UPDATE: Al Jazeera English has launched a campaign to persuade cable providers to carry the network by bombarding the companies with requests from AJE converts and longtime fans. Scroll down for details.
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WASHINGTON - Canadian television viewers looking for the most thorough and in-depth coverage of the uprising in Egypt have the option of tuning into Al Jazeera English, whose on-the-ground coverage of the turmoil is unmatched by any other outlet. American viewers, meanwhile, have little choice but to wait until one of the U.S. cable-company-approved networks broadcasts footage from AJE, which the company makes publicly available. What they can't do is watch the network directly.
Other than in a handful of pockets across the U.S. - including Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C. - cable carriers do not give viewers the choice of watching Al Jazeera. That corporate censorship comes as American diplomats harshly criticize the Egyptian government for blocking Internet communication inside the country and as Egypt attempts to block Al Jazeera from broadcasting.
The result of the Al Jazeera English blackout in the United States has been a surge in traffic to the media outlet's website, where footage can be seen streaming live. The last 24 hours have seen a two-and-a-half thousand percent increase in web traffic, Tony Burman, head of North American strategies for Al Jazeera English, told HuffPost. Sixty percent of that traffic, he said, has come from the United States.
Al Jazeera English launched in the fall of 2006, opening a large bureau on K Street in downtown Washington, but has made little progress in persuading cable companies to offer the channel to its customers.
The objections from the cable companies have come for both political and commercial reasons, said Burman, the former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "In 2006, pre-Obama, the experience was a challenging one. Essentially this was a period when a lot of negative stereotypes were associated with Al Jazeera. The effort was a difficult one," he said, citing the Bush administration's public hostility to the network.
"There was reluctance from these companies to embark in a direction that would perhaps be opposed by the Bush administration. I think that's changed. I think if anything the Obama administration has indicated to Al Jazeera that it sees us as part of the solution, not part of the problem," Burman said.
Cable companies are also worried, said Burman, that they will lose more subscribers than they will gain by granting access to Al Jazeera. The Canadian experience, he said, should put those fears to rest. In Canada, national regulators can require cable companies to provide certain channels and Al Jazeera ran a successful campaign to encourage Canadians to push the government to intervene. There has been extremely little negative reaction over the past year as Canadians have been able to view the channel and decide for themselves. "We had a completely different process and result here in Canada -- a grassroots campaign that was overwhelmingly successful," said Avi Lewis, the former host of Al Jazeera's Frontline USA. (He now freelances for Al Jazeera while working on a documentary project with his wife, Naomi Klein.)
Media critics have begun to push for Al Jazeera's inclusion. "It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it," wrote Jeff Jarvis on Sunday. "Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one-not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media-can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can."
Al Jazeera follows a public broadcasting model similar to the BBC, CBC and NPR and is largely funded by the government of Qatar, which Burman said takes a completely hands-off approach to content. Al Jazeera is the scourge of authoritarian governments around the Middle East, which attempt to block it. The network, however, covers much more than the Middle East, and now has more bureaus in Latin America than CNN and the BBC, said Burman. "As proud as we are of our Middle Eastern coverage, we are in other places in the world that are never, never seen on television in American homes," he said.
Burman said that he will use the experience with the Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings in upcoming meetings with cable providers as the network continues its push. Comcast did not respond to requests for comment.
"Why in the most vibrant democracy in the world, where engagement and knowledge of the world is probably the most important, why it's not available is one of these things that would take a PhD scholar to understand," Burman said.
UPDATE I: A reader emails to say that Al Jazeera programming is also being carried by the satellite channel LinkTV, which can be found on channel 9410 on Dish Network and 375 on DirecTV.
UPDATE II: Another reader emails to say that Al Jazeera broadcasts over some of the Pacifica stations, including WBAI (New York, 5-6 AM, 99.5 FM), KPFA (Berkeley, 6-7 AM, 94.1 FM) and KPFT (Houston, 5-6 AM, 90.1 FM).
UPDATE III: Comcast spokesperson Alana Davis responded to a HuffPost request for comment. "We do not offer Al Jazeera English on our video service," said Davis. Asked whether Comcast might reconsider its position, Davis said: "We can't speculate; however, we regularly examine our channel lineups and talk with a wide range of programmers to ensure that we are bringing the content that our customers want the most."
UPDATE IV: Free Speech TV shows Al Jazeera Headline News and The Riz Khan show on Dish Network channel 9415 and DIRECTV channel 348, according to a reader.
Stephanie Misar, marketing director with MHz Networks, an independent, non-profit public broadcaster, also provided details as to where and how viewers may be able to find Al Jazeera English. "Viewers can watch full time, 24/7 Al Jazeera English via MHz Networks 5 in the Washington, DC metro on channels: Over the air digital broadcast 30.5, Comcast 275, Cox 474, and Verizon FiOS 457," she said in an email.
