Founded in 1980, Ted Turner's CNN was the only television channel to have live coverage of Space Shuttle Challenger's explosion in 1986. But it wasn't until the first Persian Gulf War broke out on January 16, 1991, that the 24-hour news network became a household name, bringing in more viewers than any of the Big Three for the first time in its ten-year history.
Almost exactly two decades later we could be seeing another defining moment for a media organization. But Larry King has closed up shop and the ratings have been steadily declining for years at CNN; this time, it's Al Jazeera English that is in the spotlight. Praise of the network's week-long live stream of the events happening on the ground in Egypt has been dominating Twitter and other social networks since January 28, when protests that began on January 25 grew to unignorable size. (Follow The Atlantic's liveblog of the ongoing demonstrations.)
Al Jazeera's work has been so definitive that ABC's Sam Donaldson acknowledged the network last week, causing a minor controversy. By praising Al Jazeera's work, was Donaldson, who worked as ABC News' chief White House correspondent for more than a decade, taking a swipe at the Big Three? "Thank you for what you're doing," Donaldson said. "People say Al Jazeera fanned the flames here by bringing the fact that democracy is in existence and that people are being suppressed. That's what we need. We need more communication in the world. It's not Al Jazeera's fault that Mubarak is under siege now."
But Al Jazeera's "visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments" is nothing new, according to The Atlantic's Robert D. Kaplan, who wrote about his love for the network in the October 2009 issue:
Over just a few days in late May, when I actively monitored Al Jazeera (although I watched it almost every evening during a month in Sri Lanka), I was treated to penetrating portraits of Eritrean and Ethiopian involvement in the Somali war, of the struggle of Niger River rebels against the Nigerian government in the oil-rich south of the country, of the floods in Bangladesh, of problems with the South African economy, of the danger that desertification poses to Bedouin life in northern Sudan, of the environmental devastation around the Aral Sea, of Sikh violence in India after an attack on a temple in Austria, of foreign Islamic fighters in the southern Philippines, of microfinancing programs in Kenya, of rigged elections in South Ossetia, of human-rights demonstrations in Guatemala, and of much more. Al Jazeera covered the election campaigns in Lebanon and Iran in more detail than anyone else, as well as the Somali war and the Pakistani army offensive in the Swat Valley. There was, too, an unbiased one-hour documentary about the Gemayel family of Christian politicians and warlords in Lebanon, and a half-hour-long investigation of the displacement of the poor from India's new economic zones.
The fact that Doha, Qatar's capital, is not the headquarters of a great power liberates Al Jazeera to focus equally on the four corners of the Earth rather than on just the flash points of any imperial or post-imperial interest. Outlets such as CNN and the BBC don't cover foreign news so much as they cover the foreign extensions of Washington's or London's collective obsessions. And Al Jazeera, rather than spotlighting people who are loaded with credentials but often have little to say, has the knack of getting people on air who have interesting things to say, like the brilliant, no-name Russian analyst I heard explaining why both Russia and China need the current North Korean regime because it provides a buffer state against free and democratic South Korea.
Al Jazeera is also endearing because it exudes hustle. It constantly gets scoops. It has had gritty, hands-on coverage across the greater Middle East, from Gaza to Beirut to Iraq, that other channels haven't matched. Its camera crew, for example, was the first to beam pictures from Mingora, the main town of Swat, enabling Al Jazeera to confirm that the Pakistani military had, in fact, prevailed there over the Taliban.
Read the rest of Kaplan's "Why I Love Al Jazeera."