Al Jazeera Can Help U.S. Join Conversation: Lee C. Bollinger

In the short time from Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution to the departure of Hosni Mubarak from Cairo to the more ominous events unfolding in Libya, many of America’s assumptions about the Middle East have been challenged and changed.

Along with discussions about what the future holds in Arab nations, the public also has been focused on the power of the media -- social and otherwise -- to drive popular movements involving a new generation of young people. We must hope that this discussion goes beyond the fascination with Facebook and Twitter to reconsider the value of international news reporting (from both U.S. and foreign outlets) to America’s interests in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.

There is an unsustainable dichotomy in our nation’s attitude toward foreign media companies and their journalism that reveals deep-seated confusion about the global forum provided by National Public Radio, France 24, CCTV (China Central TV), Russia Today, the British Broadcasting Corp. and, most notably for the moment, Al Jazeera.

In the past year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, Army General David Petraeus, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, all have appeared on Al Jazeera’s English and Arabic- language channels. According to a State Department Inspector General’s report in November, Al Jazeera is becoming “a global media power,” now with more than 60 million viewers.

Out of Conversation

The Qatar-based network’s reporting and viewership is by no means limited to the Arab world: it has more bureaus in Latin America than either CNN or the BBC. As a State Department official recently explained with respect to the government’s engagement with Al Jazeera, “If we are not in the conversation, people will be speaking for us or about us.”

While the Obama administration recognizes the importance of ensuring that the U.S.’s views are represented in the global forum being created by Al Jazeera and other outlets, the reciprocal opportunity for the American public to tap into this conversation is almost non-existent. Broadcasts of Al Jazeera English are available to fewer than 100,000 U.S. households in and around Burlington, Vermont; Toledo, Ohio; and Washington.

The arguments against access to foreign media are grounded in fears about surrendering U.S. sovereignty. These objections will be overcome only after we recognize that the information available to us through the global public forum is critically valuable both to our democracy and commercial interests in international markets.

Travel Restrictions

Two opportunities for immediate action would serve to begin this transition. First, steps should be taken to change existing visa requirements that subject many foreign journalists to more burdensome travel requirements than their fellow nationals visiting the U.S. as businesspeople or tourists. In addition to inhibiting entry by foreign reporters, the policy has the perverse effect of making it more difficult for American journalists to travel abroad.

The Obama administration unwisely has continued this policy, enforcing these requirements in high-profile fashion at the September 2009 Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh.

Second, the Federal Communications Commission should use its authority to expand access to foreign news broadcasts.

The FCC’s approval in January of Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal with “conditions and enforceable commitments” offers such an opportunity. Among the requirements imposed on the merged parties for fostering competition in the “video marketplace” was a commitment by Comcast to provide 10 new independent channels.

U.S. Disadvantage

Rather than limiting this focus on diversity to Spanish language programming, children’s shows and local content, the FCC should establish as a priority access to foreign news outlets.

Failing to correct our course threatens to put America’s understanding of the world at a significant disadvantage relative to other countries. It is one thing for Canada to approve comprehensive cable and satellite distribution of Al Jazeera English in November 2009, but quite another for us to witness the start of “Al Jazeera Turk,” a Turkish-language news channel reportedly set to begin broadcasting soon.

It would not be surprising if Al Jazeera Turk, only the second non-Arabic channel aired by the network, were to become a symbol of Turkey’s new openness while providing an unflattering contrast with limited access to Al Jazeera in the U.S.

The website for Al Jazeera English presently is mounting a campaign for carriage of the network by U.S. cable and satellite providers. After clicking on a button that says, “Demand Al Jazeera in the USA,” people seeking to join the company- sponsored lobbying campaign are shown model e-mail text notable not for what it says about Al Jazeera, but for this basic insight about America’s self-interest, one we need to embrace:

“In a world that is growing increasingly smaller and more interconnected each day, it is more important than ever to have full access to news from around the world.”

(Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, is a First Amendment scholar and author of “Uninhibited, Robust and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Lee C. Bollinger at freepress@columbia.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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