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The logo for both the Arabic and English channels.

The upstart international network has crafted an identity all its own.

Al Jazeera English (AJE), in its short, 6 year existence, has quickly managed to climb that upper tier of English language news networks, with newsgathering resources and establishment credibility on par with what previously were the unchallenged leaders in this realm, CNN and the BBC. While much of this certainly has to do with AJE bulking up early on journalistic talent from  CNN, the BBC, and other establishment quarters, another, more visible but less remarked element in Al Jazeera’s success is its branding.

I had been thinking about this for some time since I first watched the channel, but it hit home a few days ago while I was watching the channel’s flagship bulletin Newshour with my mom. In the middle of a piece on rebel fighting in Chile, she remarked that the channel looked like your standard international news organization. “You don’t feel like you’re watching something from the Middle East,” was how it was put.

Origins of the suspicion

But this leads us to ask why Al Jazeera has to overcome unease in the United States. Aside from the vague suspicion that anything associated with the Middle East has been subject to in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Al Jazeera also gained a bad reputation in the eyes of US officialdom for broadcasting the messages of Osama Bin Laden.

For many Americans, this is the image the phrase “Al Jazeera” brings to mind. Not a good starting point for marketing a network in the US.

In some ways it is unusual that broadcasting these messages created the impression of Al Qaeda sympathies in the first place; both the New York Times and the Washington Post published the manifesto of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, while he was still perpetrating his string of mail bombings. NBC after the mass killing at Virginia Tech broadcast tapes from the gunman. Both of these circumstances were certainly controversial, but none of these organizations were accused of being “sympathetic” to the aims of the killers whose messages they aired. The only basic differences in these cases were scale (Bin Laden was responsible for exponentially more deaths) and the fact that Osama Bin Laden was a foreign enemy.

The other aspect that made US officials uncomfortable with Al Jazeera was its coverage of the Iraq war. Unlike the generally deferential coverage from American networks to both initial claims of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and of the first months of war, Al Jazeera’s coverage took a very different tack from the American networks, showing injured Iraqis and captured Americans in addition to those ubiquitous shots of “shock and awe”.

US officials had two main responses to Al Jazeera’s war coverage, as vividly shown in the 2004 documentary Control Room. On the one hand, the United States often publicly denounced the network’s journalism, through Donald Rumsfeld’s feisty news conferences. On the other hand, US officials realized that Al Jazeera had a large audience in the Middle East and brought on spokespeople to tap into the network’s large Arab audience. Still, the US was mostly hostile to the network, and its Baghdad office was even bombed by American warplanes in an incident officially termed as a mistake. The film, for the interested, is embedded below.

Rebranded in English

The English language version of Al Jazeera, which launched in 2006, does make some clear breaks from the Arabic channel. AJE obviously targets a substantially different audience of international elites and that is reflected in coverage choices; fewer Middle East stories, and a greater emphasis on areas under-served by other western news outlets (Africa, Latin America). The differences, however, are less subtle than that. For comparison, the Arabic channel in those early days of the Iraq war leaned on a red and blue colored set of lower thirds:

A screencap of Al Jazeera Arabic, taken from the network’s coverage shortly before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Another image, taken from Al Jazeera Arabic’s Iraq coverage.

The English channel launched with a completely different template, emphasizing a stark, crisp white and orange scheme. The studios also have a different look.

A screencap from the English network’s 2006 inaugural broadcast.

And an image of one of the network’s main studios in Doha, Qatar.

For comparison, here are what AJE’s two main competitors, BBC World News and CNN International, offer in terms of their on-air look:

An image taken of BBC World News covering the Libyan uprising last year.

A screen-cap of CNN International’s initial coverage of Qaddafi’s death,

As you can see, Al Jazeera’s look is rather reminiscent of the BBC’s. This generally “western” template is one that new English-language international news channels from a variety of countries are using in a bid for credibility with viewers.

Hurdles to credibility in America

Even with all of these efforts, AJE still might not be able to break through the ambivalent to hostile preconceptions of many Americans. A study done at the University of Michigan tried to gauge how people viewed Al Jazeera after actually seeing the network. One group of participants watched an Al Jazeera report on the Taliban’s view on peace talks in Afghanistan, while a second group watched the  same report altered to mimic the look of a piece pulled off of CNN’s website. A third control group saw no report. All three were then surveyed on their views on the bias of Al Jazeera English and CNN International. Results showed that even though watching the report with CNN branding raised opinions of CNN, those who saw the original AJE report had similar perceptions of Al Jazeera’s bias as those who didn’t see anything. (full study).

