Clinton, News, Al Jazeera, Censorship & Freedom
The failure of the news media is in a very real sense a country sounding the death knell for its democracy – and Hilary Clinton's remarks have been so upsetting to many because they intuitively understand the implications if she is indeed correct.
Also, what is more worrying than what Secretary of State Clinton said about American news on March 2, 2011 is what she didn't say. It's about corporate censorship. And the media are not likely to report how they are subtly and sometimes not so subtly censored – particularly if it costs them money! It is not censorship we condemn and find elsewhere – it is a kind of corporate censorship that is particularly unique to the land that's not nearly as free as it used to be.
First, it is interesting to see some of what Hilary Clinton said that gave Glen Beck and others such apoplectics.
"Like it or hate it, it is really effective. In fact, viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it is real news." And Clinton continued, "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news that is not providing information to us, let alone foreigners."
Oddly, I had only started watching Al Jazeera lately on the Internet but had already written an article about my experiences and was about to publish them when Clinton made her comments. Her conclusions were very much the same as many others who had watched Al Jazeera and found out that it offered first rate news coverage on much of what it reported. But what worried me was the reasons why so many of us were being denied the coverage by cable stations. These were not addressed by the Secretary of State and are some of the concerns I had written about. And they follow on rather nicely with some of what Secretary of State Clinton said.
The events and news that has been unfolding since the catalyst on December 17, 2010 in Tunisia are historic – we're watching history being made, although its true significance is still unfolding. In the US, unlike many elsewhere in the world, people will have to watch Al Jazeera online rather than on their TVs. Most US cable providers have refused to carry the station. It is a form of censorship we should all be quite nervous about. It's not the usual kind of state censorship but an example of corporate censorship that's rarely recognized. But it controls more and more of what is seen on US TV and read in struggling newspapers.
Worryingly, some who most admire America now see US political representatives as representing the will of corporate America rather than the will of the people. And if corporate America is deciding on news is being made available to citizens and how it is reported, it should be of concern to a country that has defined its freedom on this very kind of issue.
If news stations and cable networks decide they don't want us to watch a news station that contradicts their interests, does it contradict the intention of a First Amendment that has always taken it for granted that threats to people's rights would come from governments rather than newspapers and companies they assumed would be competing to be critical of those who governed?
When the interests of large corporations and government become intimately entwined, we should worry. Very large corporations who control the media can hardly be expected to honestly criticize themselves and the governments who are themselves influenced by these same corporations and their legions of lobbyists and the money. When battles for democracy are lost in the US, it does not bode well for other democracies. I suspect judging a nation's news media is as good a means of judging the health of that democracy as any, and it makes Clinton's remarks something pertinent that deserve a lot of consideration.
Up until 2011, I’ve tended to receive the great majority of news from US sources because of the convenience of tuning into one or other of the cable news networks and network TV. Also, it is a social event; my wife and I watch the news and make frequent comments during the show, ads as well as after the show. Even now, counting in my Internet sources, I spend more time looking at American rather than other sites. However, I believe as many independent sources of news and opinion as possible is a key ingredient of a democracy. And has the quality of American news, like its educatiion, slipped down alarmingly in the world's standing?
When there are fast moving stories in parts of the world where Americans are fairly ignorant of what’s happening, there’s a lengthy time lapse while the networks try to arrange for reliable sources for both hard news as well as insight into what is really going on in the hearts and minds of the people where the story is unfolding.
Reading online newspapers eventually led me turning more and more to the Internet to supplement the news I was receiving, since it seemed quite clear that CNN and all the other American TV stations had neither the resources or the knowledge to report on the rapidly unfolding events in Africa and the Middle East.
And more and more, it seemed to me that news networks and social news medias that carried the voices of people who risked their lives for speaking their views deserved as much as my time as those who rarely ventured far from university campuses or the comforts of their everyday existence to deliver me their views wrapped up as part of the evening news.
Eventually, I found myself depending on several sources on the Internet as my closest relation and the traditional news media as the poor cousin. According to the traditional media, without their expertise, I’m prey to many who will easily manipulate and mould my viewpoint. It seems to be a view shared by the majority of cable providers or the corporations who control them. A view that I now believe to be quite incorrect.
