When addressing the U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities Committee on March 2, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued for more funding for her department on the grounds that the U.S. is losing an “information war” around the world. Once-hallowed media institutions like Voice of America are a shadow of their former selves, while English-language TV channels like Russia Today and CCTV — products of authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing, respectively — have stepped up their presence from Africa to Southeast Asia.
Clinton’s appeal comes in the face of Republican plans to cut her department’s budget in half and she can be forgiven for being maybe a bit too alarmist about the potential soft power gains of Washington’s rivals. As anyone who has watched CCTV for extended periods of time will assure her, she has little to worry about on that front. But Clinton also noted the remarkable and longstanding success of Al Jazeera, both the Arabic-language station popular in the Middle East and its newer English version beamed around the world:
Al Jazeera has been the leader in that [it is] literally changing people’s minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective… In fact viewership of al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.
What’s of note here is her praise for Al Jazeera — which is still considered by a few Beltway hawks to be a thorn in the side of American interests — as a purveyor of “real news.” The network’s international English language channel is still not available to most Americans, but its online live streaming viewership mushroomed exponentially at the height of protests in Egypt. For Americans who really wanted to get to grips with the situation, it was abundantly clear that Al Jazeera offered a superior product, as Abderrahim Foukara, the channel’s Washington bureau chief, emphasized in a recent interview with TIME.
When based in Hong Kong, I used to watch Al Jazeera English every morning before trudging off to work. What’s clear about the channel’s coverage — apart from its depth of resources and expertise in the Arab world — is that it is serious. Like BBC serious. It’s a channel that would rather focus on, say, a political imbroglio in Ecuador than a throwaway piece involving dogs, kittens or who is or is not attending the wedding of an effete pair of silver-spooned royals. Sure, Al Jazeera has the luxury of being serious (it’s funded by Qatar’s petrodollars), but it’s a seriousness that is catching on and winning respect.
In his interview with me, Foukara described Al Jazeera English’s viewpoint in grand historic terms:
There’s a belief that we live in a global village, but a global village where until very recently information came down from the global north to the south. But now you’ve a channel that tries to reverse that movement from the south to the north.
The network makes no bones about its subversive politics, its eagerness to challenge the received wisdoms of West, and its support of popular movements around the globe. Yes, its sponsor may be a Gulf monarchy, but the channel is articulating a liberal, democratic worldview that draws little inspiration from the U.S. Many in Washington, including Clinton, may rightly see that as a sign of American decline.