05 August 2011

An Angle on Things

‘And now for something completely different!’

And today that thing is Al-Jazeera!

Perhaps I’ll offer a brief explanation of the thing itself and the whys and wherefores of my discussing it. First off, Al-Jazeera has several ‘talk-shows’ (you know the type) which turn into nice, raucous debates. Sometimes you can tell that they invited a certain person to talk on the show just so they can rip them to shreds. That’s the nature of these kinds of news shows, I think.

An example: One of my favorite Iraqi leaders is Rafi Al-Issawi. He’s not a perfect guy—certainly no politician is—but he is a doctor by trade, he’s from Al-Anbar province (of which I am particularly fond) and while there’s precious little to be found about him in English (Here are a few tit-bits), he was interviewed on one of these talk-shows (بلا حدود) and it was CLEAR AS DAY that they had him on the show only to deride him. Because Egyptians know more about Iraq than Iraqis?? Because they wanted him to deride his country, give it up for lost, and let it careen back into turmoil?? It made me livid.

I disagree with Al-Jazeera a lot. But I don’t give up on it. It’s a great resource. And one of my favorite things is to see the huge gaps between media sources.

Another example: Once upon a time, there was a great kerfuffle near the dome of the rock (once upon many times, actually, but this is a specific one). There were riots. There were cops. It was decidedly a thing. I was having a really hard time understanding what had happened. So I tried a little experiment.

I read an article from and English-written “Western” resource. Then I read one from an Israeli newspaper. And a third from Al-Jazeera.

It was as though each article represented a completely different event! Now, I’ll admit, the western article was safely straddling the fence, but that also does not equate to accuracy. I swear, getting the news downright requires triangulating skills. And how many people have the time or desire to effectively triangulate the facts. It ain’t easy. But a couple solid angles give a more accurate reading. Triangulation—the geographical kind—most literally lets you know where you stand in relation to something else. Or where something else stands in relation to you. Both.

(A side note: I find it interesting that triangulation requires “one known side and two known angles” to determine the third, because in ‘news triangulation’, you have at least two angles and ten-to-one you have a known side: the side you actually favor. Don’t lie. Even if it’s 51% vs 49% you have one. Call it an over-the-top metaphor, but I’m sticking with it.)

ALL OF THAT TO SAY: I get some interesting things out of Al-Jazeera (and other Arabic news sources) well beyond the actual news pieces. Which are also important.

Interesting fact # 1: English vs. Arabic

-This both tickles me pink and makes me blazing mad. The English Al-Jazeera is frequented by English speakers and the Arabic Al-Jazeera by Arabic speakers, as makes sense. Different audiences beg different material, apparently. Etiquette changes. What is considered appropriate for one audience is deemed unpalatable for the other. The types of talk shows available are quite different.

My point? Al-Jazeera English is NOT the functional equivalent of Al-Jazeera Arabic. The former is far more diplomatic. And Al-Jazeera is not the only one who falls prey to this method of tempering and tampering based upon audience. I've seen BBC Arabic be all too careful of its wording in the English version of a given article.

Interesting fact # 2: Seems like prescience, but it’s just the fact of being local: (or) Why no one ought to have been shocked when the protests broke out in Egypt (though, yes, they did begin in Tunis).

-I was trying to listen through my old pod-casts and came across an Al-Jazeera episode and began to listen to it, only half paying attention. Suddenly I was ALL EARS. They were describing the Egyptian revolution, but in the oddest way. As though it was a theory, instead of already happening. I looked at the date. Three or four months before the revolution. It wasn’t just brewing. It was a foregone conclusion. (Also interesting was the unusual amount of blame being placed on the Coptic Christians, but that’s another matter.)

Point? Looking at social trends from these angles make “shocking” events about as shocking as rain-clouds producing rain.

Interesting fact # 3: Commentary as the REAL story

-Reading the article? Important. Reading the subscriber/viewer/reader commentary? Whole different ball-game. Here’s where all the emotion, the personal stories, and all the rhetoric comes out. Some of it is thoughtful and poignant…some of it pure vitriol…and some of it simply nonsense (like any commentary board). But at the end of the day, those are the opinions of people who get their news from Al-Jazeera, and those opinions are worth knowing. Some of it is shocking…might scandalize English-reading eyes. Thing is…how people feel about an event or incident can influence its long-term meaning in the public eye--not, mind you, the actual facts--but certainly their broad perception. Sometimes it even overtakes the facts.

Interesting fact # 4: Gaps speak LOUDLY

Al-Jazeera has not broadcasted talk-shows from Egypt since February. I cannot express how disturbing this is. One of their most interesting talk shows (the one that tried it's hardest to riddle Al-Issawi with holes) appears to no longer exist. This is telling and worrisome. It’s not in the news every minute anymore, but Egypt is not well. They’ve gone from a problematic ‘hereditary presidency’-type government, to military junta, now to the realization of the (unsurprising) fact that the only other well-established organization to present itself—now that the other has been swept away—is the Muslim Brotherhood. The protests may have been faintly interfaith, but the results may well not be.

If the most well-known media source in the Arab world is no longer able to broadcast from the most cinema-savvy country in the Arab world we have a problem.

At any rate…this is one triangulating angles. The next post will be about another.

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