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.

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

Tactile Media Lament Part 2: Kindle Fire: The Temperature at Which Books Burn

Just in time for the holidays Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com, apparently not content with their multibillion dollar dominance of book sale monoculture, nor with the recent collapse of Borders Books & Music, are giving their e-readers the nook and the Kindle a facelift, adding color graphics, touch screens, the ability to stream movies, facebook (verb), play games and more.

Kindle and nook are both a few years old, predating the iPad.  Once matte grayish affairs meant for reading alone, they are now joining their glamorous iPad cousin in the push for a multimedia tableted society, in which one tool replaces notebooks, pens, paperbacks, mp3 players and hand-held video players.  They do seem a little bit bulky to replace digital cameras – I mean you have to leave something for your phone to do.

I know that one of the treasured freedoms of our country is that everyone with money or credit has the right to demand as many digital devices as they can keep up with.  But the tableting of America seems a little like overkill, even for the personal electronics pushermen.  When is enough going to be enough?

In the face of all these social media-enabling media platforms, the question remains whether we are actually more social people in the 21st Century.  Twitter, in its brevity and immediacy, has become the de facto place for breaking news.  But anyone who has taken urban public transportation lately can be made to reflect on the the tension whereby gentrification has put many people in the most “diverse” environs of their lives, only to see them retreat into mobile digital devices that enable us to remain cloistered, even in public places.

(It is rumored that during the next Republican Presidential Debate, the candidates will not only answer questions FROM Twitter, they will answer the questions ON Twitter itself.  [The site’s 140-character limit is not predicted to change the content of the debate substantially.])

In these digital pages I have decried the rise of mp3 culture and its sacrificial victims: album art, local CD/record stores, the excitement you feel when you hear your favorite song on the radio and the Columbia House Music Club.  I was admittedly acting the part of a Luddite.  Since that time I have impulse bought more than three albums with the instant gratification of iTunes, and I have spent endless minutes pouring over the PDFs of album art lovingly on the screen of my MacBook Pro.

But this time I have to put my foot down again.  Did anyone mind using books?  Oh, but this will be saving so much paper!  I guess so, but ways of recycling paper have been pretty well established, and I still have no real idea how electronics get recycled, except that it’s dangerous, expensive and involves open fires without facial protection in China.  And will countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia will generate enough coltan and lithium to keep up with our exponential handheld device demands?

I’m not saying that tablets aren’t valuable in some applications.  A recent 60 Minutes episode showed the effectiveness of using iPads to teach autistic children, and filmmaker Danfung Dennis (Hell and Back Again) invented a camera lens that allows you to view over 300 degrees of a filming area on your tablet for a truly immersive documentary experience.  But I bristle that we’re being peer pressured to rush out and buy yet another digital device that will put another nail in the coffin of face to face culture and all of its unsung benefits.  Enjoy the convenience of poring through the sociology section of your nook color tablet; you probably won’t have an impromptu conversation with someone also looking to learn more about humans.

There are so many books already printed that we have been meaning to read.  And we spend so much time already looking at screens that it’s probably better to give them a rest every once in a while.

 

Stay Gold, Jo Boy

It's Jo!

Lady Gaga hates the truth. Meanwhile, Jo Calderone came to rock. 
 
Was it a little awkward? Maybe. But Jo Calderone’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday was nothing if not refreshing.

If only, as Jimmy Fallon pointed out Monday, because so many other pop starlets dressed like they thought Lady Gaga would dress, with layers of plastic, fluff and goth, only to be confronted with the plain white-t, uncouth aggro Jersey male charm of a certain MR. Calderone (actually Lady Gaga in male drag!).

The Lady’s pre-requisite pop star thinness on the male frame of Jo made the lad appear like one of the malnourished greaser waifs from the movie of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, specifically Ralph Macchio, who became a trending topic on Twitter during the VMAs.

Watching as a former acting student myself, and as Maura Johnston pointed out in the Village Voice’s hilarious live-blogging of the VMAs, this NYU acting student could have made a few more interesting character choices – maybe modulating into something more nuanced than a shout, and not making the monologue so graphically sexual would have still worked ok. A little subtlety, eh! Jo!

More like he was backstage answering the inane queries of the press.

Reporter: (don’t disturb the crazy artiste-voice) “And how long will Jo be with us?”
Jo: “I dunno, I’m gonna to be here like 5 more minutes.”

As it was, the opening monologue of the performance came off at first blush like an embarrassing rant about how fantastic Lady Gaga is and about how Jo is jealous and her – and how he wants in – get it, in – to her spotlight at all costs  – you know, a dickish man move.

But then it got a little interesting.

“I tell her, I want her to be real! But she says she ain’t real. She says she’s THEATRE!”

Well, okay then.

Backstage, talking to the press – finally warming into the improv of it all, Jo explained earnestly that Gaga had made him attend the awards in her stead, because “she’s just really freaking pissed at me.”

As The Onion pointed out in it’s live-blogging, Lady Gaga so far has been nothing so much as a Rorschach blot for her throngs of fans, who see in her antics whatever they want to see.

But she’s a Rorschach blot with a dark vision, leaving worrying ellipses after all each incident of her habitual line-stepping.

She and Beyonce poisoned Tyrese (Tyrese!) along with a diner full of patrons in the video for Telephone. The clip inexplicably mines the themes of prison, Kill Bill and Thelma and Louise for some vague stylish avant-comedy ends.

