Al Jazeera English is a major journalistic operation that has won Peabody, Robert F. Kennedy and George Polk Awards — among many others. The consensus among media critics is that it covered the Arab Awakening better than any other TV news operation in the world.
"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate Foreign Affairs panel last year. "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners."
Philip Seib, a University of Southern California professor and author of "The Al Jazeera Effect: How the New Global Media Are Reshaping World Politics," also gives the channel high grades.
"It's good journalism," he says. "When things go crazy in the Middle East, Al Jazeera English is where you go unless you speak Arabic. The television sets throughout the U.S. government last year, when the Arab revolutions were getting under way, were all tuned to Al Jazeera English."
But like all TV news operations, from MSNBC to Fox News, there are certain narratives Al Jazeera English favors. And that also helps explain why Baltimore, with its seemingly endless backdrop of boarded-up rowhouses, is a favorite of the channel.
"Their basic approach to narrative is that they favor the interests of what they call the Global South," Seib says, "which has never been the case with the American and European broadcasting giants in the past. They're sensitive to the idea that they are giving voice to and adopting the outlook of parts of the world that in the past were very much just passive recipients and have been condescended to."
The term Global South is geographic, using the equator as a dividing line.
"North is the U.S., Western Europe and Russia, for that matter," Seib says. "South is black Africa, Latin America and South Asia."
Mohammed el-Nawawy, author of "Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism," adds that the channel sees U.S. locations like inner-city Baltimore as just as much a part of the Global South landscape as Asian or African nations that suffered centuries under colonial rule.
"When Al Jazeera English sheds light on the kinds of stories it finds in Baltimore, that for them is Global South right there," says el-Nawawy, the associate professor at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. "And that's more telling for the viewer than the Global South as we traditionally think of it south of the equator, because here you are in a very developed country, you know, in the greatest nation on earth, and you have these stories and you have these situations of people living in these kinds of [dangerous and deprived] situations in Baltimore."
Al Jazeera is up front about its point of view and priorities. "Anatomy of an American City" will debut Tuesday as part of the channel's "Fault Lines" series, which is similar to "Frontline" on PBS. The mission statement says: "Fault Lines takes you behind the U.S. headlines, putting a face to those who are falling through the cracks of society while holding the powerful to account."
It should not be surprising that the producers treat Baltimore's mayor as one of the "powerful" — and what they mainly choose to show is at odds with the upbeat words viewers see and hear Rawlings-Blake sounding in her "State of the City" address near the start of the film.
"We have not seen the documentary yet, so it is impossible to comment on the content," Ian Brennan, the mayor's press secretary, wrote in a statement emailed to The Sun. He said a producer had contacted the mayor's office to discuss "her vision to grow Baltimore and ... our progress in reducing violence. We thought it was a good opportunity to share our story with Al Jazeera English's 260 million viewers. What they made, and how they used the interview with Mayor Rawlings-Blake, is not in our control."
The statement goes on to say: "Mayor Rawlings-Blake talked about our historic lows in homicide, the 10-year decline in overall crime, and how we have successfully reduced juvenile violence and juvenile arrest. She also talked about how, despite three years of budget deficits, the city did not lay off police officers, and invested in technology to further reduce crime."
The words of Rawlings-Blake are part of a highly informed discourse on race, social class, crime, drugs and incarceration within the film. But they primarily play foil to the words of Burns and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow." Alexander and Burns make the case that the so-called war on drugs was a war on civil rights gains, and that it devastated cities like Baltimore, particularly with the astronomical rates of incarceration that it generated.