Ugly America: From Borat to Al Jazeera

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Time is amnesic. We know there was a time without an Internet, but few can remember what that was like. There was a time when bank tellers weren’t automated and using a phone while driving required a really, really long extension cord. And of course, there was a time when most people got their news from ink on paper.

So I look at today’s pace of change and wonder if we will remember; if we will know that we lived through an age of great transformation.

In recent days we’ve seen the Los Angeles Times lose its editor and parent company Tribune put itself on the sale rack. And we lost CBS newsman Ed Bradley, another in a dwindling line of journalists who understand that interviewing people means having a conversation with them and not sending them questions via e-mail.

But these events are mere pebbles skipping across and ocean of change. For example, YouTube is the “Invention of the Year” according to Time Magazine, which is not only insane but should open the market for videos of drunken teens imitating their favorite scenes from Borat – a movie, by the way, that finally erases the lines between news and entertainment, and insult from satire.

Borat, in fact, is the celluloid embodiment of the last 15 or so years of modern television journalism: a mix of reality and careful scripting; wide-eyed voyeurism; and facts obscured or omitted in favor of higher ratings (or in Borat’s case, ticket sales.) In the United States, this style is best executed by Fox News, and in the Arab world by Al Jazeera.

But this, too, has changed. Al Jazeera has launched an English-language network, bringing its Fox-like approach to Western eyes and ears.

Whether the English version will take the same ugly American, anti-Semitic and violence-stirring approach as the original remains to be seen. We should give the channel a chance to prove that it can do real journalism from an Arab perspective without showing beheadings or backing commentators that deny the existence of the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, this new entry into the western television news pantheon should give us all pause – not because of how different Al Jazeera is, but rather because of how similar it is to Fox and sometimes CNN (I’m talking to you, Lou Dobbs.) We in United States of course don’t see it that way, but others around the world do and have for years. Al Jazeera may make us angry, but it should also remind us that we are not as we see ourselves, but as others see us.

Fox, in a way, created Al Jazeera and the new vitriolic tendencies of CNN. And all created Borat, as well as the very real reactions of the people in the film (despite what their lawsuits say.) Television news has never been further down the rabbit hole, and only time will tell if it finds its way back.

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