There’s a second story buried inside the story of events in Egypt and Tunisia.
It’s the story of how mainstream American journalists find themselves perpetually staring at a magic mirror, telling themselves that they are the fairest of them all. And then scowling in rage at all the youthful Snow Whites the mirror shows them instead: blogs! online media! and now, worst of all, Al-Jazeera! Al-Jazeera, with its mysterious (sinister!) agenda, its undisclosed connections, its desire to influence events!
As opposed to what? The New York Times, the Washington Post, the major US TV network news operations, with their still-largely cozy relationship to undisclosed inside sources, their unabashed mouthpiecing for American policy elites, their protected stable of hack editorialists and pet experts? Why is anyone still talking about Martin Peretz, for example, let alone as lovingly as Stephen Rodrick does? He isn’t even worth getting angry about: he is, or ought to be, an irrelevance.
But this is what mainstream American journalism has been doing for so long: talking to the same small circle of people as if they were the whole wide world. Now they react in dismay and confusion when the clouds of hot air briefly part and they dimly glimpse long well-lit avenues thronged with experts, commenters, and observers of whom they know nothing. Like Columbus, they try to cop a wise pose and rename these new worlds a slightly unfamiliar shore of the Indies, soon to be an outpost of the Old World, while secretly trembling inside at the enormity of the unknown continents they now gaze upon.
Al-Jazeera of course has its own slant (more than one) on things. This is neither unusual nor particularly bad. Good journalism and strong perspectives have been happy bedfellows everywhere for the last two centuries except among a weird cult of American reporters who think of objectivity primly, as a chastity belt, a sanitary cordon, instead of thinking of their obligation being to truth, the hard facts, calling it like it is. Not the least, “objectivity” is a form of self-congratulation that prevents you from having to audit your own slants and account the many favors for insiders that you’ve paid off. The New York Times was near the head of a very long line of American publications that conspicuously failed to investigate much of anything about the Bush Administration’s security policies, particularly with regard to Iraq, until it became utterly safe and conventional to do so, while cheerfully passing along manipulative leaks from insiders that were intended to pimp the war in the public sphere. Or later, paid fitful attention to investigating the underpinnings of the financial crisis.
What I see when I watch Al-Jazeera, first of all, is interesting video accompanied by clear disclosures about the conditions under which the video has been gathered. The BBC also historically has been fairly good about this kind of privileging of actual video gathered from actual locations, unlike most American television news, which prefers giving us the anchor’s vapid teleprompterings, a few of the aforementioned reliable pundits, and a light smattering of carefully edited images. What I see secondly is a wide range of interesting interview subjects with a wide variety of perspectives and professional experiences being asked some pointed, valid questions. All of them: I have yet to see someone come on Al-Jazeera English who gets asked nothing but the softballs and love notes that are relatively common in American television journalism. I get something I can dissect critically, view skeptically and yet find useful, compelling and interesting to watch.
American journalists tell us that the waning of their profession is a terrible fate that impoverishes us all, that they are the helpless victims of changing times and technology and a fickle mob of digital natives, and that it is our civic duty to watch them, cherish them and find alternative funding sources for them to carry on as they have always carried on. I see the same trends and think, “In many respects you did it to yourselves”. If you’d only reported as you claim to report, if you’d only even now ask tougher questions, investigate past the story you’re spoonfed by the State Department insider you went to college with, freshen up the experts and commenters you rely upon, and take a genuine interest in the new world of information and reportage out there, you wouldn’t be one step in the grave, as unmourned as Scrooge is in his vision of Christmas Future. There is yet time! Buy a goose for Al-Jazeera, hoist a hobbling blogger on your shoulders, and for god’s sake, buy some more light for your offices so you can see better than you presently do.