Burlington Telecom’s Al Jazeera Dilemma

June 1, 2008

Something has been looming in the back of my consciousness. It has barely made it on the radar through all the intensity of my own April and May projects. Last night, it came bursting through. I caught a rebroadcast of the May 27th Burlington Telecom public hearing at Contois Auditorium. The question under discussion was whether the Al Jazeera English network should be pulled from the lineup.

In theory, I love Sunday mornings. It’s Spring. School is out, I’ve returned from two back-to-back trips, got 13 artworks submitted to an exhibition, made good progress with the tee shirt design committee for Branch Out Burlington, the garden is 80% in, scored some great plants at the farmers market Saturday, and managed a decent bike ride up and down the hills of Burlington. So, hadn’t I earned a lazy morning off to read, lounge in bed, hang out with Pixel, hang out in the garden? But the workings of my subconscious, stirred up by last night’s rebroadcast, bubbled through immediately upon my awakening…. So here goes – perhaps a draft of what I ultimately send to the reviewing committee:

We live in a democracy. Democracy means nothing if our public and well-intended projects can so easily be derailed by a small but powerful and vocal few. Democracy ought to be supportive of all voices. Anti-Al Jazeera folks wish to have the Arabic network removed from the BT menu. How is this different from censorship? Are we so provincial that we need to be protected from the very forces that should enlighten us?

I am not a Jew and I am not in Israel. But if I was, I would listen to Al Jazeera; the same way I occasionally catch Fox news, for the different points of view. Occupied minds are the most vulnerable to debate-stifling discourse; discourse which by the way, in our current kerfuffle seems suspiciously familiar. Are the oppositionists perhaps the same folks that were so intent to bring about a censorship of the South End Art Hop last fall?

Instead of being a tool for education, a media that succumbs to such pressure is not very different than mainstream media that serves, and is an integral part of, the dominant culture, otherwise known as the corporate (military-medical-education-prison-agro-academic- industrial complex) culture. But there are differences and let’s fight for them. Burlington Telecom is not directly beholden to structures grounded by corporate economic, social and political interests. Those media that are don’t need the careful nurturing that our local venture has had and continues to need, if it is to offer the free interplay of diverse voices.

We are in an age of hyperconsciousness. As a community, our very careful, deliberate and thoroughgoing efforts toward inclusion serve us well. The better informed we are, the better we behave as a community. As an employee and a customer of BT, I am going to be very disappointed if we lose Al Jazeera– not that I get to see it all that often. I would love to, but it is not in the current basic package. From the little bit that I have seen thanks to RETN, it is not at all as the detractors portray: I have not seen even subtle or nuanced broadcast of hate, there is no subtext of Islamic extremism, the programs seem to be no less diverse than CNN, and I think they are more diverse than Fox. I do not glean a slap in the face of Jews by the humanizing of Arabic culture.

What happens in Burlington doesn’t stay in Burlington. To delete Al Jazeera sets a dangerous precedent. If we are to have any moral or social commitment, let it be to let a thousand flowers bloom, and be the Burlington that we really can be: open, welcoming, growing, searching…but also with a bit of the edginess that struggle, differences, and unfortunately even hurt feelings and disappointments bring.

Now, off to my garden with me. or to BT doorknocking…



  1. Are the American people getting the fullest and clearest picture of the way American wealth and treasured lives are committed abroad?

    Is US public diplomacy confident of getting a clear and accurate picture in crucial areas of diplomatic and security engagements?

    One can get two possible responses: One from people who are away from the trouble spots and have no direct contacts with those in the field of action. But when you listen to those who are on the ground risking limbs and lives to collect and distribute facts to help ascertain what are the sources of insecurity and hostility to US interest in, say, Iraq. It is essential to determine the relation between media and security. Especially from the aspect concerning whether the present available sources are sufficient enough or would there be any advantage if other sources could be added to bring an independent and fresh perspective.

    Let’s imagine that there is no Aljazeera any more. Would it solve the challenges US has faced prior and after the appearance of this tiny ‘matchbox size’ outlet.

    Is it by mere chance that a campaign is pursued to deny the American viewers get the other side of the picture that doesn’t usually make it on US media some of whom either co-opted by corporations and/or corruption?

    It seems that the right of US viewers’ majority to have alternate news channels is being objected to by a handful but noisy few. Interestingly, many of such vocal elements possess no expertise either about the society in the Middle East its media, or the Arabic discourse on issues existing there. When it comes to decide if a foreign news channel is desirable or not, independent but informed input can be sought from those who qualify such as a writer on Middle Eastern media Hugh Miles, Political Science Professor Marc Lynch in view of their fluency in Arabic or from A.S. Schleifer, (founder, Trans-national Broadcasting Studies journal (TBS) and Adham Center for Television Journalism director Lawrence Pintak due to theirs years of studying Arab media and society.

    One would expect media activists to ask the major US channels draw adequate attention to matters that are of vital concern for American lives. But many are found silent on most occasions. Some are observed busy to attract attention on irrelevant and insignificant issues.

    Media activist should encourage even wider access to channels like Al Jazeera that provides objective coverage of critical foreign policy and security issues, while many US media organs tiptoe around issues in fear of not to over step their boundaries. If all is well (as some wish to portray) then how come US is going to face such high cost and its even higher consequences as the following example suggests:

    A recent example best illustrates of what the American viewers miss out if their right to have alternate sources of information are continued to be denied. One wonders how many viewers in USA watched “Daylight Robbery” aired on BBC One on 10 June 2008?

    This episode in the Panorama serial investigates claims that as much as $23bn (£11.75bn) may have been lost, stolen or not properly accounted for in Iraq.

    The programme had many revealing references on the fact when the US goes to war, corporate America goes too. “There are contracts for caterers, tanker drivers, security guards and even interrogators, many of them through companies with links to the White House.”

    “Now more than 70 whistleblower cases threaten to reveal the scandals behind billions of dollars worth of waste, theft and corruption during the Iraq war.”

    “A total of $23bn (£11.75bn) is under scrutiny. The US justice department has imposed gagging orders which prevent the real scale of the problem emerging.”

    Had American tax payers an easy access to alternate information sources such as AL Jazeera it wouldn’t have taken them several long years to question the wisdom of the “cakewalk” bunch i.e. the likes of Ken Adelmen who misled the American media by claiming “measured by any cost-benefit analysis, such an operation would constitute the greatest victory in America’s war on terrorism.”

    Thus encouraging and embracing alternate sources of media has become increasingly important at a time when many US media organs tiptoe around issues in fear of overstepping their boundaries. An Italian scholar of the Arab media, Donatella della Ratta rightly suggests that the West should seriously consider before blaming or blocking channels like Aljazeera that are in fact educating tools to inform rather than a medium providing an embedded version from a warring side. Her analysis is a wake-up call for those who believe that pouring $62 million on Al-Hurra can make the US image right in the Middle-East. For a fraction of such amount spent on facilitating wider access to alternate sources like Al Jazeera English help American view the actual realities faced on ground from diverse sources.

    By denying the option for diversity, those who call for restricting plurality of opinion deprive the US audience to judge the facts for themselves. It is the absence of and NOT presence of an accountable media that is injurious to American interest.

  2. Right on Jim. Wish you could have seen the crowd that showed up for the Telecom hearing last evening, a crowd that included a pretty good cross section of those on the two extremes of the issue. I use “extreme” not in the inflamatory sense, but to mean those who have stronger feelings one way or another than most. If you care to help us out in our lobbying effort to keep Al Jazeera in the network lineup of our local cable company, a letter to the editor of the Burlington Free Press would be helpful, and soon. Thanks!

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