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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Future of News Over Noise

photo of Tony Burman

Tony Burman

chief of strategy for Al Jazeera in the Americas

The Future of News Over Noise

keynote speech delivered in Madison, Wisconsin  April 15, 2011

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Last month, in defense of her State Department budget, there were surprising remarks from the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Al Jazeera, she said, was “changing peoples’ minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective.”

U.S. news, she added, was not keeping up.   “You may not agree with (Al Jazeera), but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”

How did this ‘real news” – as Clinton put it – reflect itself in Al Jazeera’s coverage of the so-called Arab Awakening?   There are probably many of you who didn’t see it.   Worldwide, it is now available in more than 220 million households, in more than 100 countries – including Israel and Canada.  But here in the U.S., it’s only available 24/7 in three locations….Washington DC,  Burlington Vermont and  Toledo Ohio.

The strength of Al Jazeera’s performance is rooted in its news gathering ability.  Together, its Arabic and English-language services have more than 70 news bureaus, 400 reporters worldwide – more than either the BBC or CNN. By comparison, in the United States now, there are  fewer than 100 foreign correspondents attached to the major American mainstream news organizations.  A population of more than 300 million people served by fewer than 100 foreign correspondents.  Think about that.

Al Jazeera English has been on the air now for nearly five years.   It has a staff of about 1000 employees, drawn from more than 50 nationalities.  It constitutes the most diverse news service in the world, by far.

There are many of us from the BBC, CNN and the CBC – but many more come from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.    Its staff is as multicultural as is the United States.

The key aspect of Al Jazeera English is its global perspective.  Our ‘home team’ is not in London, Atlanta,  New York…  We have no ‘home team’.     As the day unfolds, our broadcast schedule follows the sun: AJE broadcasts to the world from its centers in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and then – finally, if you live in this time zone – the Americas.  Our objective is to let “the world report on itself.”

Al Jazeera is a public broadcaster, not unlike the CBC in  Canada or the BBC in Britain.  Although there is substantial revenue coming from program sales  and advertising, Al Jazeera is funded primarily by the Government of Qatar.  And like the CBC and BBC, there is a firewall between the Government and Al Jazeera.

I have been there nearly three years now,  and I have detected no effort on their part to influence Al Jazeera.  When I was in Doha, I actually had zero contact with the Government.  In fact, when I was in Canada – as the CBC’s Editor in Chief for more than seven years – I had a clearer sense of what the Government here wanted out of its public broadcaster than I do working in Doha.

The editorial policy of Al Jazeera English is firmly rooted in fair and fearless reporting.  This policy of fair reporting is exemplified by our journalistic perspective, which sees the world through the lens of the global South.

This is a stark contrast to other international channels, such as CNN and the BBC.  They largely focus on the Western centers of power and reflect – sometimes inadvertently – their own national American and British agendas in their reporting.

In a recent academic study of BBC, CNN, and AJE, it was shown that, in the period examined, 81% of AJE`s news items were about the news and stories of the South- Africa, Asia, Middle East, Latin America, etc.  This was double that of the BBC and CNN whose `news` focused more on Western Europe and the U.S.

AJE provides news and information not available elsewhere and from parts of the world that go unreported. There is also evidence that it serves as a ‘bridge’ to understand other cultures.

AJE is the only truly global English-language, all-news channel.  AJE is firmly rooted in regions well beyond the traditional Western power centers, letting the world tell its own story.  As a result, it has quickly become the leading international news service in Africa, key areas in Asia, as well as in the Middle East.

AJE also serves as a bridge to the understanding of other cultures.  As George Clooney once described it: “Al Jazeera English TV is a perfect example of how we can open up the doors to see what these cultures are and see that our differences with them are not so many.”

Evidence of this is a 2008 American academic study of AJE`s impact in six countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the United States.  It  revealed that, in contrast to other channels, AJE`s viewers “found it to function as a `conciliatory media’… more likely to cover contentious issues in a way that contributes to…cooperation, negotiation and reconciliation.”

AJE is a stand-alone channel within Al Jazeera– separate in staff and editorial direction from Al Jazeera Arabic.   AJE is a part of the Al Jazeera broadcast group, but a separate member of it.   It operates not unlike Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  Just as his Times of London, Sun newspaper, Sky News and the Fox TV network all have independent voices, priorities and brands within Murdoch’s one international multimedia company – so does Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera English is available and popular in Britain, and it is regulated by Ofcom, the respected and tough  UK body which oversees that country’s broadcasters.  Like the BBC, ITV and Channel Four, AJE is required to adhere to Ofcom’s very strict Broadcast Code that deals with issues of impartiality and fairness.  This is the body to which viewers appeal if anything they see offends them.

In more than two years of broadcasting, AJE has never experienced a problem.

AJE journalists are also required to follow Al Jazeera’s  Code of Ethics, which is available on our website: Aljazeera.dot.net- forward-slash-English.  It’s precisely the same type of strict Code which governs journalistic quality and integrity at the BBC and CBC.

In more than two years of broadcasting, AJE has never experienced a problem.

