The New Newsroom: why we need Al Jazeera America

A photo of Joie Chen, smiling, with the America Tonight logo on a screen behind her. She's sitting at a anchor desk with a shiny top, brightly light, waiting to deliver the news.

The Complete Works of News: Joie Chen, host of Al Jazeera America’s nightly news program America Tonight. The new cable news channel launched on Tuesday.

Perhaps angling for the small but thoughtful fan base of the HBO series The Newsroom, the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight features a series of 15 second commercials profiling  its  producing staff. Each of whom, incidentally, seem like more interesting characters than any of HBO’s fictional Newsnight staff, who for all their biting satirical commentary on recent events sometimes sound about as fresh and relevant as Howard Beale with an Emo haircut.

But while The Newsroom truth is mostly regurgitated Real Time with Bill Maher editorials in Cronkite drag, AJAM is Real Television Journalism and ain’t nothing like the real thing.

In fact, if it were an HBO series, Al Jazeera America would actually be The Wire, unflinching at the bold societal implications sparked by urgent current events, and in hot pursuit of the root causes that make it so. In fact, speaking of Baltimore, David Zurawik agrees in The Baltimore Sun on AJAM’s inchoate urgency.

Al Jazeera America debuted Tuesday 8/20 (find it on your dial), in the place of Al Gore’s ill-fated Current TV, which AJAM purchased for the generous amount of $500,000,000. It promises stories like a week-long series on Chicago’s segregated street violence, pieces on genetically engineered salmon farms, and profiles of successful urban U.S. public schools, plus documentaries, all day and all night.

Wednesday night the America Tonight series Fight for Chicago featured remarkably nuanced reporting on the issue of street violence on the city’s South and West sides. Not just throwing up its hands at the chaos, the report mentioned the several convergent forces, like the Sinaloa cartel, the demolition of the city’s public housing, incarceration of a generation of local gang leadership, proliferation of guns in America, and generalized lack of economic alternatives to drug selling. America Tonight anchor Joie Chen moderated a discussion where local leaders from the communities hardest hit joined via satellite, were respected and given ample time to talk, something that doesn’t even happen on Melissa Harris Perry’s MSNBC show. NPR’s This American Life got the issue of violence in Chicago national attention with its moving Harper High School series, getting Michelle Obama to visit the school. Let’s hope AJAM’s series elicits a proportionate West Wing response.

Attempts are being made to marginalize it. Time Warner Cable per-emptively dropped Current when the planned sale was announced earlier in the year, while AT&T dropped the channel dramatically at 11:59pm on Monday night, just before AJAM’s launch, breaching the broadcast agreement, prompting Al Jazeera to file a lawsuit.

Al Jazeera (literally “the island”) is owned by the oil-rich government of Qatar which decided to become the patron of journalism for the world. Al Jazeera maintains its complete editorial independence. The Guardian reported last year that Al Jazeera editors insisted UN debate on Syria including footage of a speech from the leader of Qatar, despite staff members claims that it was not the most important part of the debate. Frequently, it is praised for insistence to tell all sides of a story, sometimes bringing danger upon itself in the process. With this refreshing platform for news delivery, it is now us, the people of America, who must tune in and operationalize the relevance of this new, nonstop news source.

Earlier in the summer, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, when Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera’s executive director of international operations, spoke about the launch of the network, and stated that 40- 50 million Americans wanted more original and in-depth news from television broadcasting.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who recently hinted he might be more of a showbiz man than a journalist, openly scoffed at the idea that the news information needs of the United States people were not being met. “I think if you did a survey of the 300 million Americans, I think something like 50 million would tell you they want to read the complete works of William Shakespeare. They won’t,” blustered O’Donnell. People seeking “real” news, would find it at the PBS NewsHour, he said, interestingly, not defending the originality and in-depth nature of his own network.

In a 24-hour news cycle, the idea that everything needed to inform the American public in a globalized world can be found in a one-hour program shown at 6pm, when most people aren’t even home, is just wrong.

The real answer was that people seek it out online, in “lean forward” time-shifted news-gathering, where myriad  public, global, independent, and authentic news sources are available. But Al Jazeera America is right to go for the “lean back” experience of the cable news watching set, they have the money, and they are really going for it. Because 24 hour news cycle is what dictates the U.S. political conversation. And AJAM has the cash to get the glittering sets, in soothing but vibrant colors, the familiar faces like Chen, Soledad O’Brien, and Ali Velshi, all formerly of CNN, and saying  “America” as many times as it can in its marketing.

