NEW YORK – Al Jazeera correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin is on a victory lap in the United States – or rather, Al Jazeera is sending him on its own victory lap. After all, Mohyeldin is a modest guy, despite being one of Al Jazeera’s best-known reporters – and clearly a rising international media star.
Al Jazeera has good reason to gloat: it has new cachet in the US after millions of Americans, hungry for on-the-ground reporting from Egypt, turned to its online live stream and Mohyeldin’s coverage from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. So now Mohyeldin is in the US for three weeks of media events – there will even be a GQ photo shoot – having become well known in a country where viewers are essentially prevented from seeing his station.
The network has been targeted by the US government since 2003, when former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described it as tantamount to an arm of Al Qaeda. Two of its reporters were later killed in Baghdad when a US tank fired on the Hotel Palestine, where, according to US officials, it was believed that a spotter directing fire at US troops was located. But, because Al Jazeera was known to have based its team in the hotel, the channel and others voiced suspicions that the channel’s reporters had been deliberately targeted.
And, to this day, Al Jazeera, which, together with BBC News, has become one of the premier global outlets for serious television news, is virtually impossible to find on televisions in the US. The country’s major cable and satellite companies refuse to carry it – leaving it with US viewers only in Washington, DC and parts of Ohio and Vermont – despite huge public demand.
So Al Jazeera is sending its news team around the US in an effort to “mainstream” the faces of this once-demonized network. And Mohyeldin can sound like Robert F. Kennedy: when the cry rose up from Tahrir Square hailing Mubarak’s abdication, he commented, “One man stepped down and eighty million people stepped up.”
The station’s US push could hardly be more necessary – to Americans. By being denied the right to watch Al Jazeera, Americans are being kept in a bubble, sealed off from the images and narratives that inform the rest of the world.
Consider the recent scandal surrounding atrocity photos taken by US soldiers in Afghanistan, which are now available on news outlets, including Al Jazeera, around the globe. In America, there have been brief summaries of the fact that Der Spiegel has run the story. But the images themselves – even redacted to shield the identities of the victims – have not penetrated the US media stream.
And the images are so extraordinarily shocking that failing to show them – along with graphic images of the bombardment of children in Gaza, say, or exit interviews with survivors of Guantánamo – keeps Americans from understanding events that may be as traumatic to others as the trauma of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For example, the leading US media outlets, including The New York Times, have not seen fit to mention that one of the photos shows a US soldier holding the head of a dead Afghan civilian as though it were a hunting trophy.
So, for America’s sake, I hope that Al Jazeera penetrates the US media market. Unless Americans see the images and narratives that shape how others see us, the US will not be able to overcome its reputation as the world’s half-blind bully.
Indeed, Egyptians are in some ways now better informed than Americans (and, as Thomas Jefferson often repeated, liberty is not possible without an informed citizenry). Egypt has 30 newspapers and more than 200 television channels. America’s newspapers are dying, foreign news coverage has been cut to three or four minutes, at most, at the end of one or two evening newscasts, and most of its TV channels are taken up with reality shows.
I met Mohyeldin before a recent public appearance in Manhattan. His analysis of the Egyptian revolution, and others in the region, is that the kind of globalized media to which Americans do not have full access created the conditions in which people could rise up to claim democracy. He points out that, “People are aware of their rights from the Internet, from satellite TV – people are watching movies and reading bloggers. This was a revolution of awareness, based on access to fast-traveling information. The farmers, the peasants in Tahrir Square, were aware of their rights.”
Americans have a hunger for international news; it is a myth that we can’t be bothered with the outside world. Maybe Americans will rise up and threaten to boycott their cable and satellite providers unless we get our Al Jazeera – and other carriers of international news. We would then come one step closer to being part of the larger world – a world that, otherwise, will eventually simply leave us behind.