A close look at the full results indicates that this is by no means conclusive, as the study had only 177 online participants. Still, there seemed to be a general view among participants that Al Jazeera presented an “Arab” view of the news. Unsurprisingly, negative feelings towards Islam were correlated with negative views of the channel. What can be said is that while many Americans have come to appreciate Al Jazeera’s coverage, western graphics and commonwealth-accented reporters still might not be enough to gain a foothold.

Media analysis: what to watch, and what to skip.

After actually covering the news, the most important thing for the news media to do is to examine itself and think about what it can do better. The genre of media criticism is now full of various programs, approaching the media from a myriad of different perspectives, and here now is a look at some of the programs solely devoted to this craft.

Reliable Sources (CNN)-Sunday mornings 

CNN’s Reliable Sources is probably the most straightforward of these programs. Hosted by longtime media critic Howard Kurtz, the show is very much focused on the week to week movements of the media corps. The discussion topics range from media coverage of campaign gaffes to the business side of media—the program did several segments on the Today show anchor shakeup. Though it easily surpasses its Fox News counterpart in quality, the problem with the show is that  discussions tend to nibble at the edges of broader issues. For example, a segment covering the controversy over New York Times  reporter David Sanger’s recent book on the Obama Administration’s national security strategy, focused on the political back and forth over the sources of the book’s information without even mentioning the Obama administration’s unprecedented crackdown on national security whistle-blowers.

Logo of FAIR’s “Counterspin”

Counterspin (FAIR)-weekly on various community radio stations across North America

A production of the left wing media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, Counterspin is a weekly radio program and podcast that in three segments; first a review of the week’s news coverage, followed by two interviews. The guests are typically insightful—last week’s show featured a particularly illuminating interview with a newspaper correspondent who had been stationed in Syria for several weeks, discussing not only the media’s coverage of the civil war but the facts on the ground, especially the rebels’ less than absolute attitude towards the human rights of their Syrian army prisoners. The guests are not always as good, but for a left wing critique of the week’s coverage (and perhaps learning about a bigger story you didn’t catch) it’s a good listen.

Fox News Watch (Fox News)-weekly

Coming from roughly the opposite end of the political spectrum, Fox News Watch is the media analysis program of the “fair and balanced” news network. Some may perceive a fair bit of irony in Fox News having a media criticism program, but I decided to watch some clips of the program to get a feel for it. One was a segment from last weekend’s show discussing the media’s treatment of Mitt Romney’s NAACP appearance. The perspective of the program becomes clear when the host, Jon Scott (who also co-hosts one of Fox’s “straight news” midday programs) steers the discussion towards the number of times Romney was applauded during the speech, and the fact that these moments of applause did not lead the coverage.

Another segment from the previous week covering reports of John Roberts’s reputed switch on the healthcare ruling was introduced as asking if the “liberal media” persuaded the justice to switch his vote. Still, I found the discussion in both segments fairer than I expected, perhaps because I was expecting a half hour version of Bernard Goldberg’s appearances on The O’Reilly Factor.

WNYC/NPR’s “On The Media” program logo

On The Media (produced at WNYC, distributed by NPR)-weekends on public radio stations

On The Media is definitely up there as one of the best feature shows on public radio. Unlike the previous two programs, OTM does not approach the media from any partisan perspective, and casts a substantially wider net in terms of topics. For example, in addition to more general trends and flashpoints in media, such as covering the tug of war on Romney’s Bain tenure, the program often discusses campaign finance, civil liberties issues, and more obscure corners of pop culture. While I like the broader focus, the cultural segments are hit or miss; some of these pieces seem to be driven mostly by a producer’s personal interest in the topic, making them less interesting to those not already aware of the subject. The program is at its best when it goes beyond the week to week to discuss longstanding media habits, like this piece on how journalists rely on a small, elite group of sources to comment on any news event even tangentially related to the source’s expertise.

Title card for Al Jazeera’s comprehensive media program, the “Listening Post”.