Uninformed, xenophobic knee-jerkers will object solely on the basis of the networks’ Arabic name and foreign ownership, but really, this is the journalism that America made famous, being re-claimed by a “mad as hell” real-life cast of U.S. journalists. With no need to play to the corporate seats, or tamp it down so as not to offend, Al Jazeera America swept into our cable news like a steady wind of fresh air, just when, like Toni Braxton, we thought we might never breathe again.

Planned Communities of Thought

Social Networking websites such as Myspace and Facebook are phenomenons whose existence speaks volumes about the highly mobile and migratory American culture. It is now possible to maintain, online, virtual communities of people hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Friendships remain in tact, via status updates, shared photos, notes, packet-switching. Webs form from repeated reaching across the ether; whoever (or whatever) monitors the internet, and the owners of the sites (Fox Interactive Media, Rupert Murdoch) and now software programmers can, theoretically map out the links of an entire swath of society based on who is friends with whom. Online.

People list their likes, dislikes, sometimes their hopes and dreams, building up a profile to represent them in cyberspace. This information, which becomes owned by the parent companies of the sites, can be sold, traded, used, to market to the members. Or perhaps it just sits in a folder on a server somewhere, where all our information ends up: tax returns, grocery purchases via discount club cards, websites searched, library books checked out. The equivalent of a fat manilla number brimming with information, in a musty metal file cabinet. Except accessible at the click of a mouse.

The websites, like Facebook, provide something distinct to the modern internet user. A bulletin board, where one can post news stories, videos, songs one believes are relevant to the online community. A way to keep in contact with distant friends, relatives, loved ones.

The people of the United States are very mobile, and becoming more so. It is very common for children, once they have grown up, to leave the city or state of their birth, never living there again. The reasons we move are many: college, career opportunities, relationships, a more tolerant social environment for those who feel they do not fit in in the community of their childhood.

Migration of this type was a much more serious affair even 50 years ago, as travel was a great deal more expensive and less accessible. Right this minute, thousands airplanes crisscross the lower atmosphere, bringing people to faraway places, or back from them, home. And in the United States, for many of those whose ancestors migrated here (either as enslaved people, political or economic refugees, or economic opportunists) are, in fact, not rooted in the same way as people had been, 50 or 500 years ago.

The Most Fearless Man In Hip-Hop: Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor 2, The Great American Rap Album

A picture of the actual cover of Lupe Fiasco's new album - which is completely black.

The Cover of Lupe Fiasco’s new album Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album

“A swindled generation with no patience, full of swag/

Man, they so impatient with the stations that they have.”

Lupe Fiasco has done what he set out to do.

The Chicago native’s 2012 album is called Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album, six years since his debut Food & Liquor in 2006.

Lupe Fiasco is the Most Fearless Man In Hip-Hop, lest one get it twisted. 50 Cent lives in a suburb of New York, near Connecticut.

With more discussion of historical context in one verse than an entire Presidential election cycle, album features tracks like Audobon Ballroom, which uses a very now-sounding smooth chorus to gently remind people – first white, then black, the reasons not to use the n-word that his colleagues Jay-Z and Kanye West put on the lips of the likes of Gwenyth Paltrow when they talked about being in the French capital (because they can’t and aren’t, respectively).

Then, on the very next track, he does the same thing for men, women and the word “bitch.”

Lupe Fiasco is talking to the Iraqi kid and the U.S. soldier at once.  The album comes on like a bucket of cold water that you want to keep pouring on your head.

Got Context? yasiin bey Honors Malcolm X, Reflects on Current Social Movements In New Video

yasiin bey, who came to prominence known as Mos Def, has a new song reinterpreting the Jay-Z/Kanye West’s ubiquitous megahit “N**** in Paris.”

The new video and song “N**** in Poorest,” released on the 47th anniversary of Malcolm X’s passing, finds the landmark rapper, actor and outspoken social commentator repurposing the driving beat for a rather more appropriate use than the original’s “99%er turned 1%er” storyline. In a frantic response to horror-movie beat, bey gets really real, contrasts the growing violence and poverty in the United States with images of power players and war. If the West/Z original is a celebration of the fish-out-of-water, possibly brought to us by McDonalds, yasiin bey has delivered some major socio-historical context in a manner seldom seen in the music video realm.

