I mean correspondents on the company payroll full time – abroad.

My, what a curious accent
you have, Mr. Correspondent

Ever notice that nearly every correspondent in Iraq or Afghanistan for – oh, let’s take CNN – seems to have an English or Australian or Irish accent? Could it be that rather than pay the costs of putting their own person on the spot, the network pinches pennies by merely picking up dispatches from freelancers and reporters from other countries’ networks?

(Important note: I make a standing exception to all of this for Christiane Amanpour who has a sort of English accent, an English mother and an Iranian father, but who also has a journalism degree from an American university, works on the payroll for CNN last I heard, and may be one of the most impressive foreign correspondents in the history of American journalism.)

But Amanpour seems more like the exception than the rule. If you can pick up the cheap a reporter or freelancer who works primarily for the BBC, why not simply stoop to picking up a really cheap feed from Al Jazeera in Qatar? Hey, it would be lots more profitable than paying to have your own unbiased guy and your own salaried camera crew on the scene, wouldn’t it?

"On the other hand, Mr. Pinocchio said
that Mr. Durante's nose is really quite small."

Of course, American journalism these days has a pretty weird idea of what unbiased means. You can’t quote somebody who’s telling the truth without quoting somebody who “disagrees,” even if the lack of agreement is based on lies. And you can’t simply call a liar a liar – not even when the lie is as plain as the nose on Pinocchio’s face.

Little wonder the New Yorker’s TV critic Nancy Franklin recently railed:
…I don’t think that people want less news; they want, I believe, the same kind of informed passion and doggedness that TV-news people displayed while covering Hurricane Katrina, and they want anchors to go deep into issues…Who knows, young people might turn on their TVs in droves if news organizations had a few choice strands of Michael Moore’s DNA in them, and pointed out when, say, a public official wasn’t telling the truth. Jon Stewart is a lightning rod both for people who decry the notion that young people get their news from watching “The Daily Show,” and for people who think that his (and Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report”) is the only current-events show worth watching. I’m not a Stewartite, but when Dick Cheney denies making certain statements about the war in Iraq and Stewart shows three video clips that prove he’s lying, I think he’s providing a real service to the country, and I’d like to think that that’s what his fans are responding to.
But no. The news networks will simply shuffle anchors, as if that’s the heart of the problem, cut reporting staff to make up for the losses caused by declining audiences, and show “both sides” to “balance” when somebody they interview tells the truth.

In the end, we'll always
have Al Jazeera

After all, when the last real reporter standing is finally given his “package” to take a hike, we’ll still get plenty of news – via a cheap feed from Al Jazeera and their “special” point-of-view.

Somewhere in his underground TV studio, Osama bin Laden is chuckling.

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