Blog Archive

Blog Archive – January, 2016

"The Donald" and the American Media

January 31, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Is “The Donald” Really One-up on US Media? If So, Should We Not Champion Him?

Why are we so surprised by the audacity and rise of The Donald? We made him. America made him. Our free, uncensorable press made him. For as long as I can recall being a media critic, we’ve been decrying our out-of-control, profiteering American media empire. We have charged the media with commandeering our elections, with making or breaking political aspirants according to how they ‘appear’, with caring less about facts than image, with reducing essential policies to sound bites, with skewing discussions and analyses with their hand-picked, biased pundits.

Remember Nixon’s triumphant 1952 “Checkers Speech” in the newly launched medium of television? And the homey images of J.F.K. that propelled him into the hearts of the nation? And those hard-nosed TV hosts like Ted Koppel whose reputation was built on bold confrontations with politicians?

Our corporate media rings up their cash registers along the way too, with TV ads absorbing the bulk of campaign budgets. We charge that elections are bought with unchecked contributions by rich donors who can saturate the media for their favorite candidates. News networks have us at both ends. Doing our civic duty largely from the sofa, we depend on network commercials for candidate’s promotional ads. And we seem to need televised interviews and analyses to help evaluate, to shame, or to promote the choices we make at the ballot. Not only has US media culture made a mash of competition for high office; it has established a pattern of pseudo news and dependence on TV election coverage that became a model across the world. Leadership is not only subject to media image; aspirants seek to gain control of media, as Italy’s former boss Silvio Berlusconi, himself a media tycoon, proved. Or like India’s Narendra Modi, they become expert media mavens. Recent scandals in the UK have pointed up the coziness of Tory leader Cameron and media mogul Rupert Murdock.

Across the world, in democracies and monarchies alike, effective leaders learn how to accommodate media demands, always in the hope to turning it to their advantage. Even our own Barack Obama is surely trying to play the media to his advantage by his frequent appearances on TV comedy shows. (To what success is another question.) One doubts he’s chatting with Jay Leno or Ellen DeGeneres merely to fill a free afternoon.

But back to the most shameless media man: The Donald. It seems to me, as I follow his stage appearances and interviews, that he is able to somehow make media serve him. So much so that, unlike other candidates, he seems to avoid spending his personal millions on paid ads. And he calls the shots.

Trump’s political incorrectness is galling, and frightening. I find him shameful, believing as I do, that some threads of democracy still hold us together. With the prospect that The Donald’s espoused principles could become US policy under his leadership, I may not want to live in this country.

Some political commentators now suggest that the US news media itself could be responsible to allowing Trump to gain the traction he has over these recent months. Oh, now they notice? Have they not fed his bombast and daring, his quips and his off-the-cuff behavior? His style may appear refreshing compared to formulaic presentations by other candidates--DNC and GOP. Now, they find that he’s uncontrollable?

They accorded The Donald super coverage to increase their own ratings; now  they can’t shut him down. More worrying, through our playful media The Donald has built what appears to be a serious audience and following.

Scrutiny and pressure by some TV hosts has exposed the weaknesses of candidates like Carson and Jeb Bush. Not The Donald however. In the case of Fox Network’s Megan Kelly who he refuses to face, he simply bypassed the debate altogether, and later mockingly shouts: “I’m on the front page of major papers without having been at the (January 28th) debate”. Then there’s the GOP who welcomed him to the party but can’t seem to ‘handle’ him. He defies their rules and procedures. Isn’t his something that we should welcome, given what we know about backroom deal-making? Isn’t he defying the decision of Citizens’ United as well?

[ "The Donald" and the American Media ]

Geraldo Rivera, my favorite talk-radio host: where are you?

January 21, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

When he initially disappeared from the airwaves I thought my favorite talk-radio host had taken family leave following his daughter’s traumatic experience in Paris during the November attacks there. By end December however Rivera hadn’t returned to his nationally syndicated slot on WABC Radio. His was the sole show I tuned to on that notorious, conservative media outlet. WABC Radio, broadcasting across the country from New York, is often scary. It permits hosts to utter shamefully venomous comments, sometimes bordering on illegal, on the airwaves.

