Al Jazeera Deserves to be Seen

Al Jazeera logo Al Jazeera logo

The Peyton Manning doping documentary is a fascinating case in point demonstrating why Al Jazeera deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

Watch the mainstream US networks tiptoe around the story–particularly the NBC/MSNBC/NBCSN family but also the ABC/Disney/ESPN conglomerate. It’s frankly embarrassing. The follow up reports I have seen consist almost entirely of Manning’s on-camera denial and a filmed recantation by the documentary’s key, surreptitiously recorded source Charles David Sly, a statement that almost certainly is highly lawyered up. (Note: See the appended comment on this point tacked onto the end of this article after it was originally published.)

Sports network commentary, meanwhile, has been offered mainly by journalists (like Manning family associate Chris Mortensen) whose status is determined by their level of access to athletes. Either that, or by former athletes who may or may not have direct connections to the Manning family and who may or may not have sordid performance-enhancing drug histories of their own to keep hidden from view.

None of the follow-ups contain any more than the barest sliver of supporting content from what was in reality a highly detailed, meticulously researched and reported documentary.

Here, let me insert a major caveat to that last statement: There are legitimate questions as to whether Charles David Sly is “a doctor of pharmacy,” as reported by Al Jazeera, or whether, as Mike Lupica suggests, he is merely “a glorified intern.”

Either way, he clearly was able to produce the goods—in fact, he produced one big-league baseball player, Taylor Teagarden, who appears on the hidden camera footage describing the PED regimen that Sly has ordered for him as Teagarden tries to preserve his marginal status as a major leaguer. So even if Sly is not who he claimed to be while trying to sell the undercover Al Jazeera reporter PEDs, he certainly can do at least some of what he claims he can do.

This key fact has been been almost entirely ignored in follow-up coverage, as is the fact that the undercover reporter, the former British competitive hurdler Liam Collins, successfully secured so many drugs from his sources that it took the entire seating area of a large hotel couch to display them all at once.

To the larger point: My assumption is that Al Jazeera is free to do this kind of report because it does not feel the need to circle the wagons around the money bag known as the NFL, so it can afford to offer none of the usual protective cover to the NFL.

What do I mean? Think about it: Is it likely that high-profile doping allegations have never really surfaced in the NFL up to now because football is such a clean sport? As in, cleaner than Major League Baseball? Or is it because the professional and college games are cash cows from which the usual news networks draw significant revenue and ratings? (And, not insignificantly, because fans love seeing its juiced-up Titans smash into each other and maybe don’t care all that much?)

This episode is a portrait in microcosm of the difference in the Al Jazeera approach versus the mainstream US news network approach to news coverage generally. That especially is true with respect to foreign policy coverage, but also to coverage of labor and of economic inequality in the United States, areas where Al Jazeera excels.

Does Al Jazeera have biases? Certainly, and any discriminating viewer needs to locate and account for them, same as for any news organization. It is far from a perfect news organ—and if it messed up in declaring Sly a “doctor of pharmacy” when in fact he has no such credentials, it will deserve every bit of condemnation it receives. (We need the answer to that question supplied by someone other than sports channels that have an interest in preserving Manning’s star status.)

However, to dismiss the channel in toto as non-credible, as commentator Mike Ditka has done, because of its Muslim-sounding name and meager ratings is to dismiss an important new voice and important new counterweight to conglomerate network TV journalism in the United States. It deserves an audience. The Manning episode only underscores that.

(Incidentally, it also deserves a spot among the selection of HD channels offered by my local cable-TV franchise. Come on, Comcast! Pony up!)

Watch the full Al Jazeera documentary, “The Dark Side,” here:

Update: One of my former editors at Editor & Publisher, Greg Mitchell, notes a fact that I think is important to call attention to here: Says Greg: “On the other hand, any doc whose chief source is issuing full denials and admitting lies (whether lawyered up or not) has big problems, even if what it is basically uncovering is true….Recall Dan Rather and Bush National Guard probe…”

True that….

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