I watched, joined in and experienced the revolt in Egypt largely through the English website version of We are all Khaled Said. I had become more and more familiar with Al Jazeera and found that their reports were timely and well reported. And I mean that there was none of the political spin that I had been expecting from a news agency about who I had many preconceived and erroneous ideas. These ideas were formed in the Bush years when I, and many others, consumed the negative propaganda that had been propagated by the White House about Al Jeezera without looking at the evidence prior to forming my own opinion.
Certainly American citizens are being properly protected from viewpoints that their cable stations don’t think they either want or need. The cable stations had taken on board many of the same prejudices I had but also cited commercial reasons for not giving viewers a choice of subscribing to the English version of Al Jazeera. (It is still only available in less than half-a-dozen markets.)
I’d have probably not have given the whole issue another thought had I continued believing that Al Jazeera was little more than a mouthpiece for those intending nothing but harm to the US. Al Jazeera, I thought, is such an unreliable source for news, it’s not even worth a look.
I had naively thought that it would be a political mouthpiece for Middle East interests; in reality I have found all of the reports on the various revolts surprisingly accurate. The interviewers and moderators seem to want to report on what was going on in a refreshingly direct way. As an aside, on February 22, there seemed to be more genuinely live reports on the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand early EST on Al Jazeera than on any other news station – it did seem to be transmitting live news 24 hours a day rather than merely advertising it. And, again, on February 28, I listened to the British prime minister being interviewed and answering some tough questions from both the host and participants calling in to the show.
Again, Al Jazeera seems to have gone to great lengths to hire people who have sound reputations within the industry and have clearly been hired because they will not be perceived as simple mouthpieces for anti-Western propaganda or spinning a story for blatantly political purposes. Recently friends in the UK told me that they noted Al Jazeera were hiring well-respected people from the news media in large numbers. David Frost is just one of the recently hired luminaries.
(Later, on March 7, 2011, I watched Senator John McCain interviewed by David on Frost Over the World suggesting that even McCain recognizes that Al Jazeera is now recognized as a legitimate, serious news network that cannot be ignored by anyone wanting to reach an increasingly important international audience. It's interesting that cable providers take such a different view. McCain's appearance can be seen as a recognition of the truth of Clinton's comments on US news providers, although I am sure he might argue it is not necessarily an endorsement.)
What is most puzzling of all is that one of the major criticisms America has made of every country that’s dealing with people who are expressing dissent has been when these governments have shut down the Internet and other methods of communication. However, I have seen or read nothing that seems to suggest that there’s a great deal of objection by Americans to having their news censored when the majority of American cable providers refused to carry Al Jazeera. However, it can be viewed Online, and on February 4, The Huffington Post said that the station reported an increase of 2,500% in web traffic in the previous 24 hours! Word travels fast on the Internet and the word about where to go for the real news on events in the Middle East had obviously got out.
Cutting off all information from a particular source because the source is considered unreliable or even if its intention is subversive seems counter to what democracies believe, indeed allowing for such dissension is one of the important founding principles of democracies and what distinguishes them from other forms of government. However, what is interesting is that Clinton notes that Al-Jazeera challenge is that it is a serious news source rather than a source of propaganda that needs to be combatted.
Time and again, we’ve seen information and its sources branded as inaccurate or even lies by governments only to find later that, sadly, it is the government at the time who were the liars. Governments that claim to be democracies that censor information, particularly information that challenges their account of events, should be regarded with suspicion even if they’re not regarded as being downright hypocritical. There are many cable stations whose refusal to carry Al Jazeera who are using commercial excuses to make political decisions. And why would large multinational corporations want to disrupt criticism of dictatorships who they do business with I wonder?
A lot can be told about a country's democracy by the state of its media. In the past we were able to justly criticise other countries because their media presented a distorted picture of the truth to its people. In the US, we'd better look to the state of our own media before leveling criticisms at others. Ms. Clinton's words were more considered than many suspect. She should be listened to carefully.