O Walter Cronkite, Where Art Thou? The Demise of Al Jazeera America

When it comes to mass media, The Mate and I are the kiss of death. If we love it, chances are it’s not commercially viable, and it goes away.

Case Study #1: Summer Olympics, Barcelona, 1992. TBS ran something called “Triplecast,” meaning three different channels simultaneously broadcasting three different sports venues. So instead of being hijacked into watching prime-time, after-the-fact gymnastics performances while waiting for that one after-the-fact swim race that’s been hyped all week but won’t be on till 11 p.m., we could watch the competitions we were interested in, LIVE. We track & field junkies were in heaven–but a very sparsely populated heaven, apparently. TBS lost a ton of money, which is why you’ve never heard of Triplecast.

Case Study #2: Cutter’s Way. The best movie no one we know has ever heard of, ever. Go watch it. Bring a handkerchief.

Case Study #3: My So-Called Life. You may have heard of this one. Still–audiences were too small to make it viable, apparently. It died after a single season.

And now…Case Study #4, to me the saddest of all. Our beloved Al-Jazeera America TV news station is going dark after not quite two years on the air. Although The Mate and I love its sober, non-flashy approach to news, its coverage of topics other networks never touch, and its perspective (more on that in a moment), we are, once again, in the minority. It seems AJAM has a viewership of only 20,000-40,000–NATIONALLY. No, I did not accidentally drop a zero. The other networks beat that by more than a multiple of ten.

The saddest irony? We heard this news first from CNN. According to the CNNMoney story by Tom Kludt and Brian Stelter, 

The channel’s end appears to have been prompted by the plunging price of oil, which dropped below $30 a barrel on Tuesday for the first time in 12 years. That’s significant because Al Jazeera America is owned by Al Jazeera Media Group, which in turn is owned by the government of Qatar.

A source at the company’s headquarters in Doha said that Al Jazeera was planning on making cuts all over — perhaps up to one thousand jobs — due to the falling oil prices.

“Al Jazeera Media Network had to cut, and instead of making it across the board or anywhere else, they decided to chop Al Jazeera America,” the source said.

Al Jazeera.com’s take on their TV station’s demise is, typically, a little different. They focus on the company’s desire to compete in the global digital media market–no mention of falling oil prices.

So, Gretchen–you might be wondering now–if you heard this story first on CNN, and if CNN gave you a background that AJAM did not discuss, WHY is this a superior news channel?

Easy. It’s because the shoe’s been on the other foot 99 times out of 100 in the past two years. Al Jazeera, as mentioned above, is run from Qatar. They are “foreigners,” and (mostly) Muslims. Therefore, their perspective turns our mainstream media’s xenophobia and anti-Muslim bias on its head. I cannot tell you how refreshing, and indeed how necessary, that breath of perspective is during these heated times. I never heard this story about Muslim Americans raising money to repair black churches from any other news source.

Yes, those news channels which share my political bias irritate me less than those which don’t. But only a little. I despise snarky news, even when the snark fits my own political profile. I grew up with Walter Cronkite, people. I miss Uncle Walter more than I can say. I’ve never seen AJAM use snark, even in its editorial pieces.

Also–perhaps ironically, given Quatar’s wealth–we count on AJAM to broadcast stories about the poor and minorities. Such stories are generally missing from the mainstream channels. Just one example: in the hype about the most recent snowstorm threatening the east coast, AJ’s Joshua Eaton focuses on its effect on poor people trying to get to work: 

For Boston resident Barbara Fisher, the snow has been more than just an inconvenience. Problems with public transit caused the 25-year-old mother of two to lose hours at her job at Dunkin’ Donuts. Added to the extra child care she had to pay because schools were closed, that has put a real strain on her budget.

“It’s very expensive. I can’t wait for it to go,” Fisher said of the snow. “It’s terrible, because you be trying to do your best, and there’s something that’s always going to stop [you].”

Another example: Jennifer Eaton’s recent story entitled, “How Black Lives Matter Saved Higher Education.” 

Ah, if only those AJAM execs had thought about the effect their Arabic name would have on American audiences! If only Al Jazeera did not sound, to American ears, so much like Al Quaeda! (Which is like saying The Church sounds like The Devil because they both start with “the.” Al Jazeera means “The Peninsula”–as in the Arabian Peninsula, where Quatar is.)