Listening Post (Al Jazeera English)-weekly

Al Jazeera’s Listening Post would get my vote for the best English language media analysis show in any medium. Hosted by former ABC News reporter Richard Gizbert, (who successfully sued ABC News after his departure, alleging forced war assignments) the program truly has a global focus.  The show has done excellent reporting on the post-Arab Spring media landscape, looking at how the Libyan media covered the country’s first free election, to discussing media coverage of the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

When the program does shine its lens on the United States, the reporting is equally incisive. A recent broadcast was wholly devoted to the Obama administration’s “war” on whistleblowers, while a June piece explored how the American national security apparatus has successfully controlled the tone and scope of the US media’s coverage of drone strikes. Video of that report is below.

The piece slightly exaggerates the degree to which critical perspectives on the drone program have been shut out of mainstream national security coverage in the US, but not by much.

Media criticism and analysis has, like many things in the age of new media, been democratized to the point that any old guy, your writer included, can do it. The reporting highlighted here, however, shows that the professionals still manage to turn in a good product. If there are any programs missing here that are worthy of mention, throw it in the comments

Cover of the book

In which I review a timely critique of western policy in the third world.

The White Man’s Burden, by economist William Easterly, is a 2006 book that argues that western interventions in the third world (which he refers to as “the rest”), from self interested colonialism in the past, to today’s supposedly benevolent foreign aid and “humanitarian” military interventions, have done far more harm than good.

The first thing that will stick out to a potential reader is the title of this book. The use of the phrase “White Man’s Burden” itself may rub some the wrong way, partly because it implies that the author actually accepts the pretextual justifications for colonization that the phrase has come to symbolize. However, the author uses the term more for its symbolic and evocative value, and does make clear that many of the interventions he talks about were more beneficial to the west than to those who were supposedly being helped (this is a major argument he makes in the later portion of the book).

Easterly begins by contrasting the lofty speeches of world leaders and aid agency heads over the years, and introducing the division that really drives his thesis; the difference between Planners and Searchers. Into the former category he puts most members of aid bureaucracies, as well as typical western leaders. In the latter, more virtuous category the author puts those who find out what people actually need or want, and then try in an accountable and direct way to provide it.

The major problem with aid, the author contends, is that those in charge of the organizations that distribute it—from arms of the UN to the World Bank (where the author used to work) and various other Nongovernmental Organizations—like to craft overarching schemes to end poverty/AIDS/war in various countries that inevitably fail due to a lack of specific goals and inputs.

The next few chapters are a tightly argued series of statistics, case studies and loose anecdotes about the problems with interventions based off of large plans; scrums of aid agencies with overlapping efforts in a region that can’t be held accountable for results, and biases towards visible interventions that sound good in speeches instead of less visible interventions that would be more effectual (e.g. AIDS treatment vs. prevention), to name some. This section is the main portion of the book.

The last part of the book deals with less passive interventions; the incidences of colonialism and clumsy decolonization, and military interventions during the Cold War. This here is where the author makes his strongest case, partially because in both sets of circumstances the interventions were first and foremost self interested, with humanitarian concerns playing, at best, the role of rhetorical rationalization. Easterly deconstructs the ways in which broadly applied policies (US policy of supporting whoever’s fighting the Communist sympathizers) and a lack of on-the ground information led to western dollars supporting major human rights violators, or even worse, actually staying impartial in the rare cases in which one side was clearly behaving in a more reprehensible manner (the west in Rwanda).

Conclusions

However, the book is not perfect. In his conclusion section, Easterly admits that with all of his complaints about coming up with overarching plans in the aid community, he has none. Rather, he gives several reasonable suggestions on how aid agencies should function. However, one of the things that stuck out at me was when he addressed his earlier idea about focusing on the observable versus unobservable outcomes. He admits that basically no aid agency would give money to a program with less observable effects—essentially throwing money into an ether. But then he says that agencies should compromise and give money to tasks with observable effects and sufficient accountability. While all of this is fair, the entire section where he makes suggestions feels a bit like a cop-out.

That shortcoming aside, the book is a sharp read that will challenge your assumptions about how to better the world, an essential counterpoint to Kony 2012 type idealists and Cheney-style neoconservatives alike.

Cover of the biography, but is it worth buying? Keep reading this to find out.

In which I review the first draft of Chris Christie’s political career.

Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey, has found a way into the national spotlight after a mere 2 and a half years at the head of the state. Similar to how Texas journalists capitalized on  the national interest sparked by abortive presidential candidate Rick Perry, it seems the high profile of Chris Christie has prompted two Garden State journalists, Bob Ingle and Michael Symons of Gannett’s New Jersey operation, to write a biography of the Republican governor.

