No barbecue for Al Jazeera. Plenty of death metal, though.

“But enough about me. What do you think about me?”

That old joke was my response to the idea that Global Voices might choose to cover the 2008 US Presidential election. When Rebecca and I began discussing the Global Voices project in 2004, one of our motivations was a belief that US media paid too much attention to stories in the US and not enough to international, especially developing world, news.

Fortunately, I got voted down and Global Voices partnered with Reuters to produce Voices without Votes, a blog aggregator that portrays the US elections through the eyes of individuals around the world. There’s no doubt that there’s widespread interest in the US elections in many corners of the world and a desire to understand the decisionmaking that American voters are going through in our apparently perpetual election process.

Al Jazeera wanted to give their hundreds of millions of viewers a slightly different perspective on the convention, covering not only the speeches in the convention center and stadium, but watching the speeches on television with average Americans in a suburban Colorado town. After some investigation, they chose Golden, Colorado, the home of Coors Brewing and of 18,000 opinionated and vocal citizens, a gold-rush town 14 miles west of Denver.

Initial plans for Al Jazeera’s presence in Golden included broadcasting from a (pork-free) barbecue at City Manager Mike Bestor’s house. After extensive local debate, Bestor revoked the invitation, citing the concerns about perceived slights to the local veteran’s community.

(Update: Golden, Colorado mayor Jacob Smith clarifies that the barbecue was moved to another house, where it went off without a hitch. Please see his comment below.)

While no longer invited for barbecue, the Al Jazeera team has been embraced by the owner of the Buffalo Rose bar and roadhouse, Murray Martinez, who has invited them to broadcast from a corner of his establishment. This decision has been controversial in Golden, gathering a group of protesters across the street from the Buffalo Rose and motivating Martinez to post a copy of the First Amendment to the US constitution outside the bar.

It’s worth watching the above video, produced by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, as well as reading his written piece for the Post. The article sounds as if a major confrontation is underway, reporting a truce from three biker gangs so that they can protest Jazeera’s presence at the bar. The video’s significantly more lighthearted, showing a wide range of Golden’s citizens, including a pro-Jazeera (or at least, pro-welcoming international reporters) citizen riding a six-foot tall Penny Farthing, as well as a wide range of angry people wielding air horns.

My friend and colleague Jillian York points out that Al Jazeera has had a very hard time finding tolerance, never mind acceptance, in the US. Burlington, VT, one of the most liberal communities in the US, has been one of only two communities that’s offered Al Jazeera English on their local cable system. Based on “dozens” of complaints from subscribers, the local cable system manager decided to drop the network from the system’s offerings. This led to a set of public meetings where passionate debate on both sides led to a decision to keep the network on the air. York notes that the debate has largely been between people who’ve actually watched the channel – who want to keep it on the air – and those who haven’t. One wonders how many of the air horn wielding folks outside the Buffalo Rose have watched the network, a channel that’s so popular in Israel that it’s recently replaced BBC World and CNN International on major cable networks, and which is the network of choice for many US soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.

Al Jazeera wanted to film in Golden because they wanted to show their viewers how the election is viewed in different American communities. The protesters for and against the network’s presence, as well as the Buffalo Rose customers who simply appear bemused by all the attention, are probably a pretty good representations of the mixed feelings many US communities have about international attention to a domestic election. (Remember the Guardian’s plan to have readers around the world write to undecided Clark County, Ohio voters in the 2004 election? That went well.) While I’m embarrased that some of the citizens of Golden would demonstrate agains the right of a network to report news, I’m hopeful that the coverage will include some of the citizens who were excited about welcoming international perspectives as well.

By the way, it looks like an excellent night to be at the Buff Buffalo Rose, as the locals evidently call it – it’s ladies night, and there are $4 pitchers of Coors Light for the fellas. And death metal band Grimoire starts playing at 9pm, right after Obama’s speech. Bet they’ve thought very little about the possibility of building their Qatari fanbase.

(Smith clarifies that, whatever visiting journalists think, “I’ve never heard it called the Buff. It’s either the Buffalo Rose or the Rose, and I have a great deal of respect for Murray (one of the owners) and his staff for being so stalwart. They never blinked.” Thanks for weighing in, Mr. Mayor, and thanks for your willingness to engage with these issues.)

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8 Responses to No barbecue for Al Jazeera. Plenty of death metal, though.

  1. Brett Davidson says:

    I was interested to see the other night, that CNN had a report on what the Arabic media is saying about the US presidential race. They featured Al Jazeera, but showed the Arabic-language channel (with CNN translating), even though there is an English-language channel. I wondered what that was about — maybe because it makes Al Jazeera seem more ‘other’?

  2. I would absolutely invite Al Jazeera to my house to watch the DNC, or anything else for that matter. I’m kind of jealous of Golden, actually.

    Although it is somewhat bizarre, I’m glad Al Jazeera is giving this a try. What’s amazing to me is the “patriots” who believe that the U.S. should remain the ultimate superpower, yet don’t give a damn about what the rest of the world actually thinks of our leadership.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Ethan. I want to clarify that the barbecue still took place but at another location. Neither the city manager nor I anticipated the vitriolic reaction from some members of our community (and quite a few outside of Golden as well), and he asked to change the venue because he felt it wasn’t appropriate for him in his role as the city manager to create the kind of divisiveness that obviously resulted. At least 17 people in the community subsequently volunteered to host the event at their own homes, and Al Jazeera found one that worked for all of their technical needs and made it happen. From the city’s perspective, this was primarily a First Amendment issue, and we were unequivocal from the time Al Jazeera first contacted us until they departed this morning in our commitment to affording them all the same courtesies we afford other news agencies. Likewise, the protesters were afforded their First Amendment rights to protest. I’m disappointed that so many of the folks opposed to Al Jazeera’s visit were as disrespectful as they were, but as you write, Ethan, the news stories probably do capture something of the range of perspectives about Al Jazeera in our community and probably elsewhere in the States as well.

  4. Paul says:

    Why would AlJazeera replace BBC World and CNN International?

    It carries too much news on the middle east, whereas BBC and CNN do look at the world.

    I got tired of the region, important though it is.

    But with cable and satellite TV, there is room for all of them, and there is no reason not to let anyone broadcast.

    No one forces you to watch a particular channel.

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  6. John says:

    Brett – they probably went with Arabic al-Jazeera because the English-language channel’s audience isn’t Arabs or people in the middle East – it’s intended to reach English-speakers elsewhere, and is programmed separately, so it wouldn’t be accurate to present it as an example of Arabic media.

  7. Paul,

    I disagree. Al Jazeera English provides much more global news than CNN, and is perhaps equal to BBC World or Euronews (the latter being my personal favorite). I personally think that AJEnglish downplays the Middle East intentionally, and perhaps focuses on Asia a bit too heavily.

    And yet, they’ve still been mostly blocked out in the U.S. based on assumptions that they’re just like their Arabic counterpart.

    Jillian

  8. johne says:

    “No one forces you to watch a particular channel.”
    Quite right — we’re offered a choice, from moderate right to far right.

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