Al Jazeera America: Land of Lost Opportunity

The New York Times today reported on fresh sectarian violence in Baghdad, jihadists coming home to stoke unrest in Cairo and the take-him-home-to-mother charms of pledges to a newly minted Muslim fraternity with chapters on college campuses in Dallas and San Diego.

That roundup nicely captures both the virtues and deficits of reporting around Islam in the nation’s paper of record: We get close to the action and hear the voices of everyday people in Iraq and Egypt, but tight news budgets at the Times (and finicky appetites among news consumers) mean that life apart from warring and victimhood is left out of the ongoing journalistic narrative about Muslims in broad swaths of the non-Western world.

Which casts the otherwise welcome story about Alpha Lambda Mu, with its abstemious brothers focused piety and pushups, in a less flattering light. What’s the fraternity’s Shia-Sunni mix? Are there pledges from Pakistan and India in the same house? Any community service activities in conjunction with, say, Alpha Epsilon Pi—a Jewish fraternity—which has a chapter at San Diego State? The Times story sheds no light on these matters.

Many young Muslims might be wary of trusting a reporter who asked these questions, but their answers would usefully illuminate the struggles of second-generation immigrants to overcome tensions that often lead to conflict abroad but that are much more easily overcome in the relative social stability of the U.S.

Which begs another question: Where is Al Jazeera America when you need it? While the Times was leading with the pieces from Baghdad and Cairo, a weather report from the northeast was topping headlines at AJA. Not an unreasonable editorial decision, but also not a choice that makes best use of the organization’s enviable network of far-flung reporters.

In that and many other respects the fledging outlet is ideally suited to broaden the relatively narrow news media frame of the Times’ international reporting and to make the kind of deeper connections that would have enriched the Alpha Lambda Mu story. But despite dismal ratings since its launch in the second half of 2013, the network has resolutely stood by an editorial policy that its defenders have described as nonpartisan but that its sympathetic but shrinking audience might call anodyne.

Rather than make bold moves to establish a distinctive brand, AJA’s management in the near term is leveraging the deep pockets of the network’s Qatari ownership in order to optimize its placement in the chock-a-block American news spectrum. This wait-and-see strategy is obviously a luxury that few of AJA’s competitors can afford. But if you’re leading with snow plows in Philly on a day when the best-known news brand in the country runs a string of stories that reveal a golden opportunity for you, might be that you’re doing more waiting than seeing.

About Nick Shindo Street

Nick Shindo Street was most recently Senior Writer at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, where he reported on Pentecostal and charismatic religious movements in the global South. Previously, he served as a contributing editor for LGBT issues at Religion Dispatches and as a contributing writer for the Jewish Journal. His reportage on science, religion, sexuality and culture has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Global Post and L.A. Weekly. He is a student at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles.
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