When the "Fox News Babes" Met al-Jazeera

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 3/11/2011 12:02:00 AM
As a business major, I've always had a problem with the American cable network Fox News. On one hand, it's a master stroke of marketing in selling to a Middle American demographic; an odd mix of conservative righteousness combined with titillation via the omnipresent "Fox News Babes." It's always odd to see gents fully dressed in suits alongside the aforementioned FNBs in ever-shorter skirts (maybe the male anchors should be attired like DJs at strip joints at this rate), sleeveless blouses and tight sweaters. But hey, I guess Roger Ailes doesn't mess with a formula that works. On the other hand, Fox News is next to worthless in its primary purpose as a news outlet. Although I disagree with Hillary Clinton on most things, one thing we can agree on is that Fox News is a lowest common denominator manifestation of modern America--a sort of endless WWE newscast (Americans have big guns! American women are all leggy conservatives!)

Anyway, I bring this matter up in the wake of Hillary Clinton testifying before Congress. Thankfully, she recognizes the utter feebleness of American television of which she says, in her own words not mine, "we are in an information war and we are losing that war." While I dislike the war references, she actually makes a good point that al-Jazeera is more like real news instead of Fox News--especially with regard to goings-on in MENA. Something very notable though is the sparseness of broadcasters carrying al-Jazeera in the United States. While some local stations carry it, cable giants alike Comcast do not carry it, unlike one featuring Tea party favourites and all the rest. What is the reason for this omission? It's an open question, though I will (perhaps surprisingly) discount one that reflects badly on the US government:

(1) The US government actively discourages cable providers from carrying al-Jazeera for ideological reasons. Today, I had the opportunity to meet an honest-to-goodness State Department official prior to Alec Ross speaking about his digital statecraft efforts at the LSE. When I asked whether the US government actively discouraged cable providers from carrying the pan-Arabian channel, he said "no." While it's true that the Bush administration did not view al-Jazeera favourably, and perhaps did not apply direct pressure to the likes of Comcast, it may nonetheless be true that government regulators could have made life difficult for those that did carry the channel. I will give the benefit of the doubt here. At best with Hillary Clinton now lauding al-Jazeera, perhaps it's the Fox News crowd more than the US government that Comcast et al. fear offending during the Obama administration.

(2) Cable service providers are reluctant to pay al-Jazeera's licensing fees when it's cheaper to provide their own content. The State Department official then suggested that the real reason is cable providers prefer providing a vehicle for channels they produce since they don't have to pay for license fees alike those they would have to pay for carrying al-Jazeera. This is a plausible argument. However, it is also possible for cable providers to create a separate, additional package for those who want to watch al-Jazeera and other MENA content and charge viewers accordingly.

(3) By and large, Americans prefer a rose-tinted view of how they are such a positive influence on the world. In its own way, Fox News is a highly advanced manifestation of the white man''s burden. What's more, there are many parts of the Amerocentric blogosphere where you can get this sort of reasoning on a daily basis, so I needn't rehash it here. In this manufactured approach, while US has problems, they are inconsequential compared to those of the rest of the world. Strictly speaking, (1), (2) and (3) are not mutually exclusive. However, my own view is that this explanation is best.

While certain (obviously more on the left than Fox News) Huffington Post readers are now clamouring for al-Jazeera to be carried by US cable service providers, I would be very surprised if Middle America will switch over in droves. For the same reason that the more straightforward CNN is literally walloped by Fox News, I doubt whether the Qatari's erstwhile gift to world media will gain much traction. Fox News redefines mendaciousness by calling its coverage fair and balanced. While you can of course say I am equally slanted, the main difference is I disclose that I am offering my own opinion instead of parading what I say as fair and balanced.

So there you are. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, the majority of the American public cannot handle the truth. I may be proven wrong, but I simply don't think anyone will dethrone the news T&A crowd anytime soon. Ironically, another place where a media revolution is long overdue is the United States of America.

UPDATE: In case you were wondering, I couldn't name the State Department official in question since the aforementioned meeting was held under a (weaker form) Chatham House rule. My LSE colleague Charlie Beckett who heads POLIS, Media and Society, blogs more about the meeting.