Not surprisingly, AJE has special pride in its coverage of the Middle East.  Again, the goal here is not to push a line or cater to a bias.  The goal is far more revolutionary: we simply want people to understand the full story, not a narrow one.

You are aware of AJE’s coverage of the Arab Awakening.   Two years ago, it also gained international acclaim through its coverage of the Gaza-Israeli war.  Al Jazeera English was the only international English-language news channel that covered both sides of the conflict.  Not only from within Gaza itself, but throughout Israel – including southern Israel – with more journalists and crews than any of our competitors.

Praise for AJE came from The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Le Monde in Paris, the Columbia journalism Review, The New York Times….and the Haaretz newspaper in Israel.

Day in and day out, Israeli politicians speak directly on Al Jazeera – on both its Arabic and English channels – more than on any other network in the world outside of Israel.

That actually was one of the first notable achievements of Al Jazeera Arabic when it was created in 1996 by the Emir of Qatar.

For the first time in history, the Arab world directly saw and heard Israelis – speaking freely, frequently, live and unedited. That was ground-breaking.    Until then, traditional Arab journalism had been limited to state-run propaganda machines, usually serving very narrow interests.

Al Jazeera originated in one of the world’s smallest countries, and perhaps one of the most liberal of the Gulf states. Qatar is beside Saudi Arabia, jutting out into the Arabian Gulf on a peninsula.  That actually is  what ‘Al Jazeera’ means in English:   peninsula.

Qatar’s capital – Doha- is not nearly as racy as Dubai.  In fact, it’s pretty quiet.  Doha regards itself as Education City: more than a dozen European and North American universities have campuses there.

Qatar has diplomatic relations with Israel – the only Arab country that doesn’t directly border Israel to do so.   As a staunch US ally, it also hosts one of the largest American military bases in the world.   Relations between Qatar’s ruler, the Emir, and the U.S. Government are close.  They have occasionally been strained because of Al Jazeera – but this is fairly recent.

The Emir created Al Jazeera in 1996 to challenge the smothering media climate of censorship within the Arab world.   He hired hundreds of Arabic speakers who had been working at the BBC, and Al Jazeera quickly became, as it is today, the Arab world’s most popular and respected news channel – by a wide margin.

Al Jazeera gave voice to a multitude of views  that for the first time reflected the mood and moment of the Arab world.

In addition to its Arabic ‘main channel’, it has a smaller channel that broadcasts live speeches, seminars and sermons – it’s like a C-Span or CPAC – that has been proudly uncensored since its creation. And in the Arab world, that’s a triumph.

On very rare occasions, not often, personal views expressed on this live channel by certain speakers – views not held by Al Jazeera itself – have been outrageous.  Angry, hateful words about Israel and Jews – just as there have been angry, hateful words voiced in the Israeli media about Arabs and Muslims.  No one in this painful, bitter conflict has a monopoly on virtue.

Al Jazeera’s hallmark has always been fearless reporting and wide-open debate – regardless of what controversy this triggers.

This often challenges the rich and the powerful. And it has enraged authoritarian Arab governments throughout Al Jazeera’s 13-year history.  Its journalists, at one time or another, have been temporarily thrown out of many Arab countries.  In fact as recently as last March, at the Arab summit, several governments denounced Al Jazeera for being too critical of the Arab world.

You probably think of Al Jazeera as the hated nemesis of the American government.  In fact, Al Jazeera – until 9/11 in 2001-  was seen by Western governments, including the Clinton White House in the U.S., as the poster child for the strengthening of Arab democracy.

And then it changed.

Shortly after 9/11, in November 2001, the U.S. government attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan.  It claimed no civilians were being killed in the bombing.  Al Jazeera, not surprisingly, was the only news organization inside Afghanistan.  And it had the temerity to report that, yes, civilians were being killed.  It was then that the American government – the triad of Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney-  turned on Al Jazeera.

We live in a very challenging world.   I suspect historians will one day judge this as a defining period in this 21st century.  The centers of global power are shifting.   In historic, even epic terms, the ground is moving beneath our feet.   Power is shifting from the West- from the United States….to China, India and other parts of the developing world where the world’s new 21st century economy is taking shape.

Not coincidentally, that is where Al Jazeera largely resides. After the rise of the West…for the past hundreds of years…it’s now “the rise of the rest”, as Fareed Zakaria once put it. That doesn’t mean we’re entering an anti-American world, but we are moving into a world that is defined and directed from many places and by many people.

The world’s current financial problems are not helping.  Their aftershocks are having a devastating effect on many news organizations.   At a time when coverage of the world is more important than ever – and “global” is becoming the new “local” – our window on the world is increasingly being closed.  Throughout North America, and Western Europe, journalists are being laid off.

Media companies – many of them still quite rich – are cutting back.  International coverage and investigative journalism are at risk.   Last year, surveys of American news media indicate the percentage of news devoted to international stories was the lowest in more than 20 years. This, sadly, comes at a time when people have never been more in need of fearless, independent, public-service journalism – particularly coverage of the world.

Famed American journalist Walter Lippmann once wrote that the press should be “like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision.”

