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Al Jazeera vs. CNN (News In Broadcast And Electronic Media, October 2012)

Listening And Viewing Assignment #1 (written for BECA 460, News In Broadcast And Electronic Media, October 2012)

The two TV stations I chose to compare seemed to come from different worlds. First, I watched about 45 minutes of the Al Jazeera English-language stream, where the top story on Saturday, October 13, was the rebellion in Syria and the increasing tensions between that nation and Turkey. When I began, they were in the middle of an extended report on the situation. The reporting was very fast-paced and cut between field interviews, studio interviews on green-screen, and voiceovers with on-the-spot camcorder footage. I noticed that Al Jazeera had no qualms about showing the bloody results of bombings onscreen, drawing the viewers’ attention to the human costs of war, revolution, and terrorism. They made a great deal of effort to untangle the potentially confusing web of factions and counter-factions involved and to attempt to explain who various parties were and what they were after. Also, I heard several disclaimers being made throughout, stressing the point that it was difficult to verify some sources and that the viewer must take that into consideration.

At the top of the hour, after the featured report was done, a show called “Newshour” began. This was even more rapidly paced, and managed to take in more details on Syria and Turkey, as well as a Kurdish group in Turkey with their own controversial agenda. Then we saw breaking news on Egypt (controversy over an unpopular prosecutor general), the Taliban in Pakistan who had assaulted a 14-year-old schoolgirl, mercenary groups in the Philippines that were interfering with the elections, demonstrations at the IMF meeting in Tokyo, and a relatively light report on Swiss cheesemakers who were using DNA testing to protect their trade secrets. Mostly, the sample I watched emphasized hard news, political turmoil, and an unflinching look at a complex, dangerous world.

Visually, Al Jazeera’s most famous feature is probably their logo, an abstract yellow graphic that fuses the Arabic letters of the station’s name into the shape of a candle flame. Is this a symbol for a world on fire, or the light of information enlightening their audience? Take your pick.

I was pleasantly surprised to see so many women as anchors and correspondents on Al Jazeera, so much so that my own skepticism led me to wonder whether this was a cynical PR move for Western viewers who would tune in to the English-language stream and be reassured that the Muslim world is not the misogynistic fundamentalist backwater they may have stereotyped it as. I found the Arabic-speaking Al Jazeera stream and was glad to see that was not the case; women deliver a good share of the news on both channels, indicating this is a policy, not just an image. (Also, it was amusing to watch the commercials, all of which seemed to be for Qatari oil companies.)

I am aware that my limited exposure to Al Jazeera could easily tempt me to overlook any of its flaws and place it on a pedestal, but the contrast when I turned my attention to CNN’s “Newsroom” program shocked me even more than I expected. At times, I felt like I was watching a small town’s local news show. It gives one pause to consider how provincially trivial the media of the world’s only superpower can be.

I joined in the midst of a piece on the Lance Armstrong scandal, which then segued into an anti-teen-drinking program (founded by a bereaved father who lost his daughter in a drunk-driving accident) that offers scholarships to young people who abstain from drinking before the legal age. After a break, they showed a long segment on the Endeavour parading slowly through LA. During these stories, quick headlines would flash on the lower third that often struck me as more urgent than what I was watching. I resisted the urge to rush over to the computer to find out more.

The rhythm became evident after a while: one or two stories alternating with 6-8 commercials at a time. The next features were on Google-bombing and Tim McGraw giving homes away to returning veterans. Finally, we were at the top of the hour and were given the top stories of the day, which were 1) the candidates campaigning and preparing for the next debate, 2) the Endeavour, 3) the Maine dance studio brothel scandal, 4) a Constitution Party candidate who may cost Romney some votes in Virginia, and 5) a mentally ill man in a Batman suit who was arrested twice for interfering with police investigations. The anchor, plus two characters called the “Legal Guys” (who apparently have their own CNN show) spent a great deal of time making fun of this individual in an extremely smug tone. Call me humorless if you like, but I could not help questioning the appropriateness of having this display on a news channel as opposed to a show like Tosh.O on Comedy Central. It seems to me that CNN could do a lot better than this. Even if inundating us with Third World violence is considered to be too much for American audiences, CNN could learn a thing or two about gravitas from Al Jazeera.