Could xenophobia possibly have anything to do with AJAM’s failure to thrive? Hmmm…that’s a toughie.

Save us, Uncle Walter!

Save us, Uncle Walter!

Luckily for me, and for Americans if they’d start listening to me 🙂 , Al Jazeera will still exist online, where I will continue to visit to learn stories that I won’t hear from my fellow Americans. But when our TV’s on? I’ll be watching The Daily Show. At least they’re honest about being a pretend news show.

 

A New Hope: No, Not Star Wars, The Real Thing

Yes, I did just see Star Wars VII. Yes, it was terrifically entertaining. But the world does NOT need another Star Wars blog post.

What it does need–what I need, in this era of heightened hate, is little stories of hope. I found this Al Jazeera story, “Muslims in Kenya Offer a Christmas Present to the World,” a few weeks ago, but even though it references Christmas, it’s the start of the new calendar that has me turning back to this story for a little renewal of spirit. In the words of authors Muhammed Fraser-Rahim and Beth Ellen Cole:

After a year marred by violence that has led some people to suppose that confrontation is inevitable among humanity’s religions, a busload of Muslims in northeast Kenya has given us all a gift beyond measure for Christmas and the New Year.

On December 21, when armed al-Shabab extremists halted a bus near the town of Mandera, they asked the Muslims on board to help separate out the Christian passengers for execution – a pattern of attack with which they have repeatedly traumatised Kenyans in recent years.

But the Muslim passengers threw a human shield around their Christian compatriots and told the attackers that they would have to kill the entire busload, Muslims and Christians alike. Muslim women took off their traditional headscarves and handed them to non-Muslims to wear for protection.

Normal, everyday people defying expectations to save each other. My kind of story.

The article goes on to mention other acts of defiant philanthropy which–big surprise–failed to make major headlines in the US:

We too often fail to notice the acts of courageous compassion just like that at Mandera. In February, more than 1,000 Muslims formed a human chain of protection around a synagogue in Norway to condemn an extremist’s attack on Jews.

Orthodox Jews in a London district recently formed street patrols in part to protect their Muslim neighbours from hate crimes.

There’s not a lot more to the story; the article is short. But it’s enough to get me through another day of candidates talking seriously about banning Muslims and calling each other losers and low-lifes.

Happy 2016. Here's to hope.

Happy 2016. Here’s to hope.

If you, too, find this story encouraging, please, pass it on. Might as well do what we can to counter-act all that crash-boom of violence out there…even the terrifically entertaining, Star Wars kind.

 

Transparent, Transgender, Transcend: Remember Adolescence? Maybe We Should

“I went through so much more with puberty than any normal kid would go through by trying to understand myself and who I was. It’s not anything someone should have to face. It was scary.” So says Victor Lopez, a female-to-male transgender 17 year-old highlighted in a story on transgender teens I just read by Natalie Pattillo on Al-Jazeera.com.

My thought? “Normal” puberty was hard enough! Being a girl, dealing with cramps, with period accidents, worrying about making it to the bathroom in time, worrying about stains…

Now imagine that the onset of each period felt like a betrayal. You feel like a boy. To yourself, you’ve always been a boy. Now your body says otherwise, and to deal with that fact, you have to make the choice: Girls’ bathroom, where I feel like an intruder, but at least have some privacy? Or boys’ bathroom, where I feel I belong but risk being bullied or beaten?

This is one of the basic struggles of transgender kids. The article quotes Dr. Johanna Olson-Kennedy, the medical director at the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles:

“Unfortunately, many gender nonconforming and transgender youth will make the decision not to use restroom facilities at all during the day, which will leave them at risk for urinary tract infections and other medical consequences.”

599px-Transgender_symbol_1.svg

Sorry to be so graphic, but it’s this kind of super-basic, I-can-relate dilemma that enabled me to think about this issue. I admit that I’ve had trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of transgender kids. Growing up, a family friend transitioned from male to female, but that person was middle-aged. Kids switching genders? Really? Aren’t they just looking for attention? 

The mom of one such kid addresses that thought directly in the article:

She says she has encountered skeptical people who believe teens like Jordan are seeking attention or just going through a phase. She asks them why anyone would seek out “what society puts any gay, lesbian or transgender person through.” For gender-nonconforming young people like her son, she says, it’s terrifying to hear about suicide rates, bigotry and murders of transgender people.