Indeed, one should always be dubious of books that are written “too soon” after anything has happened, even more so when those books are written while something is happening. Books like this one and chronicle of the ’08 campaign Game Change occupy that interesting middle ground between history and journalism, with the latter often being written to soon to bring any clearer a perspective than the daily grind of the news cycle. That said, the book has been making the media rounds, and Chris Christie is a fascinating personality, so I picked it up.

The first thing you notice about the book, probably owing to the incomplete career of its subject, is the length, or lack thereof. At 274 pages of narrative content, the book is a quick read; I zipped through it in only a week. While one can’t expect something like The Power Broker when discussing someone barely halfway through their term as governor of a state, there are definitely issues that get a shorter treatment in this book than they should. But again, we come back to the idea of historical perspective; when time comes for the definitive biography, we’ll probably care less about his time on the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and more about something he did as governor or even in a higher office that hasn’t happened yet.

But taken as what it is, basically a super-extended newspaper or magazine profile of the governor, we do learn some interesting tidbits about Christie’s blue collar upbringing and how it shaped him—largely, I should point out, from himself or his immediate family. Indeed, it becomes clear as one reads the book that most of the “original” research for the book comes from interviewing those in Christie’s immediate circuit (the authors more or less admit this in their acknowledgements).The rest of the sourced quotes, notes and information is a hodgepodge of snips from the Star Ledger and other New Jersey newspapers, as well as a few TV appearances and radio pieces.

This is arguably adequate research, mind you, but it does lead to a bit of a narrative problem, namely that all of the really super awesome-cool things that Christie did in his various roles tend to be told from the perspective of either quotes from Christie himself, the governor’s confidants, or in the coauthors’ “Voice of God” type prose, while the thoughts of those who disagreed with him are rendered through secondhand phrasing and quotes usually sourced back to the sort of newspaper clips I noted earlier. If only for a more textured portrait, talking to some of the people who worked on, say the Corzine campaign in 2009, would largely correct for this problem. Instead, we see direct quotes from various players sourced to older newspaper articles, rather than the result of new interviews for the book.

While I’m on the subject of the narrative, another thing I noticed with the book are the coauthors’ selective conclusion drawing, by which I mean that there are some disputes they’ll discuss without even making much of any evaluative judgment, such as the section where they discuss claims that Christie was too close to News Corporation[1]. The main story there was that of subsidiary News America purportedly hacking into the computers of a competitor and stealing clients, a supposed crime that occurred while Christie was NJ’s US Attorney.

The idea was that calls for investigation by the victimized company, Floorgraphics, went essentially unheeded by Christie’s office. Again, in the book, the story gets the “through the archives” treatment, but what also stuck out at me was that the authors don’t really try to draw any conclusions from the incident, in the way that a historian (or a journalist looking from a 20 year later lens) would probably have.

But then we see the writers adjudicating present day political disputes. Take their treatment of the issue of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel, which was to add train capacity into Manhattan—currently NJ Transit and Amtrak trains going from New Jersey into the city have to use a single tunnel in each direction. Christie cancelled the project in 2010, citing cost overruns. The writers characterize the plan as being a “dumb idea”[2] and seem to buy Christie’s claim of cost overruns as rationale for cancelling the tunnel, despite reports challenging that assertion.

The writing in the book is middling at best. Some paragraphs have awkward parenthetical addendums tacked on, including one entire paragraph that is a parenthetical note[3]. The sections where the coauthors quote their own previous articles or reference their own involvement in the political landscape (“Coauthor Michael Symons, writing in USA Today…”[4]) also rubbed me the wrong way. Not that writers shouldn’t feel free to namecheck themselves in their own books, but the self quotations here seem like part of an attempt to inflate their influence in the NJ press corps in front of the national audience reading the book.

Conclusion

So, should you buy this book? Depends on how interested you are in the topic. Despite all of the problems I point out above, the reader does come away with some insight into Chris Christie’s upbringing and how that shaped him. Unfortunately, basically all of these insights come from him and his family. The information on Christie’s political career is there, but nothing that you wouldn’t get from reading a New Yorker type profile piece on him, except somewhat more detail. Buy the book if you must, but at a list  price of $25.99 US, by the time the price is equal to the quality of the content, it’ll be out of date[5].


[1] Pages 119-121

[2] Page 233

[3] Page 85

[4] Page 253. That section went on for an entire paragraph.

[5] To be fair, that list price is easy to avoid. I’d suggest a trip to an online bookseller, or get it at a warehouse club.


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