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s version finds them performing on a stage, presumably in the French capitol, backlit with a constant strobe light. Their images are doubled on either side of the screen to hypnotic effect. (A disclaimer running before the video’s YouTube version warns away those prone to seizures.)

yasiin bey’s video is a stripped-down upset performance, interspersed with clips of economic, cultural and other distress from news, politics, popular movies and television. At the point in West/Z version that samples a scene from a Will Ferrel film, bey features a clip from a rarely seen Malcolm X interview in which the leader speaks about a source of his courage.

The new remix is the first installment of yasiin bey’s Top 40 Underdogs project, in which he will remix 40 popular songs with socially conscious freestyles.

It’s Not Okay, Kanye

Open Letter to Kanye West,

Some people were understanding you when you were getting yourself scanned in the airport security checkpoint and attempting to duet with Lauryn Hill.

We were like OKAY!?! when you got on Live TV and talked about how George Bush doesn’t care about Black People.

And then those people were like ok when you were in that bean sculpture in Chicago with the guy from Coldplay.

When you grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift and talked about Beyonce, those people were like, in the words of RuPaul, Pull It Together, My Dear.

But Now? NOW? Ya basta, Kanye. Step away.

Sincerely.

A Chicagoan

Who won the Amazing Race really?

Amazing Race Season 19 finalists from left: Ernie & Cindy, Marcus & Amani, Jeremy & Sandy

Last night’s Amazing Race finale saw Type A (and Type B+) engaged Chicagoans Cindy and Ernie running across the map-shaped finish line first, vowing breathlessly to host Phil Keogan that they would start a non-profit with their $1 million prize money to help the children they had met on their jaunt from Taiwan to Thailand, Indonesia to Malawi, Denmark to Belgium to Panama.

“We want to help inspire them to live a better life and contribute to the global economy,” Cindy said, a loaded statement if there ever was one.

But the question remains: who won the Amazing Race, really?

Here at Contextual Healing, we remember hearing somewhere that it’s the journey, not the destination. So here are the other winning teams of the Amazing Race Season 19 (holy crap there are 19 seasons of the Amazing Race):

**

Best Social Media Save: The guy at the gas station who took to Twitter after finding Kaylani of Kaylani and Lisa’s passport after it sprang out of their SUV and reunited it with her at LAX… on the very first leg of the race. Almost spelling head-slapping doom for the team of former showgirls.

**

Stank-est Attitude that Could Have Cost You The Race: Cindy, of Ernie and Cindy, who dropped and lost their train tickets while whining that all the competitors would be taking the same train out of Denmark, erasing the lead they had stressed their way to.  Luckily for them, the tickets were never collected.

**

Mr. and Mr. Congeniality: Loveable snowboarders Andy and Tommy who did inverted 720s through the race, vocally loving Jesus, winning six episodes and exchanging enthusiastic whooos in multiple languages. Until they reached Panama and the rest of the teams benefitted from the teamwork ingrained in the Panamanian cab driving profession when faced with a flock from the EEUU gritando “Rapido! Rapido! – we’re in a race!”

**

The Biggest Losers: (Second place finishers) dating couple Jeremy and Sandy, when they spoke to their cab driver in Atlanta the same way they spoke to their cab drivers around the world: “You wait for us.”  (Winners) Ernie and Cindy, again, when they bickered with their cab driver in Thailand when he asked them for more money: “No! That’s more than enough!”

**

Herbal Essences™ Goodwill Ambassadors: Twins Liz and Marie who gave a group of Indonesian resort employees a good deal of amusement when they failed to stab and shimmy beach umbrellas into the sand. Only to turn right around and give a group of older Thai men hearty belly laughs when they shoveled baby elephant dung, squealing in delight.

**

Certified 100% Oregon Tilth Organic: Grandparents Bill and Cathi who past the age of 60 would rather build and sail a raft than make waffles given the choice, not to mention climb a cliff face and not even mind oiling up for a bodybuilding competition with good natured aplomb, wise cracking at their difficulties and setting an example for the usually lightly bickering and frequently unsupportive Jeremy and Sandy.

**

Most Valuable Players: married couple Marcus and Amani, who finished third. After often falling to last place, they gave hints to teammates and got a spontaneous crowd rooting for them as they solved a slide puzzle in Malawi.  All amidst effortlessly solid football metaphors from former pro-baller Marcus. “She’s smarter than any quarterback that I’ve ever played with and tougher than any linebacker than I’ve faced,” he said of his wife and the mother of their four children.

***

Follow us on Twitter: @contextmessage