Turn on Al Jezeera’s live feed. Go ahead. Do you feel a bit hip, edgy, maybe cooler than your less media savvy friends? Don’t just follow AJEnglish; actually retweet an Al Jezeera story. Now how do you feel? Do you wonder what your friends will think or whether Homeland Security just flagged your Twitter account? Did you just condone terrorism?
By now you have discovered that while 220 million households in 100 countries can watch Al Jezeera on their television sets, you probably are going to have to watch it via YouTube. Yes, you can watch Al Jezeera on TV in Israel but you can’t in most American cities. U.S. cable network execs have that same nagging feeling you do when thinking about giving Al Jezeera some of your Twitter time: What will people think?
Just so you know, Al Jezeera has tech savvy citizen journalism programs in addition to boasting a host of international journalism awards. The organization even has a Demand Al Jezeera campaign that lets you send a plea to your local cable or satellite provider to bring the network to your television set. Watching Al Jezeera on your own time is one thing; outing yourself as an Al Jezeera fan is another.
Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik put it best: Al Jezeera owned the Egypt coverage. Even CNN was following them. Every network may have captured the cheering crowds but Al Jezeera was the only one that gave us the music. Unfortunately, fear screams louder.
I put together a set of sample ledes on Egyptian coverage for my beginning reporting students this week. For just a moment, I hesitated about adding Al Jezeera. Would students question my integrity? Blast me in evaluations? The hesitation was just a pause rooted in what proved to be an unfounded fear. My students literally inhaled the Al Jezeera coverage when I showed them the YouTube stream and they wanted more. It was fresher, realer, more accessible. There wasn’t a wall or long shot between them and the events unfolding. The cameras were there with the people, letting my students be inside Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Yet, I could see that as much they as liked what they saw, some tensed when seeing the Arabic logo.
Juan Williams lost his NPR job after admitting on Fox News that he cringes when boarding an airplane with someone in Muslim “garb.” Having an African American commentator make such a statement left some viewers feeling validated in their fears, and others overwhelmed by the irony. Remember that President Obama said his grandmother was afraid of the black men she passed on the street, then he had to explain why he referred to her as a “typical white person” for feeling fear. No one is immune to fear or to over-generalizations.
The question remains whether Americans will choose, whether you will choose, to seek out social news networks based on fear and familiarity or on who can take you furthest into Tahrir Square.