I can never discuss with my friends what I hear on WABC; not only do they reject the network for what they find fascist and hateful; they assume that if I myself tune in, I’ve eschewed our shared progressive values. A wall rises between us. Admitting I listen to WABC is like confessing that I occasionally consume a McDonalds double cheeseburger; I’m thereby supporting global warming and contributing to America’s obesity epidemic.

Why do I tune to the station? Because I want to experience firsthand how those putative right-wingers talk; I want to the hear what Americans who I normally never meet—you know: those obese illiterates who carry guns and drink gallons of beer—say about issues being debated here. To me, both as an anthropologist and as a journalist, everybody counts. Shouldn’t I hear them directly rather than as objects of satire on “The Daily Show”?

 It was out of this compulsion that in 2012 I became a regular morning listener to Geraldo Rivera’s show. Promoted as “not red (left), not blue (right) but red-white- and-blue”, Rivera tries to tread a middle road. More to the point, he attracts listeners from across our social and economic spectrum—positions less heard in our increasingly polarized society. Geraldo always, always listens to his callers, even when they’re far right of him politically. And unlike many others on this network (and Fox TV), Rivera’s guests represent a wide range of positions. I first heard Donald Trump on his show (I don’t recall what they discussed); my colleague, comedian and commentator Dean Obeidallah was a regular on Geraldo too.  

In contrast to other voices on WABC (and Fox TV), Rivera is an advocate for immigrant rights. Not only because of his Hispanic heritage through his Puerto Rican father; he reminds us that like most newcomers here, immigrants are hard working, they’re needed, and they’re --we are-- the history of this country. While he’s pro-military and veterans’ rights—who cannot be in today’s fierce nationalist atmosphere?-- Rivera isn’t an advocate for military intervention in countries whose policies don’t conform to US dictate.

Another three weeks pass absent Geraldo’s voice on my radio; I decide to Google him. (I’ll follow him to his new network, I optimistically think.) And I learn that he’s been fired! How did this happen? In an FB posting Rivera details his termination by WABC referring to a shakeup in network management. He doesn’t explicitly say WABC has a new editorial policy that won’t accommodate his liberalism. But I wonder if, in this election year when the ‘right’ and ‘far-right’ are battling for big stakes, Rivera might have become a liability-- out of step with Republican and Tea Party agendas. (Contrary to the power attributed to American television, radio talk shows are highly influential, e.g. Limbaugh and Beck who’ve made conservative talk-radio a national political movement.) Thus, right wing media bosses may demand that everyone march to their tune; so Rivera, known as a ‘loose cannon’, is jettisoned.

His personal life and his reputation for sensationalist encounters aside, Rivera is a media specialist who fused law and journalism to raise American journalistic standards. He arrived on the scene in 1970 with a television expose on the abuse of intellectually disabled patients in Willowbrook, a New York care center. He was the attorney for the nationalist Puerto Rican ‘Young Lords’, and before that an investigator for NYPD. He’s variously described as an attorney, author, TV personality and reporter. He’s a first class journalist too.

Details of his eclectic career are easily available, so find out what makes this bombastic fellow tick and why we need him in that lonely middle ground of US politics. 

What's your experience with Geraldo Rivera? Comments welcome

[ Geraldo Rivera, my favorite talk-radio host: where are you? ]

The Vicissitudes of Al-Jazeera TV Network

January 18, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

No one need be surprised by news of the demise of AJAM: Al-Jazeera America. In 2013, people unfamiliar with the history and politics of the Doha-based Al-Jazeera media group welcomed the American edition as a valued addition to international(ized) news sources. Early enthusiasm was likely based on an outdated reputation of the original Al-Jazeera’s satellite network, launched in 1999 and funded by Qatar’s rulers. That Arabic language service dazzled the world when it arrived, its reputation for hard-hitting news stories reinforced by the Jehane Noujaim’s 2004 film “Control Room”.

The original (mother) Al-Jazeera offered news coverage and commentaries by non-Europeans, talents generally unheard and unimagined from Arabs, concerning their world affairs.

