Sat Dishes and Revolution: Why Al Jazeera Matters There -- and Here

You won't find it on Time Warner or FIOS or Cablevision, but Al Jazeera's English language television service is laying claim to the viewing loyalty of vast numbers of news-hungry, media-obsessed westerners following the incredible story of courage and revolution in Egypt.

More than any of the social media platforms we've come to worship with the ardent, almost physical hunger of Charlie Sheen expecting a delivery man, the humble satellite signal is rewriting the course of a region in which secular democracy is the dreamy contrast to the wakeful nightmare of dynastic strongmen or intolerant mullahs.

Al Jazeera. Television and a news network sympathetic to the cause of freedom -- a polished and professional network endemic to the ethnic, religious, and cultural characteristics of the region, not an import. Remember that ten years ago, the Bush Administration targeted Al Jazeera's journalists as enemies and bombed its bureau in Kabul. Now our State Department follows Al Jazeera as a matter of basic professional pratice, and you can bet it's in heavy rotation on the Situation Room flat screens. And among those who follow international news and politics closely, Al Jazeera has become the channel of first choice; traffic to the English-language stream online has grown by 2,500 percent since last Friday. And Mohamed Nanabhay, the head of online for the English language channel, told The New York Times' Brian Stelter that the site's live stream had been viewed over 4 million times since Friday, and that 1.6 million of those views have come from the United States. "It's just a testament to the fact that Americans do care about foreign news," he said.

Of course, Al Jazeera's English-language service is different than its main Arabic-language programming yet we can't help but marvel at the dead-straight reporting from Egypt (before the Mubarak government shut it down) and the fluff-free style. No studio talking heads, no all-star panels, no attempt to make the television experience look like an iPad app, with anchors pressing touch screens and sliding meaningless graphics around the viewing palette. Just waves of in-depth coverage, images backed by reporting. Yes, this is what big news television used to be -- a bit unfashionable perhaps among a crowd of digerati obsessed with smart phones and Quora, but what a joy.

And to use the technical journalism term, it's a hell of a story. What began with the slap of a protester's face in a remote part of Tunisia has spread quickly across the North African Arab countries and is leaking into the gulf states -- emboldened and knit together by digital communications tools, but mostly powered by a willingness to confront power and by the mass realization that what lies behind (powerless poverty) is far less compelling than a mysterious and dangerous future that may include self-determination.

We shouldn't undersell the digital communications portion of this. Yes, Twitter may be playing almost no role inside Egypt over the past week, and Facebook may be blacked out, but it's important to look back further into the roots of the revolt. And there, you'll find upper middle class Egpytians and Tunisians (and connected people in other parts of the Arab world) organizing in Facebook groups. They're only a part of the story, of course -- most of the anger comes from the poor and the middle class living with high prices, low wages, and no political power. Nancy Scola pulled this quote from the op-ed piece by novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin in the Times, and I think it says quite a bit about the current among young Arabic people who yearn to be both free and upwardly mobile:

Clearly, the scent of Tunisia's 'jasmine revolution' has quickly reached Egypt. Following the successful expulsion in Tunis of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the call arose on Facebook for an Egyptian revolution, to begin on Jan. 25. Yet the public here mocked those young people who had taken to Twitter and Facebook to post calls for protest: Since when was the spark of revolution ignited on a pre-planned date? Had revolution become like a romantic rendezvous?

Facebook groups were a huge part of this; democratic activists have been using the platform for years to gather support and share information. Connected young Egyptians like citizen journalist Noha Atef have been chronicling human rights abuses in Egypt for years, and disseminating the information via Facebook and YouTube. And even though the term "Twitter revolution" has the smell of the discredited about it, short messaging over networks is also a part of this - whether it's texting or Twitter or the on-fly-invention allowing Egyptians to Tweet by phone, cobbled together in an unusual collaboration between Twitter and Google. Further, I do think there's something to Jeff Jarvis's suggestion that in the future, connectivity to the network of networks - ordinary people's ability to communicate -- should be considered a basic human right. Of course, this raises the spectre of the vast private ownership of most of what we consider "the Internet," and the inherent weakness of private companies interested in profit standing up to governments who demand censorship or monitoring, a topic covered in detail by Evgeny Morozov in his riveting challenge to cyber-utopians (and digital centrism), The Net Delusion.

Yet there is no debating two facts out of Egypt:

1. Mubarak shut down the Internet and digital life there is at a standstill.

2. The revolution not only continued under an Internet black-out, it picked up steam.

Some of it's economic. While cell phone usage has grown wildly in developing countries and places like Egypt, where almost half the population lives in poverty, those phones aren't fancy smart phones with Web access and social media apps; they're cheaper basic models with pre-paid voice service. So while more educated and wealthier elements of Egyptian society may miss their access and suffer from a major Facebook jones, the crowds jamming Tahrir Square are powered by two alternative technologies - their feet, and their voices.

Or as a friend of Parvez Sharma put it from inside Egypt:

Fuck the internet! I have not seen it since Thursday and I am not missing it. I don't need it. No one in Tahrir Square needs it. No one in Suez needs it or in Alex...Go tell Mubarak that the peoples revolution does not [need] his damn internet!

But it will, I think. It will when the job of building a more liberal civil society in Egypt replaces the job of taking down the dictator, when long-term organizing and creating progressive political parties is at hand. The networks of young organizers that relied on Facebook for years will be reactivated and empowered, and new voices will emerge.

That time is not now, however. Strangely enough, this is television's time - and it's clearly the cross-over moment for the news network that Bill O'Reilly bashed as "anti-America" just last week. No matter: the Drudge Report is now sending linky love Al Jazeera's way. And this is good for our society, not just for the Arab world. In embracing Al Jazeera's splendid coverage in large numbers over the past week, we're laying aside a good portion of fear -- and we're turning a page to a new chapter in the post-post-9/11 world. Al Jazeera is good for us.

Watching Al Jazeera break through this week, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Reese Schonfeld 10 years ago at the launch party for his memoir about helping Ted Turner create CNN.  Schonfeld recalled how the CNN founders really saw themselves as revolutionaries -- and how they thought of the news network as a kind of social enterprise aimed at changing the nation's relationship to news and information, right down to Turner's  famous banning of the word "foreign." And the conversation recalled how Ted Turner introduced CNN to the world in 1980:

"We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event... and when the end of the world comes, we'll play 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' before we sign off."

That commitment to meaty, unending television coverage lives again, and let's hope it spreads to our sets like democracy activism through the Middle East. With Al Jazeera, the tune may be a little different -- maybe they'll be singing Mawtini at the end - but the song remains the same.