At Santos Party House, things get serious as Al Jazeera pitches New Yorkers

Somali refugees portrayed Al Jazeera's "Fault Lines." ()
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On Friday night, as an Occupy Wall Street protest filled Foley Square, another political event was happening in an unlikely place nearby. In the basement of Santos Party House—better known for its Andrew WK-hosted raves—a hundred or so people sat under deep red lights and a heart-shaped disco ball. They were there to see heart-wrenching scenes of the ongoing famine in Somalia.

”It’s a pretty hard-hitting topic for Santos Party House, we know,” Al Jazeera English spokesperson Sophia Qureshi told the crowd.

The screening of an episode of “Fault Lines,” an Al Jazeera English show about the global impact of U.S. foreign policy, was part of an attempt to spread the word about the network’s English-language shows. It was also to galvanize New Yorkers to pressure cable providers to add Al Jazeera English to their portfolios.

The 24-minute episode (available here) looked at the role of "war on terror" policies in the Somali famine. There, sanctions against a ruling militant group and a near civil war worsened the impacts of a drought, leaving thousands dead over the past year, the network reports.

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On screen, correspondent Sebastian Walker visits hard-hit villages with suffering children and speaks to U.S. officials and academics, as well as workers for non-governmental organizations offering food aid. After the show, members of the crew, including Walker, took audience questions.

Al Jazeera fans, people affiliated with the show, and some Somali immigrants made up most of the audience. Some asked how the crew preserved the victims’ dignity as they showed suffering children, while others debated the role of the European powers and of the Somali government and people in ending the crisis. One audience member asked why the media didn’t sound enough alarm bells.

“Those were things that were widely reported,” said Walker. “There were news articles at the time, quoting senior U.N. officials when the [U.S.] policies were put in place, saying if this happens, this risks hundreds of thousands of lives. This is something that could cause a very serious crisis. Those stories were in the media, they were being reported by the Associated Press, they were making headlines, but maybe not picked up by the media agenda or the mainstream news media.”

And as for the dour tone of the piece, producer Andrea Schmidt said the news doesn't always seem to have a bright side.

“The reality is when you ask various different Somali players about what that solution should be, there is no clear answer," she said, "and you can’t make a current affairs show about something that isn’t happening.”

The network’s English-language branch began in 2006, but has struggled to make inroads into U.S. markets, which have tended to be skeptical of perceived biases from a Middle-East-based, Arab-inflected news network. In the U.S., the network is presently only available for online viewing in two markets: in Washington, D.C., and, since August, on New York’s Time Warner Cable. (It also has a stream of content available via the web and certain set-top-box players like Roku.)

“New York is one of the few places in the U.S. that we are available on television, so it’s kind of to show people the content and to get people sort of familiar with Al Jazeera so we can grow our access in the country,” said Qureshi.

She called the event a “trial,” but plans more such promotions in New York.

“The way that we sort of clarify the misperceptions that there are about Al Jazeera is by just showing [people] our content,” Qureshi said. “That’s why we show our documentaries, that’s why we show them our films, because once they see that, usually most misperceptions that they have are cleared up.”

Danny Schechter, a media critic and blogger (and occasional Al Jazeera contributor), sat in the crowd. He said the mini-documentary was the type of programming often missing from American television.

“I think the purpose of this film is to make us all angry about what is being done in our name that’s not reported in this country. Yes, there’s a lot of issues to be debated and discussed and all the rest of it, but I think this principle has to be enunciated and Al Jazeera needs to be supported in doing this kind of work.”

Catherine Watters, who works with Schechter, linked up the anger that some in the audience felt to the events downtown that evening.

“Just like they’re creating the famine, they’re already creating people like Occupy Wall Street, so I hope they’re prepared,” she said. “When you squeeze an orange, some of the juice might go some way, but some of it’s going to squirt right in your eye.”

Watters' connection of the two was not purely fortuitous. Walker, the Al Jazeera correspondent, told Capital after the event that the team’s next piece for “Fault Lines” will be a two-part series on the Occupy movement, scheduled for the show’s March 28 season premiere.

The audience cleared out by 9:30 p.m. and workers took away the folding chairs and exposed the dance floor for the “Spencer’s Gifs” dance party. Doors wouldn’t open for that until 11, but there were already people waiting eagerly at the ropes outside.