Broadcast news: Here comes Al Jazeera

Celebrities, begone! Al Jazeera brings you the very serious news

A typical American's idea of global news.
A typical American's idea of global news.

A recent study by the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland and the U.S. to explain who or what is the Taliban. 76% of the Finns answered correctly; 75% of the Brits; 68% of the Danes, and a mere 58% of Americans. And yet we're the ones fighting in Afghanistan.

Is national TV news dumbing down? Or has TV news astutely perceived that Americans really don't care much about what's going on in other parts of the world?

On a typical recent evening, NBC News carried 13 domestic stories in its half-hour newscast, including the crash of a United Parcel plane, wildfires in Utah, an abducted girl, the cost of raising a child, Jesse Jackson Jr.'s prison sentence and the dangers of diet soda. Just two foreign stories made the broadcast: Prince William's life as a new father, and three to four minutes on the carnage in Egypt.

Profit motive

By contrast, that same evening, Britain's BBC News America covered seven stories in its half-hour newscast, devoting a full 15 minutes to Egypt and covering events in Israel and India. Just two American topics made the cut: the United Parcel plane crash and the Oprah Winfrey's new White House movie, The Butler.

A subsequent evening found a similar pattern: NBC offered eight U.S. items and three international ones, while the BBC ran just two U.S. stories and eight from overseas, including ten minutes devoted to Egypt.

There may be some good reasons for this imbalance. NBC, CNBC and MSNBC are owned by General Electric; ABC is owned by Disney, and Time Warner owns CNN. Their mission is to maximize profit. Serious international coverage— the sort that requires bureaus in multiple cities— tends to eat away at the short-term bottom line. The publicly funded BBC, on the other hand, deploys reporters all over the world.

Celebrity sightings

Perhaps the advent of Al Jazeera to America's TV news scene will shift the balance towards hard news and away from fluff, not to mention the constant intrusion of prescription drug ads, which typically consume 15 minute of a national broadcast news hour. Al Jazeera has promised only six minutes of ads per hour and 14 hours of straight news every day, filled with hard-hitting documentaries.

"There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings," announced Al Jazeera's acting chief executive. The company, financed by the oil- and gas-rich government of Qatar, will employ 400 journalists around the globe, including several seasoned anchors and presenters like the former NBC reporter John Seigenthaler.

Israel, pro and con

But can a Qatar-based broadcaster provide objective reporting and analysis? In its very early days, Al Jazeera was considered a mouthpiece for Al Qaeda. Even today, while Qatar maintains close commercial ties with Israel, it also supports Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction.

Americans eager to learn more about the Taliban— both of them— can access BBC news on public TV stations. They can also tune in to Al Jazeera for a sense of what the world beyond Europe thinks of us. For the blessings of socialistic British TV and idiosyncratic Middle Eastern oil sheiks, dear Lord, make us Americans truly grateful.♦


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