I’ve bookmarked Al Jazeera English on my laptop, and become quite addicted to its live stream of coverage from Egypt. This is a revolution whose outcome remains uncertain. It’s potentially the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only this time, the United States isn’t quite sure who to support.
Still, our government’s nuanced indecisiveness takes nothing away from the power of this story — the courage of ordinary men and women facing off with Army tanks in loud but mostly peaceful protest, and that of journalists on the street trying to record this moment of history.
It is here that Al Jazeera excels. Its news organization is professional, if gritty and sometimes technologically challenged, and its access to the streets of Cairo is unparalleled among English-language media.
I’ve been impressed by the intelligence and commitment of its journalists since the remarkable 2004 film, “Control Room,” documented the start of the Iraq War. But, until now, I haven’t made a practice of checking the network in my daily news surfing. That’s no longer true.
The detail, specificity and emotion of Al Jazeera’s accounts from Egypt inform the brain and punch the gut. Among the video posted on its website are some extraordinary, if herkey-jerky, hand-held posts by protesters on the front-lines. But its on-the-street passion is placed in the context of intelligent interviews with experts and academics.
The coverage of other major news outlets has informed too, of course, sometimes in personal terms, such as today’s first-person essay by novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin in The New York Times. But it is Al Jazeera that is keeping me up to the moment — telling me that today seems a lull — a “tense calm” — before tomorrow’s major planned protest and strike, marking the first-week of unrest. It is Al Jazeera that is running constant streaming coverage of what is hands down the most interesting news story in the world right now. (Even more important, for example, then the “Porn star describes wild Charlie Sheen party” headline found on the homepage of USA Today.)
It is Al Jazeera bringing voices and faces protesting from the streets. And it is Al Jazeera bringing “live and extended coverage,” as the anchor says, despite the fact that Egyptian police have seized the network’s cameras and arrested six of its journalists (they were later released). As its coverage continues, Al Jazeera has taken the unusual step of not naming its correspondents on the air to protect their safety and, perhaps, to add a little showman’s drama.
It interests me that as the Egyptian revolution continues, a headline The New York Times this week noted that a majority of Americans can agree on just one starting point in cutting the U.S. deficit — by scaling back foreign aid, already a relatively niggling budget line. A front-page story in my Sunday Boston Globe noted that 22 months before our next presidential election, no one in the Republican Party has declared his or her candidacy to run for president. I haven’t read about Charlie Sheen’s party in either paper, but who knows.
Even in the midst of global upheaval, American news media sometimes seem to have an unquenchable thirst for America’s political Punch-and-Judy show and its debauching celebrities. It’s not that events in Egypt have taken a back seat. Coverage has been sustained and prominent. It’s just that the American media seem to be covering events there more out of a sense of responsibility to big news and from an American governmental perspective than from a sense that this is one of the more remarkable events of this century.
This is where Al Jazeera differs. We can learn something from its coverage. It stems from the ground up, something the best journalism always does. And it recognizes something that American coverage and the American people might learn from: that the world is rapidly changing, leaving Americans behind in our belief in our ‘exceptionalism,” our outdated sense of global self importance and, sadly, our increasingly antiquated alliances.
Do we really want to push ourselves further into the dark by cutting foreign aid more?