Last week, a serious censorship issue arose showing how access to "news" is controlled not only by government but by a few powerful media conglomerates.
The issue relates to the sale of former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV to the Arab Al Jazeera network.
Soon after details of the deal emerged, America's second largest cable provider, Time Warner, without explanation, immediately announced that it was pulling the plug on a new Americanized version of Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera is a pan-Arab news network owned by the government of Qatar. Its coverage of the Middle East and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been controversial, if not anti-American. It first came to the forefront of American news consciousness as the network Osama Bin Laden used to deliver his sporadic and chilling rants from the caves of Afghanistan and is perceived as an anti-Western propaganda tool of radical Islam.
AtlanticWire.com reported speculation that Time Warner's actions stem from "simply prejudice against the new owners, who are based in Doha, Qatar, and have seen their fair share of controversy over the years."
At the time of the deal's announcement, the Arab network already had a slight presence in the U.S. cable-television market. But the purchase of Current TV boosted Al Jazeera's reach nearly nine fold in the U.S. to more than 60 million homes. The network suddenly became a significant player in the American news market, even if Time Warner's censorship reduced its reach by 12 million homes.
In addition to Time Warner's action, the sale generated other backlash. The Anti-Defamation League, for one, expressed its disdain, citing a "troubling record" of giving "virulent anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic extremists access to its airwaves." Journalist Cliff Kincaid, a writer and editor with the news-watchdog organization Accuracy in Media, said a new, American version of Al Jazeera posed "an unacceptable danger to American citizens by further adding to the potential for home-grown Jihadists inspired by Al Jazeera's inflammatory programming."
For the most part, commentary about the $500 million sale -- which added $100 million to the former VP's fortune -- framed Al Jazeera as a radical threat to Americans' minds. There was some questioning of Al Gore's patriotism in selling his financial stake to a perceived anti-American entity-particularly in light of his reported refusal on liberal principle to sell the network for a similar amount to Glenn Beck, a commentator who is the left's version of the anti-Christ.
But the threat of Al-Jazeera's news content or Gore's patriotism should not have been the issue. If there was any anti-American behavior involved in the sale, it was Time Warner's.
The real concern surrounding the purchase of Current TV is whether Time Warner, acting as a government-regulated near-monopoly, should have a right to take an established cable news network off the air just like that, without clear justification.
Time Warner chooses to air RT, which is a Russian English news network funded by the Russian government that carries similar anti-American and pro-Islamic Fundamentalist news coverage. CNN, British owned Fox, MSNBC, the BBC and other "news" networks all have their own apparent bias. Except for Fox, they have lousy ratings, too.
So why single out Current TV and Al Jazeera? Since the inception of radio and television, it's been a common democratic goal to make traditional news coverage as free from government censorship as possible. The same should hold for cable news programming, even as such news coverage becomes more international in scope and ownership.
Challenging Time Warner's actions through the argument that Americans should be able to make up their own mind about what news channel to watch, a tepid New York Times editorial said "doubts about the independence of Al Jazeera do not justify removing it from cable and satellite systems."
It's more than that. As evidenced by Time Warner's action against Al Jazeera, it is a few executives at cable providers who actually have too much unfettered censorship power, and it threatens our freedom of choice and access to news. And, yes, the censored information may be racist, sexist or anti-Semitic; it may even contradict the American democratic ideals that allows them to broadcast in our country in the first place. Consumers can decide what not to read, listen to or watch. Americans can trust those consumers to know when to pull the plug.
Published in the Florida Voices on January 7, 2013
Steven Kurlander is an attorney and communications Strategist/Writer and columnist for the Sun Sentinel and Florida Voices and a blogger for The Huffington Post. Check out his blog Kurly"s Kommentary and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org