AJR  Columns
From AJR,   February/March 2007

What Were Missing   

Its a shame two new cable news channels are so hard to find in the U.S.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

What if they launched a news channel and nobody here could watch? Would anyone care to know what they're missing?

The latest entries in the global TV news game, Al Jazeera English and France 24, are practically invisible in the United States. That's a shame, because they really do offer something different from standard cable news fare.

How different? Well, consider that until now, if you wanted news in English anywhere in the world, you had just two choices: CNN or the BBC. Both channels claim to reach more than 260 million households, and that's not all they have in common. Their worldview is decidedly Western, and they tend to cover the same major international stories. Each has its own style, of course. BBC World, carried here by PBS, reflects "stoicism, paternalism, [and] a certain degree of pompous self-righteousness," according to the British Journalism Review. CNN International is a little looser and hipper, but the easiest way to tell them apart is by the accents and the sports headlines. Hint: CNNI doesn't spend as much time on cricket.

Now comes Al Jazeera, the English-language version of the Qatar-based network best known for airing graphic video of the Iraq war and exclusive tapes of Osama bin Laden. AJE promotes itself as "setting the news agenda," but with a potential global audience of just 80 million, its reach is dwarfed by the big two. For almost a year, the network tried and failed to find a U.S. cable company willing to carry it, so Americans who want to see it have to watch online. (Full disclosure: I led a writing workshop last summer at the network's Washington bureau.)

If you tune in, your first reaction might be to wonder what all the fuss was about. A report from Iraq refers to suicide bombers, not martyrs. The video is no more graphic than what you'd see on CNN. But stay tuned and the differences become clear.

Newscasts on Al Jazeera English are dominated by coverage of the Middle East and Muslims. AJE covers stories that others ignore, and gives the stories everyone else covers much more time. In December, for example, the network led with a report about Israel's prime minister appearing to admit that his country has nuclear weapons, a story that was nowhere to be found in the print edition of the Washington Post. News blocks about violence in the West Bank, which AJE calls Palestine, often ran as long as 10 minutes, an eternity in American TV news. The extra time allowed for background and analysis from Al Jazeera reporters and expert guests.

And then there are the features. Islamic fashions, anyone? If that's too fluffy, how about a story about women opposing the enforcement of Sharia law in Indonesia, or Muslim refugees from Myanmar living along the border in Bangladesh?

Al Jazeera isn't the only new English-language news network flying under the radar in the United States. France 24, funded jointly by the French government and a private TV network, made its debut in December with only a few U.S. outlets. Its potential global audience is about the same as AJE's, so its mission to "convey the values of France throughout the world" seems a little grandiose. But it certainly offers a French take on the news, with more stories from Africa and lots of serious talk about issues like whether Turkey should be allowed to join the European Union. It's sometimes boring but never trivial.

Think Fox News Channel and MSNBC have a different take on the news? For all the talk about their conservative or liberal spin, the U.S. cable news channels are more alike than not, with a steady diet of domestic politics, celebrities and crime. Spending time in that echo chamber won't tell you much about what's really happening in the rest of the world.

Now that it's possible to get a wider view, it shouldn't be so hard to tune in. It's easier to watch Al Jazeera English on TV in Israel, where the Yes satellite network dumped BBC World in favor of AJE, than it is here. U.S. cable and satellite companies cite business reasons for not carrying the new channels, but financial incentives obviously don't drive all their carriage decisions or the ubiquitous EWTN, the Global Catholic Network fronted by Mother Angelica, wouldn't have had a chance.

U.S. news channels, including government-funded networks, are available all over the globe, but here at home we listen mainly to ourselves. "To have a lack of communication between cultures at a time of such technological development is very sad and contradictory," Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was quoted as saying in the English-language daily Arab News.

Maybe no one much cares that neither Al Jazeera nor France 24 is widely available to a U.S. audience, but they should. It wasn't that long ago that many Americans woke up to the reality that much of the world doesn't like us very much. If we'd been watching the news through their eyes, maybe we wouldn't have been so surprised.