Why AJAM was set up is a mystery. The American public could benefit from wider perspectives. But AJAM did not offer that; it exhibited no enlightened Arab or Muslim viewpoints, neither in its productions nor editorials. Neither were Arab and Arab American staff in evidence in its productions.

If American viewers don’t tap international sources like Euronews, France 24, Press TV (the Iranian English language channel), or Russia’s RT, to name the major English sources beyond CBC (Canada) and the UK’s BBC, why subscribe to AJAM? Long before, in 2006 Al-Jazeera English (also Doha-based) was launched and has established itself of an innovative and distinctive network. Originally accessible in the USA online and by satellite, it boasts a strong international team who produce hard hitting programs like “Witness” and “Empire”, with a network of correspondents across the globe. It attracts left-leaning audiences for its critical approach to American policies and its support for the Palestinian struggle, with coverage from Occupied Palestine unseen on American networks. Its website also carries insightful opinion pieces, many by well informed American Arab writers whose perspectives you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

(With the founding of ALAM, Al-Jazeera English became unavailable in the US online.)

The original Al-Jazeera (Arabic) news channel has changed dramatically since its spectacular arrival in 1996. Then it was marked by a high professional standard of journalism and an aggressive approach to international affairs previously unknown in the Arab lands whose exclusively Arab staff equals –no, excels—British and French Arabic language channels. (Although, Al-Jazeera Arabic initially drew its technical and editorial staff largely from the BBC.) It attracted Lebanese, Palestinian, Algerian and Egyptian expatriate journalists whose homelands were either in turmoil or where opportunities and facilities were limited. Al-Jazeera tapped the most dynamic, creative and courageous Arab journalists in the world; it’s work generated new pride among the Arab public, encouraged by quality public dialogue happening within its own ranks. Arabs’ economic resources were finally being put to good use. By 2003 the network boasted 70 correspondents and 23 bureaus around the world, from Cairo to Jakarta, Islamabad to Kabul, London to Moscow.

Initially Al-Jazeera Media Network, although funded and managed by Qatar’s ruling family, seemed to be independent of government control; it appeared to be beyond US interference too. Indeed Washington suggested the network was a mouthpiece for terrorists, when for example, after 2001, it regularly aired videos produced by Al-Qaida. American military attacks were launched on Al-Jazeera twice. Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad office was bombed and its correspondent Tarek Ayoub was killed in American strikes during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Before that, in the early days of the US assault on Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera’s Sudanese cameraman was held by US authorities at the Guantanamo prison.  

Although Qatari and other Gulf area leaders escape criticism by Al-Jazeera, other regional dictators do not; at times, in e.g. Algeria and Jordan, its correspondents were banned. Although by 2003 satellite TV was ubiquitous and every Arab home has had access to Al-Jazeera news which also sent reports direct from Jerusalem (with a sympathetic eye to Palestinian aspirations). Its broadcasts brought Israeli officials and commentators into Arab homes for the first time.

As the company grew in popularity—a reputation that’s declined since the Arab Spring--it greatly expanded its services. Al-Jazeera Media Network is now a vast communications empire with several sports channels, a children’s channel and a documentary channel, all commercial free. Before it opened AJAM, Al-Jazeera established a Balkan unit and a Turkish unit.

Al-Jazeera’s appeal for its early presentations of regional political issues waned among Arabs as the US occupation of Iraq turned ugly, and after 2011, when with the rise of the so-called Arab Spring, Qatar’s policy towards Libya and Syria moved in synch with Washington’s. Indeed, the Doha news channel explicitly advocates regime change in Syria and Libya.

Meanwhile Al-Jazeera enjoys considerable soft power through its sports and documentary channels. Screened documentaries, many produced by US filmmakers critical of American policies, are popular with the Arab public. But the sports channels likely draw most viewers. As a depressing political status quo settles across the Arab world, public need for escapist entertainment is stronger than ever, and Al-Jazeera is there to help. 


[ The Vicissitudes of Al-Jazeera TV Network ]

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