“The Muslims are coming!” That is the tongue-in-cheek name of a new documentary by Muslim comedians. But it is also the deadly serious shriek echoing through the American right in response to the launch of Al Jazeera America. Like Dr. Emmett Brown’s distraught warning that bazooka-wielding Arab terrorists are stalking the palatial suburbs (“The Libyans!”), conservatives are in a full-on frenzy, insinuating that Al Jazeera’s entry into the U.S. cable television market is akin to an invasion by a foreign menace and, thus, represents an existential threat to U.S. national security.
Before getting to some juicier hypocrisy, let’s first ponder an obvious question: Are these Islamophobes living in the 21st century? Because I get the sense they’re still stuck somewhere in the early 1980s, not just because they seem to see the world as a cartoonish mashup of “Delta Force” and “Red Dawn,” but also because they apparently haven’t yet heard of that little thing called the Internet.
Had they known of that complex and now-ubiquitous network of computers, they might know that most Americans can already expose themselves to news from foreign Muslim-owned media organizations 24-7. Indeed, because the Internet is inherently boundary-less, that includes everything from the esteemed Al Jazeera English, which is widely recognized as a responsible news outlet, to Al Manar, the media organization the U.S. Treasury Department has called an “arm of the Hizballah terrorist network” — and everything in between.
Now, to the hypocrisy: If the jingoistic anti-Al Jazeera saber rattlers are so angry about media outlets with foreign owners coming to the United States, where is their outrage when it comes to similar media-expansion efforts by entities connected to other countries?
For example, Australian citizen Rupert Murdoch began buying up major American newspapers like the San Antonio News-Express and the New York Post. Murdoch only became a U.S. citizen in 1985 — and that was in order to circumvent U.S. statutes restricting the amount of media a single foreign owner can control. Why aren’t the anti-Al Jazeera jingoists expressing concern that Murdoch represents a dangerous foreign infiltration of the U.S. media market?
Murdoch owns News Corp., and one of his most powerful co-owners is none other than Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns the largest amount of company stock next to Murdoch. Considering the rhetoric about Al Jazeera America, why haven’t we once again seen an effort by conservatives to insinuate that this means that their beloved conservative Fox News is actually a secret plot by Muslims to conquer America?
Then there is the Washington Times. In 1982, South Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon created the newspaper, making it of the two major broadsheets in the nation’s capital. Moon’s Korea-based church has run the conservative publication for almost three decades, and now plans an expansion into cable television. Why aren’t the same conservatives who are slamming Al Jazeera America also slamming the Washington Times? If they are insisting that Al Jazeera America is an unacceptable attempt by Islam to take over America, why aren’t they pointing to the Unification Church’s missionary history and claiming that the Times is an equally unacceptable attempt by that religion to take over America?
Considering the difference between the conservative reaction to Al Jazeera and the conservative reaction to these other outlets, could it be that something else is really going on? Could it be that the criticism of Al Jazeera America isn’t about legitimate national security concerns or about some general fear of foreigners, but instead about both promoting conservative political ideology and about selective and specific religious persecution?
The answer is clearly “yes.”
Quite obviously, this is the right’s attempt to try to preemptively discredit a new news organization that — at least so far — seems determined to avoid parroting right-wing talking points. That defiance makes the outlet a threat to the right, and so it is being attacked.
Additionally, in a society where the ugliest Islamophobia is still pervasive, the right wing is also using the launch of Al Jazeera America as yet another excuse to manufacture a spectacle of anti-Muslim bigotry and to vilify anything with ties to Muslims — even a news organization whose international branch has won esteemed awards for its objective journalism.
In that larger campaign of Islamophobia, when ties to Muslims are found among the right’s own institutions — say, the aforementioned Saudi royal family’s connections to Fox News — conservatives are often willing to direct their Islamophobia elsewhere, as long as the institution in question loyally champions conservative political ideology and Islamophobia, which, of course, Fox News most certainly does.
Now, sure, as with any new news outlet, there are all sorts of legitimate questions about Al Jazeera America. One is: Will it eventually have a political or ideological bent? Another is: Will it bring in new voices or will it emulate other cable networks that primarily rely on a relatively small stable of establishment-vetted retreads? Still another is: Will the outlet focus only on the narrow set of DC/New York-focused stories that most other cable news outlets primarily focus on, or will Al Jazeera branch out by expanding the definition of American news? And, to my mind, the biggest question of all is: Will the network be a hard-hitting investigative news outlet or will it pull punches?
The good news is that the initial answers to those queries seem promising. The even better news is that if such promising developments continue, it will be great for an American mediascape that desperately needs a revitalized Fourth Estate to start reporting far more fact-based reality and far less opinion-based political fantasy.
But perhaps best of all, if Al Jazeera America’s initially promising efforts become its standard operating procedure, then it will be awful for the fringe elements of the conservative movement — and not just because, as Stephen Colbert might say, reality tends to have a liberal bias. It will also be terrible for the extreme right because the more credible, hard-hitting and journalistically effective Al Jazeera America is, the more conservatives’ criticism of the network will be exposed for what it is: an ugly combination of preemptive ideological thuggery and old-school bigotry.