As we entered the 21st century, the worldwide information explosion raised hopes that journalism’s noblest goals were actually attainable.  But this was premature.  The turbulence of this past decade, not its tranquility, has defined this period.  In many cases, the news media have been passive, at best, or even complicit, as world events spiraled out of control.

The list of these events has been long: Growing conflict in the Middle East, and beyond. Religious and political extremism.  Increased worries about climate change.   Immigration and vanishing borders.   The specter once again of potential nuclear conflict. And, of course, the current financial meltdown that threatens to deepen poverty and despair in many developing countries.   As a consequence, many in the world’s industrialized countries have turned inward.  Instead of greeting this new century with openness and hope, they have become more protective of what they have and more fearful that in this uncertain future they may lose it.

The response by the world’s news media to these events has been mixed, even contradictory.

In the developing world, there have been aggressive efforts to expand coverage of the world. These have provided alternatives voices to the Anglo-American monopoly of CNN and the BBC that has long dominated the world of international journalism.  The most notable example has been in the Middle East with the creation of the Al Jazeera network and its newer competitors, a development that is inspiring similar initiatives in Africa and Asia.

In contrast, many of the world’s largest commercial news organizations – still rich by most measurements – have gone the opposite way. They have mirrored their sense of the public mood by reducing world coverage. Reacting to pressure from shareholders, they have drastically cut back their international bureaus, and shrunk the relatively small amount of space and airtime they still devote to ‘foreign news’.

The late CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite gave a somber warning shortly before his death. He said that pressures by media companies to generate ever-greater profits threaten the very freedom the U.S. was built upon.   He said today’s journalists face greater challenges than those from his generation. No longer could journalists count on their employers to provide the necessary resources, he said, “to expose truths that powerful politicians and special interests often did not want exposed.”   Instead, he concluded, “they face rounds and rounds of job cuts and cost cuts that require them to do ever more with ever less.”

In the full sweep of history, one could argue this is precisely the time when understanding other cultures is a necessary prerequisite to truly understanding your own.

As a justification for reducing costly international coverage, it has been irresistible for some media companies to blame the victim – in this case, the audience – as in’…people don’t actually care about foreign news’. But this is self-serving.   It tries to absolve journalists and programmers from blame for boring or confusing their audiences.  There is considerable research in North America suggesting that superficial coverage of the world is the most important contributor to public apathy.

What is also being ignored is another crucial role of news organizations:  to provide news they believe the public needs to know to become better informed citizens.    There used to be a time when major American media companies were motivated by a sense of public duty.  They maintained strong, well-resourced news divisions as a form of ‘pay-back’ for access to the cherished public airwaves and the immense profits this produced.  This was perhaps best summed up in the 1950s in the United States when Bill Paley, founder of CBS, was once quoted as saying, in effect: “I make money on Jack Benny so I can afford to do the best news.”

But- today – why are the budgets for news – particularly in Television – being cut so much?  Because the companies aren’t making money anymore, right?  Wrong.

Last year, CBS earned $724 million dollars….3 times the year before.  In its fourth quarter last year,    NBC UNIVERSAL earned $ 830 million dollars in income, 40% more than the year before/ DISNEY/ABC earned 1.3 billion, about 50 percent more than a year

Welcome to the recession!

Turning the world off may be therapeutic to some, but it is no long-term solution.  The long march of history shows us that.  There are signs that interest in global news coverage is increasing in the developing world, in Europe and perhaps in Canada – but not yet, it appears, in the United States.  And this is ironic given the ubiquitous international influence of the world’s last remaining superpower.  So what’s going on?  Why would one of the world’s most educated and sophisticated countries – with so much at stake in major international issues – be seemingly so disinterested in world affairs?

A few years ago, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press published a revealing analysis that offered an answer.  It argued that the media, not their audience, should take the rap.  The survey offered powerful evidence that broad interest in international news is most limited by the public’s lack of background in this area. They simply don’t understand why these stories are important, and the media mostly make little effort to help them.

There is a circular pattern that becomes evident when examining the treatment of international news by many news organizations.

Coverage is very costly, therefore it is limited.  Being limited, it is superficial and often confusing. Being all of that, the public turns off.  Since the public turns off, costs are even more reduced.  And the self-fulfilling pattern plays on.

A survey released last year in the U.S. indicated that American trust in the news media was at a record low.  Nearly two-thirds of Americans think the news stories they read, hear and watch are frequently inaccurate,

This probably would have come as no surprise to the late Neil Postman. He was the American media and cultural critic who in 1985 wrote his provocative analysis of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death.  In that book, Mr. Postman argued that television – particularly TV news- treats serious issues as entertainment. It demeans political discourse by making it less about ideas and more about image.

As he put it:

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk: culture-death is a clear possibility.”

Many years from now, when historians reflect on this decade, I believe their judgment of the media’s performance during these years will be harsh.   Looking at the current state of the world, it is difficult not to conclude that disastrous decisions have been made by political leaders in an environment of ignorance and arrogance.  And these disasters were condoned by a public that largely chose to look the other way and a news media  that was at various times complicit or incompetent.  That’s certainly not how this decade was supposed to turn out and as the world becomes more dangerous,  this should give us all motivation to set it right.

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