Current TV, Al Jazeera America, and the Experience of the Foreign

January 29, 2013
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In The Experience of the Foreign, Antoine Berman looks at the implicit theories of translation that underpinned the work of the German Romantics from Herder to Hölderlin. They wanted to use translation as a way to enrich what we might describe anachronistically as the German national identity. They thought translation could facilitate the process of Bildung, a form of cultivation and enrichment whereby a young man* (or a young nation) went out into the world to experience “the foreign” before returning to see his home through new eyes:

For experience is […] a broadening and an identification, a passage from the particular to the universal, the experience [épreuve] of scission, of the finite, of the conditioned. It is voyage (Reise) and migration (Wanderung). Its essence is to throw the “same” into a dimension that will transform it. It is the movement of the “same” which, changing, finds itself to be “other.” (p. 44)

I thought of this passage when I read about the January 2nd deal to sell the U.S. cable station Current TV to the Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera. I have a longstanding interest in how TV news translates foreign experience for viewers (see here and here): How do journalists explain to viewers how members of a foreign culture understand the world and their place in it? But what makes the Current TV/Al Jazeera deal interesting is it inverts that question: How might a foreign network explain Americans to themselves? Might Al Jazeera provide something like an “experience of the foreign” for Americans? What would that even look like?

A number of analysts have provided useful accounts of the deal and its implications. (Here’s what the New York Times had to say, and here’s the Columbia Journalism Review.) Current TV began in 2005, a creation of Al Gore’s. At first, it had a populist, DIY-inflected approach, and it solicited videos from viewers. It evolved in the following years, never finding much of an audience. Most recently, it tried to brand itself as a liberal news outlet, and in 2011, it hired Keith Olbermann, formerly of MSNBC. It fired him a year later, but the image stuck. When the Al Jazeera deal was announced, pundits on Fox News began to rave about links between liberals and Osama bin Laden, leading the Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart to call the announcement the “first Fox boner alert of 2013.”

Al Jazeera, of course, is a network with a global reach that has so far failed to penetrate the US market. Al Jazeera English is currently available only in New York, Washington, DC, Burlington, VT, Toledo, OH, and Bristol, RI, for a total reach of just under 5 million viewers, although people can stream it online. What Al Jazeera gains in the deal with Current TV is not so much the network itself as access to its viewers. Current TV is available to about 40 million cable and satellite subscribers, although some cable operators dropped it after the deal with Al Jazeera was announced.

What makes the deal interesting to me is that Al Jazeera plans to launch Al Jazeera America instead of airing Al Jazeera English. Rather than focus on the majority world, as Al Jazeera English has done, Al Jazeera America will focus on domestic news, but from a perspective other than that of its major commercial competitors. As commentators like Danny Schechter argue, it could succeed precisely because it reaches viewers who don’t find themselves represented elsewhere:

An Al Jazeera America needs to plug in to and resonate with American sensibilities and our mix of opinion from A to Z, not just A to B. It needs to understand our country’s growing anger and frustration with such issues as inequality and dissatisfaction with posturing politicians of all political stripes.

In other words, Al Jazeera America’s “translation” might have a paradoxical effect: its “foreign” lens might bring into sharper relief distinctive (and distinctively) American perspectives that are absent from CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and even NPR.

Of course, I’m not sure Al Jazeera America is the right network or the only network to provide a foreign lens for Americans to examine themselves. And Matt Sienkiewicz is right to encourage a healthy skepticism where Al Jazeera’s claims are concerned. Nor am I so naive as to believe it will attract many viewers who aren’t already inclined to think outside of a “mainstream” American framework. But its potential to do something new will make it a very interesting network to watch.

* “Man” is the historically accurate term here — the Romantics were writing in the eighteenth century.


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