“Notice: This content is not available from your location.”
This is the message I get when I try to watch the live broadcast on Al Jazeera’s news app, something that has long been a staple of my daily news-gathering routine. And when I click on AJ’s English language website (aljazeera.com) I get redirected to america.aljazeera.com.
On August 20th, Al Jazeera (AJ) launched a spanking new cable news network in the US, to rival the likes of CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. But in doing so it has restricted access to its own international output, limiting what those of us living in the US can see, hear, and read. The network claims to be “breaking in with something that we think is unique and are confident, with our guts and some research, that the American people are looking for.” (Kate O’Brian, president of Al Jazeera America, and a former exec at ABC News.) Let me ask you, Ms. O’Brian. Is this what the American people are looking for? Restriction and limitations? Not to mention the fact that I can’t even access the American site as my cable provider doesn’t carry it.
In an interview with NPR’s David Folkenflik O’Brian states “We will tell stories in ways that Americans are familiar with.” Are Americans incapable of understanding news unless conveyed by their fellow citizens using American phrasing, sporting American accents, and crowned by American coifed hair?
Why not provide both the American and International feeds? That way, if I’m feeling like a member of the global human race I can enjoy the international edition (that everyone else in the world has access to) or, if I’m feeling a bit exclusive, a bit limited in my understanding of the world, a bit scared of other points of view, then I can watch the American version.
That sounds like a good choice to me and America is the land of choice, no? Or is choice is just a question of what the corporation wants you to see? I suspect Ms. O’Brian would argue that the new channel is expanding the choice of viewers, filling a gap in American cable news with less advertising and a lesser celebrity-driven attitude.
I’m not convinced and am reminded of Sheena Iyengar’s fantastic Ted Talk, “The Art of Choosing” (see below). In it, she discusses a study she did in Eastern Europe on the very nature of choice. She interviewed residents of former communist countries who we facing the “challenge of transitioning to a more democratic and capitalistic society”. During the very first session in Russia, she was offering former soviet block participants a selection of drinks when they arrived for the study, a gesture of hospitality. However, when asked which beverage selection he preferred a participant replied, “oh, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all just soda.”
Iyengar realized she had indeed offered the participants nothing but soda. Seven types of soda to be sure, but there was no alternative. No water. No juice.
But take a stroll down the soda aisle at any US supermarket and behold the quantity of flavored, high-fructose fizz. One could forgive Iyengar for confusing abundance with variety, leaving true choice out of the equation.
In shutting off access to its international outlet Al Jazeera has deprived us of true choice. Perhaps O’Brian is right that they have provided residents of the US with what “Americans are familiar with”, the semblance of choice where no real choice exists.
For we may have an abundance of brands, each aggressively peddling its wares and making claims of superiority, impartiality, or focus. But it is, in fact, all just soda.
PS – I have found a workaround for the international website issue. By navigating to anything BUT the home page, one can access the international edition. I recommend setting a shortcut on your browser to http://www.aljazeera.com/news/ as opposed to http://www.aljazeera.com/ The latter just redirects to the American version.
The live stream, sadly, is unavailable.