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I Want My Al Jazeera -- Vermont Town Debates Access

Eye on Arab Media

New America Media, News Report , Jalal Ghazi Posted: Jul 11, 2008

Editor's Note: The battle over diversity in the media came to a head in the town of Burlington, Vt. in a heated debate over whether to continue airing the award-winning news channel Al Jazeera English. Jalal Ghazi is the associate producer of the Peabody Award-winning show "Mosaic: World News from the Middle East," and writer of the column Eye on Arab Media for New America Media.

If you live in Israel you can watch Al Jazeera English because the nation's two largest cable systems, Yes TV and HOT Television, have bounced both CNN International and BBC World News in favor of Al Jazeera English.

If you live in Britain you can also watch Al Jazeera English, but you cant watch FOX News, because in the eyes of the British regulatory watchdog, Fox has failed to meet the minimum requirement of regulatory licensing laws of objective and neutral news.

If you live in the United States, however, it's Al Jazeera that you cant watch, because major American cable systems, including Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Fox Reality have refused to carry the news channel.

If Americans want to watch Al Jazeera, they must buy a satellite dish from GlobeCast, a division of France Telecom. Toledo, Ohio is one of only two American cities that offers its residents the opportunity to watch Al Jazeera on their cable system, the other being Vermonts largest city, Burlington.

Recently, Al Jazeera English has been at the center of a public debate in Burlington on whether it should stay on the city-owned cable system or be taken off the air. The residents were deciding the fate of Al Jazeera in their town, but they were also, in a way, the American jury deciding the fate of Al Jazeera in the United States. Al Jazeera understands the significance of this event, which explains why it was the featured story of its media watch program The Listening Post.

Al Jazeera English sent two representatives to defend the television station: Al Jazeera English Managing Director Tony Burman and Josh Rushing, a former Marine spokesperson who served as a Marine Corps media liaison for 14 years before turning to Al Jazeera English. Rushing, who helped sell the war in Iraq to the American public in his years as a Marine spokesman, is now one of most effective spokesmen for Al Jazeera.

The controversy over Al Jazeera English started in May when Burlington Telecom's General Manager Chris Burns decided to drop the channel from the municipally-owned telecommunications company due to a large number of viewer complaints. However, Mayor Bob Kiss demanded that the channel not be pulled until city residents had a chance to express their views.

Two separate forums were organized in late May and mid-June, where citizens were given a platform to express their views about Al Jazeera English before Burlington Telecoms two oversight committees: the Telecommunications Advisory Committee and Cable Advisory Council.

On June 26, Burlington Free Press.com reported that the two oversight committees jointly and unanimously recommended that the city-owned cable system maintain Al Jazeera English. In their recommendations, the committees said that many of the testimonies against Al Jazeera English at the two heavily attended public forums seemed to have been based on secondary sources, and that there was no evidence that the station condones terrorism or anti-Semitism, or calls for the destruction of Israel. Such accusations were made by the Israel Center for Vermont and the Defenders Council of Vermont.

The heated public debates brought to the surface a very important point. The Vermonters who defended Al Jazeera were not necessarily doing so because they wanted to hear the Arabic perspective on major world events, but rather because they saw Al Jazeeras award-winning news program as a viable alternative source of news.

It is important to see the struggle that is going on now in Burlington as part of a larger struggle for media reform here in the United States, for voices, for more choices and for more diversity," Rory OConnor from Mediachannel.org told Al Jazeera English. "It is not that people want to subscribe for Al Jazeera English so they will follow, let us say, the politics of Al Jazeera English. They want to get other viewpoints and unfortunately, there are not enough diverse viewpoints available on the American television airwaves.

Many citizens echoed this sentiment during the public discussion. I want to start by saying that Im Jewish," one woman said. "In Israel, Al Jazeera English is one of the largest stations in the entire country. I sincerely hope that you think in terms of the freedom, to listen to whatever is around.

I kind of take pride that Burlington is one of the only American cities that has Al Jazeera and that is because we stand for freedom," another woman said. "We stand for an informed public."

Unlike most Americans, Vermonters who can watch Al Jazeera English on Burlingtons cable system have come to appreciate the value of getting diverse news.

Al Jazeera, which has 70 bureaus and now reaches the homes of more than 110 million households worldwide, has beaten entrances by BBC News, Sky News, Lisboa TV and the Phoenix Satellite Television Co., and has won the award for "Best 24 Hour News Program" at the prestigious 48th Monte Carlo Television Festival on June 14, 2008.

Tony Birtley's "Inside Myanmar - The Crackdown" won Best News Documentary, and James Bays' "Taliban Embedded" was awarded a second place in the category of Best TV Item.

The Best 24 Hour News Program award is a testimony to the fact that English Al Jazeera is setting a higher standard for global news, the same way Al Jazeera Arabic service has set a higher standard for news in the Middle East.

If Al Jazeera beat BBC and Sky News, then U.S. channels like Fox and CNN simply do not have a chance. If Al Jazeera English were to be shown in America, these channels will have to provide more in-depth coverage, and depend less on local or embedded journalists.

Al Jazeera also has proven to be a serious competitor to public broadcast service channels in the United States by providing in-depth reports about different regions of the United States. One episode of a program called Inside U.S.A talked about gentrification in Harlem, bringing to light the plight of African Americas who are being uprooted from their homes and stores to make space for well-to-do tenants from Manhattan.

Another episode of a program called Every Woman focused on the hardships U.S. ex-servicewomen face in their fight against health care bureaucracy, unemployment and high housing costs.

Most importantly, Al Jazeera English offers a wide variety of global programs that bridge the gap between people of different countries, religions and cultures. For example, Every Woman often juxtaposes the struggles of women from different cultures, religions and nationalities. One episode compared the issues of American Muslim sorority sisters with those of beauty pageant contestants competing for the title of Ms. Senior America. Other episodes showed American cowgirls competing and riding bulls at a rodeo, and Muslim women competing in soccer and car racing games.

What is unique about these reports is the fact that they are made by reporters on the ground, who are familiar with the areas on which they are reporting. In one episode of Every Woman, the Israeli reporter Shira Livi tells the story of a 28-year-old Bedouin woman, Sara, who lost custody of her seven children to her drug-addicted husband. Sara picked Livi, a Jewish Israeli reporter, to tell her story, which she told in Hebrew rather than Arabic. Livi was able to capture the complexity of the challenges facing an Arab woman living inside a tribal society in the heart of Israel.

Regardless of the notions some may have about Al Jazeera, if Americans were given an opportunity to watch the news channel the way the residents of Burlington were, they will most likely respond positively.

At those public hearings [in Burlington], one noticed that the people that came out were hugely in favor of Al Jazeera," Sandra Baird, lawyer and university professor, told Al Jazeera English. "I counted the speakers the other night. It was six to one in favor of Al Jazeera.

According to Tony Burman, former editor in chief of the CBC and now the managing director of Al Jazeera English, the station's Web site gets around six million hits a week worldwide and more than 60 percent of the hits come from the United States. Burman added that a lot of Al Jazeera's negotiations that are going on now are going quite well, and attributed this to the fact that the television station is becoming better known among cable distributors.

Burlington Telecoms two oversight committees support Burmans view. In their recommendations, they noted that in the two heavily attended public forums they witnessed a compelling preponderance of subscribers and potential subscribers requesting that BT not drop Al Jazeera English."

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