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The Big Hurrah

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The long-ballyhooed Al Jazeera went on the air this evening and as a debut it will be the talk of America, if not all the world by tomorrow morning. If the skeptics, and I was among them, who thought it would only amount to a mouthpiece for the Gulf nations and other Arab countries, the evidence thus far has been lacking.

What I saw this evening was a breathtaking display of balanced news judgment led by at least two outstanding anchor women and men, namely Joie Chen and John Seigenthaler, and a cast of impressive, mainly young, articulate correspondents around the world delivering fresh news that for the most part has been absent from the U.S. networks and cable news programs.

The subject matter was a wakeup call to the broadcasters in the United States that have stuck to conventional reporting. Al Jazeera chose to single out the unusual and under-reported stories like the illegal clothing manufacturers in Bangladesh, the worst prison system in Louisiana, the courageous firefighters in the northwest states of the nation, the breakthrough cancer research that focused on one young woman fighting off the ravages of brain disease, thanks to the pioneering exploration of an unheralded American specialist, and then to my surprise a report on the dramatic improvement of one of the nation's most familiar tourist sites that is the earmark of San Francisco: the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a fascinating as report about how that majestic span has been reinforced to withstand any threat of an earthquake that paralleled the one that struck the area more than a century ago. To hear it from the experts, I was made to feel confident that I could cross the Golden Gate, as I once did as a journalist working in San Francisco and commuting to Marin County, without fear of another frightening disaster.

However, all of what I've cited here is not intended to ignore the political implications of the support of the nation's newest network and so far, given only one day's viewing of balanced news seems to underscore Al Jazeera's broadcasting. In dealing with the ongoing crisis in Egypt, the reporters did their best to present at least both sides of the bloody dispute: that is the battle between the radical Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. The footage illustrated the violence in the streets of Cairo and interviews with representatives of both sides. It would be difficult to assert that Al Jazeera was choosing sides. But, of course, only one day has passed and judgment on its merits will be forthcoming.

I can only say, as someone who has spent a lifetime in the craft, as a print and broadcast
journalist as well as a professor emeritus and director of one of the most respected schools of journalism in America, the arrival of Al Jazeera has been a refreshing reminder of what journalism as a whole can do, be it print, on the air or a growing method of digital communication. Tonight's broadcast inevitably will generate debate and discussion about the quality of news that is offered the American people. That the challenge has been initiated by a network financed by a nation from a part of the world that has been hostile to the value of a a free press or free expression is, in a sense, something to arouse skepticism. Only time will render the proper judgment.