So tonight I tuned in for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream show (7:30 pm EST), featuring a panel discussing whether baseball can unite Americans and Cubans but, more so, the Cuban embargo and Cuban policy overall.
Thoroughly impressed by the show’s format and the debate, I felt compelled to write a quick post on it.
First, some background. When Al Jazeera America debuted earlier this year, the shrieking was rampant. Some, including (I’m embarrassed to say) my fellow conservatives, Tweeted that it was a sign of “Islamists” taking over the country. When I cautioned that we should maintain an open mind and reserve judgment, I was attacked mercilessly and unfollowed by multiple accounts. One even urged me to fess up and asked if my viewpoint was due to my dating an “Islamist.” Oh my. (For the record, no, I’m not dating a Muslim nor have I but, guess what? I’ve met a lot of really great Muslims!)
I tuned in tonight and, honestly, I was not sure what to expect. Would the panel have a liberal tint? And, let’s face it, most Middle Eastern nations side with Cuba on this embargo issue — would that carry over into Al Jazeera America’s approach?
Boy were my concerns unfounded! It’s been years since I saw a show that informative and engaging — in fact, the half-hour went by so quickly, I found myself wishing it lasted longer!
For starters, liberal? Think again. One of three panelists was Humberto Fontova, a staunchly anti-Castro Cuban-American writer whose work I’ve read for the past decade. Inviting Fontova on means you’re not afraid of a very conservative point of view — often networks go for a more ‘diluted’ Cuban-American perspective. But nope, there he was — making some slam-dunk points. (Thanks to Al Jazeera, I now know Humberto is on Twitter! Another score!)
The other panelist was a Millenial/Gen X’er Cuban-American who recently made a documentary about baseball in Cuba. Cool!
The third was, well, in favor of engaging Cuba and made a few excuses, IMO, that didn’t sit well with me. But I even enjoyed that — it’s actually productive to hear the opposing point of view from my own… and to witness an actual debate.
We had an honest-to-goodness balanced panel: one non-political guest and two other guests on opposing sides of an issue. Oh, and there was no screaming or ‘soundbytes’ use. Shocker!
The hosts? I honestly could not tell on which side of the issue they stood: their role, as executed, was to facilitate the conversation — something they achieved perfectly, blending into the background while still controlling the course of the program.
The format? Loved it. First, the panelists all ‘dialed in’ for the appearance from their home computers’ web cams, providing a more communal, casual format that made me, the viewer, feel as though I was listening in on a private discussion. They were not appearing from some glitzy satellite studio reminiscent of 1997 cable news, with professional make-up and the standard ‘my city at night!’ or ‘bookcases!’ backdrop. These were serious intellectuals — these were not pundits whose career consists of talking points and saying whatever they can to gain supporters rather than provide intellectual ‘food.’ In other words, this was a serious, high-brow discussion where IDEAS — not personalities or egos — were the star.
Additionally, the hosts read/showed Tweets on air from those who’d commented on the issue throughout the day. Neat! It’s a sign that Al Jazeera America cares what the ‘ordinary folks’ have to say and is willing to give them a voice. Even cooler were the two video blogs: just a few seconds long, they provided us with an additional viewpoint on the issue.
About 8 years ago, I was a cable news junkie. That has since changed. Though I try to watch from time to time, formats are stale — even the participants — and I learn very little by watching (in fact, issues are sometimes even muddled and obfuscated by tuning into certain shows). As we consumers turn further and further away from television schedules and towards the ‘Netflix’ style of ‘choose your own content,’ it takes a lot to make me tune in for a show. Much of mainstream cable news seems like entertainment, rather than actual news. Sorry but were I seeking entertainment, I’ll watch Walking Dead!! If I’m going to watch a news program and give up a portion of my time, it’s to be INFORMED and LEARN/GAIN SOMETHING — not subject myself to shouting and spouting of rehearsed talking points, or a host with an agenda. But after this Al Jazeera America segment, instead of feeling frustrated and even the “darn, I feel dumber after watching that” buyer’s remorse, I felt empowered! In 30 minutes, I gained some new arguments-ammo, considered some counter-arguments (food for thought), learned about a stellar new documentary, and learned of a few new accounts to follow on Twitter. Much like the HuffPostLive segments for which I sometimes tune in, this really seems to be the new, best format for news: shows with heavy online participation and a healthy rotation of voices rather than the standard commentators.
One other point worth noting: kudos for having the panelists on a Cuban issue be, you know, Cuban-Americans?! This may seem obvious but I recently saw a segment this year on an issue related to Cuba — where a major network chose to interview a non-Cuban who has never even written about Cuban issues. Tell me, what would anyone gain from THAT? Nothing. So, yes, while it seems obvious, one would be shocked how much this is overlooked.
Interestingly, I also noticed a commercial for an upcoming Al Jazeera America feature about rape on college campuses. So much for the fears of its ‘radical Islamist’ tilt, huh?
After the segment, I continued watching the next show: which kicked off with a discussion about the JP Morgan news, an issue I’d meant to read up on this week but had fallen through the cracks. Very informative. Simultaneously, I saw on Twitter that another major network was discussing… wait for it… the identity of the ObamaCare website model.
So nope, I’m not dating an “Islamist” – and heck, I’ve never even met anyone who works for the company — but I’ll definitely tune in for Al Jazeera America. This is news done right. A friend in the industry recently remarked that the cable news industry is all just a big ‘game’ and there is no market for serious journalism. I reject that notion. Like me, there are millions of other somber political-junkies who seek intelligent, enlightening news segments, such as this. If you’re an individual who appreciates serious journalism, Al Jazeera America is a great place to find it.