An unusual controversy has erupted in Burlington, Vermont and hopefully other U.S. cities will grapple with the same issue in the not too distant future. I write "hopefully" because it started when our municipally owned cable system Burlington Telecom (BT) began carrying Al-Jazeera English, a news source that ought to be commonplace in America. Carrying Al-Jazeera seemed perfectly natural in this proudly liberal city. After all, we're a college town with a thriving three-party political system. Our famous ex-mayor, the socialist Bernie Sanders, is now, along with Pat Leahy, one of Vermont's U.S. senators. Leahy is also from Burlington. With a population of 40,000 we are the largest city in the only state in America that George Bush hasn't bothered to - or dared to - set foot in. So what's amiss in this leftist paradise?
While nearly everyone in town thought Al-Jazeera is far more "fair and balanced" than Fox News, an under-the-radar telephone campaign was launched to direct anti Al-Jazeera comments at the General Manager of BT, Mr. Chris Burns. Burns was said to have received "dozens" of angry calls, so in late May he unilaterally decided to drop Al-Jazeera.
Big Mistake.News travels fast in a small town, and when the current mayor, the honorable Progressive Bob Kiss, got word of the city employee's cavalier decision, Kiss issued a stay of execution. Public hearings were called, and in the two that have taken place as of May 29th, it's become clear that Burns' decision was not only unpopular, but possibly illegal given BT's mandate as a public utility.
Where did the detractor's calls come from? An unholy alliance of neo-cons called the Defenders Council of Vermont, and several individuals affiliated with The Israel Center of Vermont. The Defenders Council was founded by an ex-intern of the Heritage Foundation. According to The Boston Globe:
At the June 11th public forum, attended by nearly 200 and hosted by Burlington Telecom's Advisory Committee, only eight people spoke in agreement with Mr. Burns' decision to drop Al-Jazeera English. Forty-three citizens spoke in favor of keeping Al-Jazeera English accessible to BT subscribers. The reasons for maintaining the accessibility of Al-Jazeera English were often eloquently expressed. Among them - the US news industry isn't diverse enough, and often overlooks important international stories.
The group, with 15 to 20 members, formed last year and says its mission is to 'educate the citizens of Vermont about the nature, reality and threat of radical Islam,' and to 'honor the men and women of the armed services and their families.'
We have an unbalanced view of the Middle East and racism often clouds our assumptions about the Arab world. In a time of war and bellicose saber rattling, a broad range of news sources becomes even more important. If the government entity that is Burlington Telecom insists on deleting Al-Jazeera from its lineup, it will descend down a one way path of censorship that can only lead to darkness and ignorance.
Many of the objections to Al Jazeera English stem from baseless misconceptions. A speaker at the May 29th public forum repeated the slanderous accusation, first forwarded by Fox News in November 2006, that Al-Jazeera broadcasts beheadings. That accusation is untrue. In the echo chamber that is our Western 24 hour news cycle, other networks and newspapers parroted Fox's beheadings claim. Many of those who chimed in, such as Britain's The Guardian, soon retracted their statements and apologized for their shoddy journalism.Several speakers at the June 11th forum said Al-Jazeera is the most widely watched news network in Israel and Palestine. So why, as was often asked, must anyone feel that humanizing the Arab world is somehow destructive to the interests of Israel, the U.S., or Vermont? And while the few anti Al-Jazeera voices that have surfaced in forums have routinely referred to the Arab world as "our enemies," the U.S. maintains positive diplomatic relations and good working relationships with practically every Arab country. Americans clearly need balanced news sources to make mindful decisions about other cultures -- but when it comes to Islam and Arab world, some would have us remain disastrously uninformed.
When I had my turn to speak on June 11th, I said:
Burlington Telecom's initial acquiescence to the fear mongering claims of those who've appointed themselves the Vermont thought police on Middle Eastern affairs was nothing short of shameful. Even worse, as reported in the press, individuals affiliated with The Israel Center of Vermont, located upstairs from the office of Burlington Telecom at 200 Church St., are among those who initiated the controversy. That's the same entity that circulated a petition in 2007 making punitive demands of the South End Art Hop regarding self-proclaimed anti-Semitic issues. Their goals were to censor an exhibition by Bread and Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumman, and a presentation by the respected academic Joel Kovel. A similar Schumman exhibition going on now at the Flynndog gallery has also been attracting their hateful scrutiny. That small yet powerful "Israel right or wrong" lobby needs to be faced, challenged, and ultimately foiled in the name of the first amendment.
As an Arab-American, I am particularly offended by the pro-Israel lobby's attempts to censor any information that presents the Palestinian point of view in an unbiased light.
On the web site of PBS' Frontline, essayist Jamal Dajani wrote:
In the early days of the Iraqi War, when many Western journalists were practicing rooftop reporting before becoming more embedded with the troops, Arab reporters and camera crews were putting their lives at risk, reporting from the 'eye of the storm' in Baghdad. And while U.S. networks were showing cruise missiles being launched from U.S. destroyers, Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV, were showing them landing and wreaking havoc in Iraq.
The final ruling on maintaining Al-Jazeera English has yet to be made, but it seems very likely that Burlington will continue to be one of the few cities in this country to broadcast its 24 hour service. Most of us realize that humanizing the Arab world is in our best interest, and ignorance certainly is not.