Misar added: "Weekday daily AJE newscasts (8 AM and 7 PM ET) and weekend (7 PM ET) are available on the national channel of MHz Networks, called MHz Worldview, in over 35 million households across the country through our network of broadcast and cable affiliates in: Los Angeles- KCET; San Bernardino, CA- KVCR; Chicago, IL- WYCC; San Francisco,CA- KCSM; Washington, DC- WNVC/MHz Networks; Tacoma-Seattle, WA- KBTC; Cleveland/Akron/Youngstown, OH- WNEO/WEAO; Minneapolis, MN- MPS Cable; Miami, FL- WLRN; Denver, CO- KBDI; Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, FL- WCEU; Charlotte, NC- WTVI; Nashville, TN- WNPT; Salt Lake City, UT- UEN (statewide); Grand Rapids/ Kalamazoo/Beaver Creek, MI- WGVU; Spokane/Yakima, WA- KWSU/KTNW; New Orleans, LA- WLAE; Las Vegas, NV- Vegas PBS; Richmond, VA- WCVE; Flint, MI- WDCQ; Charleston, IL- WEIU; Plattsburgh, NY- Mountain Lake PBS (WCFE); Lansing, MI- LCC TV; Moline, IL (Quad Cities)- WQPT; Warrensburg, MO- KMOS; Topeka, KS- KTWU; Rochester-Austin, MN- KSMQ; Charlottesville, VA- WHTJ; St.Paul, MN- St. Paul Neighborhood Network; Stanford, CA- Stanford University Cable.
"The newscasts are also available on MHz Worldview nationally via DirecTV channel 2183. Channel numbers and service providers are available here.
"One on One with Riz Khan from AJE is also available on our national channel on Sundays at 10:30 AM ET and can be watched via the network of affiliates as well. MHz Networks is an independent, non-profit public broadcaster, bringing international perspectives and programming to globally-minded viewers throughout the United States."
UPDATE V: Paige Austin, a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former associate producer for Al Jazeera English in Doha, wrote about U.S. cable's refusal to carry the station in a 2010 paper. Austin argues that AJE's willingness to show graphic suffering in the developed world is at odds with the U.S. networks' practice. It's not that American viewers are unaccustomed to seeing violent imagery on the television, but the selection of which mangled corpses to show -- civilians killed by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan or the sons of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- is what makes the difference.
So why has Al Jazeera English found it so difficult to gain a foothold in the United States? One reason is a perceived lack of audience; the network is not typical American television fare, and cable operators doubt many Americans would embrace the change. During the two years I worked at Al Jazeera English, I was continually amazed by the channel's inversion of conventional U.S. news values--in particular, its willingness to convey suffering in the developing world, like that of the Samouni family, in graphic detail. Far from conspiracy or manipulation, as critics charge, this use of evocative imagery is the natural result of a dynamic process meant to translate news into what Bruce Shapiro, director of the Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma, calls "the visual language of a particular culture."
"It's not about a rigid corporate agenda or a rigid imperialist agenda imposed from above," Shapiro explains in an interview with the author. "It's about a much more complex dynamic between sources, journalists, managers, and image-makers."
Unpacking that dynamic is essential to understanding the biases of American news, as well as the difficulties channels like Al Jazeera English have attracting an audience in the United States. Understanding this also gives reason to hope that given a broader range of media options, the media preferences of Americans--and popular sympathies--might change as well.
Preference for Sanitization, or Is it Hypocrisy?
It is well documented that when it comes to war and tragedy abroad, the American media's tendency is to sanitize violence, showing none of the outrage and carnage evident in media accounts outside the United States. During the invasion of Iraq, Philip Kennicott in a 2003 article in the Washington Post attributed this reluctance to a mixture of "taste, ethics, professional standards and responsibility to a complex web of constituents." Yet the outcome of this equation is not always consistent.
"They're hypocrites," Marwan Kraidy, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, says of the U.S. media in an interview with the author. "They'll say 'we are not going to show mutilated bodies.' They all showed Ceauşescu's body in Romania. Everyone showed the bodies of the two sons of Saddam Hussein when they got killed. It's an indirect way to say we are more civilized but that is not the case." The culling of images, he adds, "is used selectively depending what the prevailing mood is."
The shooting of Iranian protestor Neda Agha-Soltan is a more recent example. In its rush to show the video, CNN did not at first blur her face. The result was one of the most iconic images of the year, recalling photos from the 1970 Kent State shootings or 1968 Vietnam's My Lai massacre with the power to shock viewers and galvanize public opinion against an old American foe.
UPDATE VI: Al Jazeera English has launched a campaign to persuade cable providers to carry the network by bombarding the companies with requests from AJE converts and longtime fans. Twitter, meanwhile, is promoting the tag #demandaljazeera, further driving attention to the campaign.
The tool AJE has created, which can be found here, allows users to type in their zip code and then directs a message to the proper cable company. An AJE official said that several thousand people have already used the site and that the network will provide more detailed numbers as they become available. The network is also encouraging fans to organize meetups across the country to chat about Al Jazeera.