As the world has stood transfixed by the unfolding situation in Egypt and many have turned to the web for timely information, international news network Al-Jazeera has exploded in its online presence, seeing a reported 2500% increase in web traffic, 60% of which is coming from the United States.
Unknown to many Americans, for many of whom its name carries vaguely sinister connotations (fueled, no doubt, by American officials’ charges during the early days of the war in Iraq that the network was “anti-American” for broadcasting graphic images of military violence), Al-Jazeera is actually a premier worldwide news organization, with broadcasts in more than 100 countries, a staff of over 3,000, more than 400 of whom are working reporters, and a robust English-language edition. But whereas it’s a staple of many European broadcast packages, it’s harder to get in the US. The network’s North American strategy head told the Huffington Post that many American cable companies are “worried” “that they will lose more subscribers than they will gain by granting access to Al Jazeera” due to the “negative stereotypes” associated with the network stateside.
But on the leveler playing field of the Internet, good content has a way of rising to the top, and Al-Jazeera has outhustled its competition in covering the conflict in Egypt. Al-Jazeera’s liveblogs and Flickr pool have become premier sources for first-hand information on Egypt. And the network’s reporters have showed their willingness to get in the thick of things: This weekend, 6 Al-Jazeera reporters were arrested by the Egyptian military after the Mubarak government decided to crack down on the network’s coverage in Cairo, though they were subsequently released.
ABC’s Sam Donaldson thanked Al-Jazeera for “fann[ing] the flames here by bringing the fact that democracy is in existence and that people are being suppressed”; new media thinker Jeff Jarvis has put forth a petition asking US cable companies to “add Al Jazeera now“:
It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it. Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one–not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media–can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.
Yes, we can watch AJE on the internet. But as much of an internet triumphalist as I am, internet streaming is not going to have the same impact–political and education impact–that putting AJE on the cable dial would have.
Al-Jazeera’s web traffic successes, particularly in the American market, on the strength of its Egypt coverage illustrate the web’s decentralized, uncanny ability to sniff out the highest-quality content and pass it along to interested consumers, and it will no doubt help dispel the misinformed notion that the network is some sort of terrorist propaganda outlet. But it remains to be seen whether Al-Jazeera’s current successes will give it a lasting toehold in the American market or whether inertia and market resistance to the network will leave it a niche source for internationalists.
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