NEWPORT, R.I. – What’s wrong with this picture?
Plenty, says Dr. Michael Thombs, explaining why he hung two large flatscreen TVs side-by-side in Jazzman’s Café. Now, students are seeing everything they didn’t know they were missing – and it’s raising some troubling questions about cultural values in America.
Backed by a university Mission Integration Grant administered by Sister Leona Misto, Thombs, associate professor of business studies and economics, assembled all the equipment needed to pull in free-to-air signals from a geocentric satellite positioned 22,500 miles above earth. As a result, while much of America flips back and forth between “The View” and “Designing Women,” the Salve Regina community can take their coffee with Russia Today, BBC, Press TV (Tehran), Beijing News, Al Jazeera or any of a thousand international broadcasters.
“It’s all about the contrast,” said Thombs, who tunes in an American network news feed on one side (Fox, CNN or MSNBC) and an English-speaking world news broadcaster on the other. Most recently, CNN can be seen against Al Jazeera English (AJE).
“It’s so funny how after watching Al Jazeera you see how skewed our news is,” said Chris Phillips, a senior information systems management major and business policy student of Thombs who was taking a break between classes at O’Hare Academic Center. “It shows how what we value is so much different. For instance, our news will be focused on a celebrity screwing up or something and they’re focused on the real issues. The values are just totally different.”
On this day, CNN was cycling through stories on celebrity addiction, a museum groundbreaking and a heavy dose of commercials, while AJE reported on breaking news from Somalia, Iraq and Yemen. An advertisement on CNN showed a car breaking into thousands of pieces before magically coming back together piece by piece for the “money shot.” Next to it on AJE, people were shown weeping in the streets beside several burned out cars after a bombing in Iraq.
“We really need to step back and take a look at ourselves,” Phillips said. “We need to prioritize things, revalue things. It’s a mess.”
Thombs said American news broadcasters are funded through paid advertising; it’s capitalism at work. A broadcaster like Al Jazeera makes its money through subscription fees from around the world, something Thombs circumnavigates legally with a $200 satellite dish pointed in the right direction.
“This is really leading edge stuff,” Thombs said. “Americans are unaware that they don’t know. I mean, how would they know?”
According to the Huffington Post, until recently, AJE could only be watched in three U.S. cities: Washington, D.C., Burlington, Vt. and Toledo, Ohio, despite being available in over 100 countries.
The story goes on to report that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called AJE “real news” for its coverage of the Arab Spring protests, while both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) praised its coverage of the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Al Jazeera English was named news channel of the year at the 2012 Royal Television Society television journalism awards. Judges praised the broadcaster for its coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings, including reports from Cairo’s Tahrir Square and for breaking the news of the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The striking contrast between this kind of coverage versus American network news was what encouraged Thombs and the ISM Club to take action more than a year ago. To prove they could pull in free-to-air TV, Thombs and ISM students attached a satellite dish to a robot cart (which produced its own electricity through batteries) and drove it out to the Cliff Walk.
When they successfully pulled in world news satellites, Thombs applied for the university’s mission award along with Raquel McCullough, coordinator of multimedia services and Joseph Miklovic, media systems specialist. Now, a fixed satellite dish at O’Hare pulls in the feed.
The options and flexibility are immense, Thombs said. There are raw news feeds that have cameras fixed 24/7 on a breaking news location. So, you could have been watching the Chile mine excavation or robots work beneath the Gulf oil spill instead of what’s being reported on the news.
And the satellite is a redundant system, he said. So if traditional communication lines or networks on Aquidneck Island were ever compromised due to a natural disaster or other event, Jazzman’s Café at Salve Regina would be an important source of information.
Grab yourself a coffee.
PHOTO CAPTION: Chris Phillips, a senior information systems management major, enjoys a coffee at Jazzman's Cafe.