The Telephone video currently has over 119 MILLION views on You Tube. Thematically, it fit her previous video for Paparazzi, in which her character must stylistically kill or be killed by a menacing Swedish boyfriend.

2011’s  Best Video With A Message, Gaga’s Born This Way, for which Jo accepted the moon man – is her most uplifting song yet. But it’s jubilant affirmations of focusing on the determinism of birth is not only one-note, it sounds exactly like Express Yourself (Madonna, in her free-thieving from the Drag Ball Queendom era). And “I’m on the right track, baby?” Now you’re earnest, Gaga? You just poisoned a dinerfull of folks, plus a guy whose only crime was crooning on the bus.

She has showed up at an awards shows in a dress made of meat, which was kind of compelling – as well as in a red feather and lace outfit that made her look like a horror movie come to life. As an admittedly over-sensitive kid, I was not entirely comfortable with the grotesque imagery of the movie Harry and the Hendersons. I shudder to think of myself born 20 years later and somehow toddling up to a People magazine, pages splayed open to a photo of the mask of the red death Gaga posing on the red carpet.
Lady Gaga is a lot of things but life-affirming is not one of them.

I know Gaga has justified all of this by screaming ART and THEATRE at all costs, like Jo seemed he might grow hoarse up onstage doing.

But Jo didn’t grow so hoarse screaming at the madness of Lady Gaga that he didn’t still rock the bleep out and alongside Queen guitarist Brian May, no less. The reaction shot of Dave Grohl upon May’s entrance proved that he and Jo were near-about the only famous real rock guys there, a realization that was not lost on him, in his acceptance speech.

For some reason, Jo let loose vocally in a way Gaga never would have, and still Michael Jackson Beat It-kicked with an entourage of mens in a performance the late Freddie Mercury would have likely lost his mind over.

Welcome Jo. Gaga, to me, was beginning to grate. In the midst of her February show at Madison Square Garden, which aired as a concert special at the beginning of the summer, Lady Gaga, in her stripped-down, monologue-y moment, sat up from her writhing and bellowed “I hate the truth!”

Wow, I thought. What does she mean?

Some truths are hate-able. But, which truth was Lady Gaga talking about?

For example, does she hate the truth of what’s happening in Somalia? The truth that what’s happening in Somalia isn’t even on most people’s radar? The truth that Somalia is far from the only globalized location wracked with urgent, ignored tragedy?

The point is, you can hate the truth, but you have to know it. Hating it doesn’t help you handle it. And let’s face it, no one wants to be the guy who can’t handle the truth, getting yelled at like that – or worse. But Gaga was yelling at us too.

Which is why it was a breath of fresh air to see the aristocratic empty-eyed mind fuck of Gaga put on the shelf, and experience this – THIS freakin’ guy, working class Jo Calderone swing for the bleachers and give us an earnest rock-out performance. It was in the magical tradition of what RuPaul, Jujubee, Tyra Sanchez (the New Tyra), Raven and others do on a daily; witness the superior Logo TV reality talent competition, RuPaul’s Drag Race.  But The Artist Sometimes Known as Gaga was gender transgressing the other way, in a direction more alarming to the establishment.

It was also funny to see the rest of the popperazzi clutch their figurative pearls when confronted with Jo’s challenging mug. Justin Bieber looked concerned. One of the night’s honorees, Britney Spears, wearing a sexily safe frock that honored the color palate of her winning video’s apocalyptic theme, looked at first stunned by Jo and later rebuffed his kiss, uncomfortably laughing “I’ve done that already” (when she kissed Madonna. Back when they were honoring Madonna for some reason).

The departed honoree of the night, the late Amy Winehouse, would likely have delighted in the whole Jo Calderone experience.

Perhaps Jo felt the need to crash the awards ceremony because, well, female pop stars are handled strangely – celebrated after they break (Amy), or are somehow still squeezed together and stomping (Britney, celebrating some milestone?) But not mentioned, seemingly, when they are gone exactly 10 years for sudden accidental reasons (Aaliyah), even if they made classic R&B songs, iconic videos and even starred in a Shakespearian martial arts film during a tragically short career.

Beyonce – in the game nearly as long as Brit – planned her own celebration that didn’t require a light cue or a word – just a proud rearrangement of sequins and “Bam!” baby bump – destiny manifest. Jay-Z cheesing like, no, he can’t believe it either! And Kanye bouncing around with glee like a damn sophomore, even after we all had to listen to teachers’ pet Katy Perry chastise him, dripping with Gaga’s leftover cotton candy, and refer to him as “Boo,” with the nasal pronunciation of the native of Santa Barbara, California that she is.

Katy was of course, reminding everybody of Kanye’s much-derided outburst, in which he got suspended for talking about how dope the now with-child Beyonce, (his boss/friend’s girl’s) video was (a single-shot, silver gelatin-ed Bob Fosse routine remixed by a male choreographers Frank Gaston and JaQuel White, with White also appearing in the video as one of the two female backup dancers) as opposed to the winning video in which Taylor Swift portrays a literal interperation of lyrics contrasting the virtues of sneakers and high heels.
I for one hope we see more of Jo. Sounds like Gaga needs a rest. But let’s see what happens. I guess I’m just a believer that Ralph Macchio-looking waters run deep. If MTV lets THIS Jersey Shore synergy opportunity go by, it will really be saying something. Let’s see if Jo can be his own man and actually call bullshit on his girl before all her freakin’ “theatre” saturates us with images too contextless and bleak to be washing over us 119 million times. Come back when you can handle the truth, Gaga – or at least stop being such a hater.