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Open Letter to Al Gore, Regarding Aljazeera

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Dear Mr. Vice President,

You've had a tough week or two, haven't you? You're doing the talk show rounds to promote your new book, The Future, about how democracy has been "hacked" by corporate interests. But all the interviewers want to talk about is the degree of hypocrisy with which you -- a Nobel Laureate lauded for your efforts to end climate change -- sold out to Big Oil, when you sold Current TV to Aljazeera, owned by the Emir of Qatar, an oil-producing state.

A cynic might say that degree of hypocrisy is best expressed by the figure $100 million, the amount you're individually estimated to make from the deal.

Asked by the Matt Lauers, David Lettermans and Jon Stewarts of this world, if -- in Stewart's words -- "Activist Al Gore" can coexist with "Mogul Al Gore," you've defended the sale by pointing out that Aljazeera's news coverage of climate change has exceeded that of any other news organization in the world, including the U.S. networks which didn't even manage a single climate change question in the myriad debates of the last campaign.

Fair enough.

But, if I may make a suggestion, Mr. Vice President? You need to come out swinging.

Not only did the U.S. networks abdicate on the coverage of climate change, they have abdicated, to an enormous extent, coverage of international news -- exactly what Aljazeera wants to bring to the U.S. through the Current TV purchase.

Aljazeera English has 21 news bureaus around the world, producing television news packages for a 24 hour news channel. They are rivaled only by BBC and CNN (the latter of which, as I've argued in the past, has abdicated doing journalism in favor of merely doing live television.)

NBC, CBS and ABC seem to limit much of their broadcast time largely to the reportage of "Chief Foreign Correspondent" Richard Engel, or "Chief Foreign Affairs" correspondent Lara Logan, or "Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent" Martha Raddatz.

Engel, Logan and Raddatz are hard-working individuals, to be sure. But the very premise that a single individual (branded as a "personality") is sufficient to cover every international news event shows how far the networks standards for foreign coverage have fallen. What they turn around is a drop in the ocean compared to the breath and depth of coverage of Aljazeera English or the BBC World Service.

Oh sure, sure -- there's an earthquake in Haiti, for example, and the networks will dispatch a Brian Williams -- for a whole three days!

And let's not forget, Ann Curry, formerly of NBC, used to score coverage of Sudan -- mostly when she could arrange to tag along with George Clooney.

You get my point.

Aljazeera -- refreshingly -- refuses to indulge in the "tyranny of low expectations" that the U.S. news executives live by.

So if I may, Mr. Vice President, why don't you tell Matt Lauer that you disagree with his network's belief that that Americans are too stupid to want to know about international news?

And you could mention to Jon Stewart -- who makes his living exposing the flaws in cable news -- that bringing a credible new outlet for foreign affairs to an American audience represents an enormous step towards fixing the dysfunctional myopia that afflicts the U.S. media? (You know, his "fun house mirror.")

The fact is the U.S. networks are full of staffers who'd love to work in foreign news bureaus, or who'd love to work for a news organization as dedicated to television journalism as Aljazeera English. Perhaps that's why the Aljazeera America has received more than 8 thousand applications for 160 jobs (in the interest of full disclosure, including my own.)

One more thing. About that $100 million of hypocrisy.

Qatar is an Arab oil state surrounded by Arab oil states in a region largely known for autocracy, human rights abuses, the subjugation of women and an almost feudal power structure.

AlJazeera is far from perfect, and there is a gulf in the standards between English and Arabic programming. In many ways, it remains an on-going experiment. But it's the first Middle Eastern nation to launch a 24-hour English news channel, allowing diverse groups to give voice to the concerns of their own communities -- something far more progressive and, you can even say, democratic -- than the region had been used to.

That's something to be applauded -- and perhaps why Aljazeera has been praised by none other than Hillary Clinton, and why it's reportedly played at the U.S. State Department. Indeed, many media critics say Aljazeera hits its stride with its coverage of the Arab Spring.

Mr. Vice President, you're welcome to remind people of all that, too.