Al Jazeera: The Muckraker

When I first heard that Al Jazeera was establishing Al Jazeera America, I had high hopes for the project. The four American networks (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) have been cutting back on hard news coverage for more than 15 years. I recently met with a former boss of one of those networks who was requested to cut his news budget by 50 percent, won a moral victory by cutting it only 25 percent, and shortly afterwards resigned. Neither do I think much of the news coverage on CNN, MSNBC or FoxNews. I hoped that Al Jazeera America might look like the original CNN, founded on the slogan of "News, news and more news."

At its launch, Al Jazeera didn't disappoint me. I'm an early riser and at 5 a.m. every morning AL Jazeera was carrying an hour of world news from Doha that let me know what was happening everywhere. The pieces were like the original CNN pieces -- well-done packages voiced over by knowledgable reporters. By 6 a.m., I thought it was safe to turn over to local and had my morning's full diet of the news. But, as Al Jazeera added more staff in the US they dropped the Doha hour and replaced it with reruns of the mediocre Ali Velshi program of the night before. Since then I've been occasionally visiting Al Jazeera and I find that much of its programming is dedicated to displaying the shortcomings of life in America.

I started my career in the news business in 1956 at United Press International/MovieTone News, which counted among its clients the USSR. Every day we shipped little rolls of news film from our New York and London offices to Moscow. In 1960, the Russians came over to visit us on their way to first UN General Assembly meeting. They asked us to supply a film crew for their reporters who wanted to show New York to the folks back home. We obliged them and one night they took our crew all over the city looking for appropriate sites. They finally decided on Harlem. It was the only place bleak enough, poor enough, to prove what they wanted to prove to their Russian audience -- Communism was superior to the capitalist system.

When I watch Al Jazeera now, I see well-constructed packages with competent reporters doing full reports six, seven, eight minutes long, on how tough life is for American Indians living in the Dakotas, or how hard it is for African Americans living in Cleveland and Detroit, since those cities lost their industrial bases.

It seems to me that Al Jazeera is indulging in muckraking -- reporting shameful realities in hope of improving conditions. In the early 20th century, writers like Upton Sinclair, who revealed the filthy slaughter in the stockyards of Chicago; Ida Tarbell, who brought to light the doings of John D. Rockefeller who monopolized almost all the oil in the United States; and Lincoln Steffens who wrote about political corruption in New Jersey, St. Louis and other cities, were proud to be called muckrakers. But they were Americans reporting on American faults.

Al Jazeera is a Qatari owned company reporting on American faults. Their concentration on the negative side of American life does not sit well with me. I wonder how many of their stories are shared with other Al Jazeera networks -- Al Jazeera Mid-East, Al Jazeera Balkans and Al Jazeera English. I wonder how many people in other parts of the world are learning of America's shortcomings as seen through the eyes of Al Jazeera reporters.

I do not believe that only American citizens have the rights to muckrake in the United States, but Al Jazeera's concentration on things that are going wrong here -- the suffering of our poor, discrimination against minorities, the decline of our industrial base, our continued use of heroin and meth and the tolerance of rape on many college campuses -- all of which do occur, should not be broadcast to the world as if they dominated life in America. All of those things have been reported on American television to Americans -- 60 Minutes and 20/20 do a terrific job. But Al Jazeera tells the same stories with a harder edge, as if they were accusing us all of accepting the sins committed not in our names.

I think it's time for Al Jazeera to lighten up and congratulate us for some of the good things we do.