Think Globally? On the Whole, I’d Rather Not: Interviewing on Al Jazeera

Recently I gave an interview to Al Jazeera English to be aired on a TV show about “Unemployed Day Laborers in New York City.” When the host called to invite me, the topic initially struck me as oddly narrow and provincial, arguably even a tad esoteric for an audience Al Jazeera claims spans several continents. (I was told the service is “hip,” multicultural, and has a broad range of viewers.) Nor was it immediately clear to me what my role was to be considering my professional focus. But I was starting out with several mistaken assumptions. I was thinking too abstractly and disinterestedly; the image in my head was an audience curious about American national affairs, the impact of the recession, its social fallout (the show would provide the “worm’s eye view”), and public policy per se. That snap judgment couldn’t have been more erroneous. Whenever the show is aired, thousands of viewers will be watching with intense personal interest about a subject that couldn’t be more concrete and immediate for them. It will directly address their own lives, and they’ll be watching because their economic interests are at stake.

For the record, Al Jazeera’s English-language service claims to be entirely separate from the more familiar Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language station that exerts, for better or worse, considerable political influence on inter-Arab Middle East politics (though at one point that line seemed to disappear, more of which later). The original format had me joining a panel of “unemployed day laborers” for a moderated discussion, but the host nixed that at the last minute. Though I spoke with him for no more than 3-4 minutes on just one occasion a day before the interview, he gathered enough about my interests and affiliation – and knew more than I did about the circumstances and identities of the “unemployed day laborers” – to conclude it wouldn’t be a bright idea. In retrospect, I realize had the show been taped with all of us in the studio it might easily have morphed into a grotesque marriage between “Crossfire” and the “Jerry Springer Show” – minus the beefy security guys.

I arrived early, which gave me time to chat up the young, amiable, hip twenty-something (probably) American host to try to get some sense of where to he fit along the political and ideological spectrum, but I didn’t learn anything explicit, though his youth and “multicultural” personal style spoke for themselves. As the tech people set me up, I asked about Al Jazeera’s English-language service. When our conversation veered to “unemployed day laborers” I quickly realized the interview was on. I opened up such discussions, as I usually do, by providing a frame of reference, citing the official reckoning from New York State’s Department of Labor that the unemployment rate is 8.7%, though the total number of jobless is undoubtedly higher because those no longer collecting Unemployment Benefits become statistically invisible, and some two-thirds of New York’s unemployed do not receive them. Citing a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), New York City Unemployment in 2009 – The Emerging Crisis, I then highlighted the unnerving statistics about 50% unemployment among blue-collar workers in New York, with some 21% out of work in construction – a principal business hiring day laborers – with similarly high percentages in manufacturing, wholesale trade, and transportation and warehousing. I emphasized the especially high rate of African-American unemployment, reported at 14.7% for the first quarter of this year, again likely a considerable understatement of the full magnitude. I also explained that given the large gender difference for rates of unemployment in the black community, African-American male unemployment is likely far higher than 14.7. In fact, one regularly comes across the figure of 50% of black men unemployed, as in an article published in 2005, well before the current recession, in Gotham Gazette, a devastating figure if true. I also spoke of the underlying causes cited by the FPI study: lack of consumer confidence and the collapse in housing prices that has essentially put a stranglehold on construction, and also cited FPI’s finding that hourly wages are falling.
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