That mom is right. Why WOULD anyone seek out that struggle?  How could that be any fun? When I think about it, the only empathetic response to transgender kids is…empathy.  Adolescence is hard enough. Therefore my heart goes out to all those kids, their families, their friends. Hang in there.

Siege Gardens in Syria: The Ultimate Expression of Gardens as Hope

The new shoots of spring are an ancient metaphor of life and renewal, from the earliest human literature. Spring equals hope. Even the word, “spring,” connotes energy and forward movement.

What gardener doesn’t feel the joy of new produce, fresh from the earth? Or what eater, for that matter? Even now, when I’m not currently gardening (although I am enjoying the garden my son planted, my “grandgarden,”), I feel that rush of excitement. “Ooh! Baby greens!”

Now imagine what that means in wartime. In the middle of a besieged city. Last week I read this story in Al Jazeera online, and I knew I had to share it. 

The Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk, according to the Al Jazeera story by Annia Ciezadlo, was established in 1957 as a refugee camp for displaced Palestinians, taking on a sad permanence as the Palestinian non-homeland issue calcified. But with the “Arab Spring” of 2011, Yarmouk stepped into a horrible new role:

When the rebellion against Assad began, in March 2011, displaced Syrians flooded into Yarmouk. Opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army began to clash with local pro-regime militias. On Dec. 16, 2012, the government sent Mig fighter jets to bomb a mosque, a hospital and four schools where displaced people had sought shelter.

From then on, the siege tightened every day. The government checkpoints in and out of Yarmouk would close for four days, then five, then six. Soldiers would confiscate any amount of food over a kilo. They would open bags of bread and count the pieces to make sure there were no more than 10.

Here’s what Yarmouk looked like, thanks to Assad’s fighter jets:

(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

Into this desperate situation stepped the gardeners. According to the story, rooftop siege gardens were planted gradually, secretly, and communally. I’ll let Annia Ciezadlo tell it in her words:

“You can say that this was something psychological,” says Osama Jafra, the alias of an organizer for the Jafra Foundation, a community development group that started several of Yarmouk’s large communal gardens.

About six months into the siege, around the end of June 2013, a neighbor hailed Jafra on the street. Since Jafra worked for a charity group, the man asked, could he get him money to buy seeds?

“Why?” Jafra asked.

“Come. I’ll show you,” the man replied.

He took Jafra to one of the schools that warplanes had bombed six months earlier. In the abandoned courtyard, a playground was alive with flowers and greenery. With seeds, they could transform it into a vegetable garden.

Jafra made a deal with his neighbor: I’ll get you $50 for seeds if you agree to share them. The next day, Jafra recruited staffers and volunteers to cleaned up the camp to cultivate the abandoned play area. Neighbors saw what they were doing and began to help. Even children pitched in. They finished in four hours.

“When the people and the children started to work with us, everybody was so happy,” says Jafra. They planted dandelions, parsley, tomatoes, eggplants and lentils. They called it the Palestine Garden.

And so a transformation began among the urban inhabitants of Yarmouk. They discovered the secrets of farming, like the best time to water the garden — at night, so the precious water would not evaporate. They learned how certain plants, like fava beans, can renew exhausted soil. They found seeds and farming skills among the rural farmers who had fled to Yarmouk when drought and later war engulfed the Syrian countryside.

This story of hope and redemption has a terrible dark side.

In besieged Yarmouk, gardening is a matter of life or death. In June 2014, a government shell killed three men just outside one of the neighborhood gardens. At least two people have been shot and killed by snipers while foraging for wild greens. And anyone providing food, water or medical care is especially at risk of being assassinated, kidnapped by armed groups or disappeared by the government. In the first three months of 2015, as fighters from ISIL and Jahbat Al-Nusra were infiltrating the camp and preparing to take over, at least 10 nonviolent activists were killed.

That’s right. In Syria, gardening can get you killed. And yet…people garden.

(Courtesy Lens Young Yeidani, Al Jazeera)

(Courtesy Lens Young Yeidani, Al Jazeera)

I cannot think of a more powerful emblem of hope. Stories of war usually make me feel helpless, and this one no less so. I wish I could send these people some seeds, or money for equipment–anything to ease their task. But at the same time, reading this, I feel something more: gratitude and awe for these folks in Yarmouk, fighting a dictator one lettuce at a time.