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Going Dark

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Al Jazeera Logo 2

I have been inside a broadcast facility twice when it lost power.  Once was in Korea when lightning hit the antenna of AFKN, aka the military run, American Forces Korea Network.  The other was at WKRC in Cincinnati.  High up on Highland Drive, that huge red and white, 500-foot antenna also was a lightning magnet.

In both cases, it was very, very creepy.  Somebody like me, who has practically grown up in studios, production rooms, edit bays, and news pits, surrounded by lights, buzzes, beeps, bells, flashes and static; to have all of that go dark and silent – for a minute, it can feel like the end of the world.

And God help you if you are in the path of a engineer, rocketing through the building with a waving flashlight and screaming that they have to get to the backup generator.  Meanwhile, everybody sort of mills around with literally nothing to do because they have, literally, no way to do it.

A dark and silent TV or radio station is a thing against nature.

So it is with some sadness that I read that Al-Jazeera America is going dark after three years of trying to create an American market for it’s brand of newscasting.  In Arabic, the name means, “The Peninsula”, a direct reference to the fact that the parent of Al Jazeera America is based in Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula.

According to Wikipedia, the network, which had its first broadcast on November 1, 1996, is sometimes perceived to have mainly Islamist perspectives, promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, and having a pro-Sunni and an anti-Shia bias in its reporting of regional issues. It also accused of having an anti-Western bias. However, Al Jazeera insists it covers all sides of a debate

In an article by Laura Wagner, she quotes NPR Media Critic David Folkenflik as saying about the network:

“After an earlier channel called Al-Jazeera English failed to make a dent in the U.S., Al-Jazeera America was built on the acquisition of a liberal cable network called Current.”

Al Jazeera purchased Current in 2013, which was itself a struggling news network, from a consortium headed by former Vice President Al Gore.  Folkenflik adds:

“The deal intended to ensure major distribution, but some cable providers resisted, saying that was a bait and switch. Al-Jazeera executives also promised the channel would not distribute its shows online, which meant that much of its content never became available digitally. Internal strife proved common and Al-Jazeera America never caught on — drawing audiences in the tens of thousands. Ultimately, the channel’s Qatari patrons pulled the plug.”

Wagner says “the network’s goal was to produce serious journalism and thorough reports, and it won several awards during its short run, including a Peabody and an Emmy. Its most well-known documentary was an expose that alleged several professional athletes used performance-enhancing drugs. Much of the evidence, however, hinged on the word of one person, Charlie Sly, a former intern at an Indianapolis clinic, who later recanted his story. The documentary was slammed by former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the athletes implicated in the story, and prompted defamation lawsuits from Major League Baseball players Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Howard.”

Al Jazeera will go dark Tuesday night after it airs, and repeats, a three-hour farewell.  As a reporter and journalist, editor, writer, talent and lover of all things broadcasting, and politics notwithstanding, turning off that transmitter is a sadness I will feel in my bones.

Written by Interviewer

April 12, 2016 at 10:15

Something’s Burning

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Something's Burning

Andrew Jennings is a Scottish investigative reporter who has been following the mismanagement and corruption at the European soccer agency, FIFA, for nearly 15 years. In a recent interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, he said he provided the FBI with internal financial documents in 2009 in an effort to help the Americans prosecute FIFA’s wrongdoing. The FBI, along with Interpol and a number of other law enforcement agencies around the world began arresting FIFA executives on Monday, June 1st, 2014.

Ms. Block asked Mr. Jennings if he felt he had violated his journalist integrity by providing those documents. Mr. Jennings adamantly said no, saying FIFA is a corrupt organization, everyone knew it was corrupt and little was being accomplished in the way of internal reform, which he believed it needed desperately. This again brings up the question of how much should a journalist insert themselves into the story and it reminds me of a story from J-school which is built on much historical precedence.

A photographer is photographing a protestor who is preparing to self-immolate himself. What should the photographer do? Should he keep taking pictures as the person sets themselves on fire in the most desperate act of political protest, or should he drop the camera and save the person from what would certainly be a graphic, horrible and painful death? According to Wikipedia, journalist and photographer Malcolm Brown won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for choosing to take just such a photo. In it, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

There have been 133 self-immolations for political reasons and 10 for economic reasons since Brown’s photo. Journalism has since weighed in on the journalist’s responsibility to intervene. The Society of Professional Journalists cautions journalists in a release from January 2010: “Report the story; don’t become a part of it,”  Even in a crisis, the SPJ says  journalists must be objective.  Actions the SPJ defines as not objective include advocacy, self-promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story, or creating news events.

But Roy Peter Clark, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who recently wrote for the journalism ethics organization, the Poynter Institute, said “That standard – to observe, cover, but not intervene – is surely not absolute.” He continues, “There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line.  That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s”. Journalists have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that insures their credibility by not showing bias. But they also have a responsibility to be human beings.  That can be a tricky wire to walk.

What is the life or public safety issue regarding FIFA?  Some have argued that the thousands of immigrant workers that have died in Qatar’s hellish heat as they prepare the country for a possibly ill-gotten 2022 World Cup tournament might be cause for intervention.  Others like Mr. Jennings, simply see organizations like FIFA stealing what is precious to the people, and believe the people don’t deserve to be lied to or stolen from.

“What would you do”, asks Mr. Clark, “if you saw someone trying to set himself on fire?  I would probably run for my own safety, yell like crazy, and point out the danger to others.  I know Good Samaritans, braver than I, who would try to stop the action.  I doubt I would take out my cell phone and make a video of the self-immolation”.

Mr. Jennings made a similar choice. Under extraordinary circumstances, he heeded the call of the FBI to help them put out a different kind of fire.