A former United Nations correspondent, Leslie Pitterson is currently working on the production of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow her on Twitter @lesliepitterson.
There's much to be said about Al-Jazeera recent agreement to purchase Al Gore's Current TV.
Last week, critics from across the spectrum voiced their outrage at the Qatar based network $500 million dollar purchase of Current TV. There were the progressives, who expressed their discontent with Gore, the environmentalist who had sold Current to oil-rich executives from Qatar. Then there were conservatives, who expressed outrage that Gore had sold Current to the owners of the so-called "terrorist network" after passing on a previous bid from Glenn Beck because his brand did not align with his network's mission. There was even grumblings from Current TV employees who believed their network's mission had been sold out.
It is important to step back from the immediate controversy over the deal and to evaluate what it means for media in this country and for American consumption of world news. On the one hand, this deal will likely lead to the end of Current TV as we know it—a sad realism for those who believed the network could eventually become a progressive leader in cable news. On the other hand, it means that Al-Jazeera will now reach over 40 million American households. Though many critics of the network have expressed concern, Al-Jazeera America is good news for world news.
Founded in 1996, Al-Jazeera's introduction to many Americans came post-9/11. As we sought to make sense of what had happened and learn more about the people behind the attacks that changed our nation. Then, the network was seen by many Americans as the network that played footage of terrorists in training camps in Afghanistan or in front of white sheets claiming credit for American casualties. That association, however powerful it remains in the minds of many Americans, does not tell the full story of the network.
For those who lament the lack of international news coverage, Al-Jazeera America is a promising development. Its coverage of global stories has guided the network's growth from the first uncensored network in the Arab world to a major voice in the global south. Today, Al-Jazeera can been seen in over 220 million households and in more than 120 countries. From reporting on the war on terror to unrest in sub-Saharan Africa, the network has reported world news from a unique perspective. But perhaps it is in the early stages of stories like the U.S. use of drones and the Arab Spring, which often required truncated history lessons from many American cable news outlets, that best illustrate the value of Al-Jazeera in the media landscape.
With 60 percent of production for Al-Jazeera America being produced here in the states and 40 percent being produced by the network's Al-Jazeera English brand, the new network will not only cover the world, it will cover the stories happening within our country. It will be welcomed to see the domestic issues and internal debates put into a larger global context. That editorial perspective is often lacking on both network and cable news organizations and is so often desperately needed. For a recent example, one only need to look at the gun control debate that has been renewed in the wake of the tragedy of the Newton shooting. Besides charts and graphs comparing gun sales in the U.S. to gun sales in Japan, there has been very little substantive reporting by television networks on the impact of guns in America verses elsewhere in the world.
Without a global context in reporting, American public policy debates often occur in a bubble void of legitimate guides from other places in the world. On the rare occasion that the media chooses to place a domestic debate into a global context, the news narrative quickly gravitates to sophomoric comparisons. During the healthcare debate, the references to other nations with a nationalized healthcare system were few and far between but when they did occur, they often included labeling other countries a socialist states or claiming, baselessly, that their systems were failures. Instead of a comprehensive look at how nationalized healthcare had affected the lives of people in countries that had such systems, journalists on major networks in this country argued against healthcare reform citing "the British and their bad teeth."
Even after they surmount the challenges of finalizing this new deal, they will have to work to turn their newfound access into viewership. After a decade of negative associations from many, Al-Jazeera will need to provide quality and compelling journalism in the face of lingering Islamophobia and ignorant attacks. It's a daunting task, but if it succeeds, it could bring a perspective long missing from the conversation. Our country's fervent belief in the right to free speech is at the heart of who we are, rooted in the idea that information empowers. Its uphill battle is sure to continue, but Al-Jazeera America could be a good reminder of the purpose that right serves.