America's leaders seem to have a love-hate relationship with the Middle Eastern TV network Al-Jazeera -- one week they're denouncing it as an agent of Islamic extremism, and seemingly the next week they're giving it interviews trying to woo "the Arab Street." But as the network -- which includes a fully English-language outfit called Al-Jazeera English, or AJE -- has shown for the last year, there's no better source for comprehensive coverage of one of the most important stories in the world today -- the so-called "Arab Spring." And Al-Jazeera English somehow manages to cover events in the region without cutting away every five minutes to remind us that Whitney Houston is still dead.
This week, Al Jazeera English won one of America's top two journalism prizes, a George Polk Award, for its fearless coverage of one aspect of the uprising. Here's the citation, and a link to the broadcast:
The George Polk Award for Television Documentary will recognize the courageous work of Al Jazeera English reporter May Ying Welsh and field producer Hassan Mahfoodin developing "Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark." When Bahrain banned foreign journalists during the Arab Spring protests, Welsh remained, working undercover with Mahfood to produce a film that gives a voice to the protesters for democratic rights and presents a harrowing, on-the-ground view of their brutal suppression. The documentary highlights the unbridled power of security forces in a key American ally on the Gulf.
It's good that you can see this award-winning journalism online -- because you can't see on your cable TV in Philadelphia or in most other major American cities, since Al-Jazeera English has been all but blacklisted in this country. Some groups -- including the Occupy Philadelphia crew here -- have been on the warpath about this, but Comcast doesn't seem to listen:
On Monday, Philadelphia police and Comcast security guards barred demonstrators from entering the building as a group. Rethink leaders Xi Wang and Mike Haack were admitted briefly under escort. They brought the signatures, printed on 1,000 pages and tied with a ribbon, to the mail room for delivery to Comcast officials.
"While we are not currently in discussions, we have met with representatives of Al-Jazeera in the past," Comcast said in a prepared statement. "We regularly examine our channel lineups and talk with a wide range of programmers to ensure that we are bringing the content that our customers want the most."
The signatures had been collected online through Change.org, a website that promotes social change through Internet petitions.
Believe it or not, I had been willing to cut Comcast some slack on this -- it's not like there's an unlimited number of channels...OK, so there's like 999, and a bunch of them are empty. But still. Then, today, a day after Al-Jazeera's Polk award, I read this:
Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Earvin "Magic" Johnson will be hosts and owners of new cable channels which Comcast (and maybe others) will launch later this year and early next.
Two new channels geared to the Hispanic audience - one with direction by the legendary Hollywood film director Robert Rodriguez - are also in the Comcast pipeline.
P.Diddy's music-themed service Revolt aims to give the likes of BET and MTV a run for the money, combining urban-slanted artists and news with a social networking component. "We're coming with a new energy, we're coming with something that people are going to want to tune in to see," shared the media mogul with an MTV reporter recently. Though best known for his rap hits, P. Diddy's Bad Boy Entertainment has also produced hit cable shows like "Making the Band." Revolt will launch in 2013.
Not that there's anything wrong with all that. But Comcast's stated commitment to diversity is still a joke, if it's adding so much new programming yet still afraid to offer American viewers the original journalism and different perspective offered by Al-Jazeera English. To make room for P. Diddy's Revolt while continuing to censor the revolt against dictatorial rule in Bahrain is an insult to your intelligence, and an insult to the people of the Philadelphia area.