The core principle driving the journalism that distinguished Al Jazeera America online as a unique voice in a cluttered news landscape was the simple — yet radical — proposition that no single human life is worth less than any other.
Whether it was Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, teenage African-Americans killed in their prime; Syrian refugee child Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach; Palestinian baby Ali Dawabshe, who died in the flames of his firebombed home in a village under Israeli occupation; Nicaraguan peasant farmer Carlos Wilson Bilis contemplating the destruction of his livelihood by an epic canal project; or LeeAnne Walters raising the alarm over the poisoned water pouring from the taps in Flint, Michigan, their stories deserved to be told. Their names needed to be known and their voices heard. Their plight, like those of so many hundreds featured in our coverage, revealed the human impact of decisions made — or evaded — in the corridors of power.
And when ordinary people stood up and took action to transform their fates, we paid attention. Whether it was Priestess Bearstop and her struggle to steer clear of Minneapolis gang life or Pamela Dominguez and her Dreamer compañeros fighting for the dignity of citizenship or St. Louis fast-food worker Olivia Roffle organizing for a living wage or Mexican student Salvador Castro Fernandez and his friends searching for justice for their 43 Ayotzinapa classmates who went missing during a protest, we believed our readers needed to hear their voices.
Our passion for telling their stories and setting them in context renewed our sense of purpose each day. When buildings teeter and collapse as the ground beneath them is shaken by violent spasms, we call that an earthquake — signaling that the sound and fury experienced at the scene could be understood only by reference to the unseen movement of tectonic plates. Our goal, whenever possible, was to provide the context, noting the tectonic shifts driving the dramas of the everyday news cycle.
For Al Jazeera America online, no human tragedy could be reduced to a statistic or dismissed as the collateral damage of another’s self-defense or an inevitable consequence of geography, politics, class, race, sect or ethnicity. Poverty, violence and environmental degradation are not immutable forces of nature; they are the product of choices made by those in power. The media’s function in a democracy is to enable the public to make informed choices, which in turn requires laying bare the human consequences of policy decisions. That was a challenge we accepted with relish. Freed of commercial pressure to serve up clickbait, we could focus on stories that needed telling.
Resonating through our stories are the cadences of ordinary Americans engaged in an urgent national conversation. And, mindful of the idea that journalists write history’s first draft, we constantly reminded ourselves that America’s social progress is, first and foremost, a story of the courage and sacrifice of ordinary women and men willing to put their bodies on the line to face down injustice. From slave revolts to suffragettes, Selma to Stonewall, from the epic mining and railroad strikes of the late 19th century to the Delano farmworkers’ strike of the 1960s and more, it was the courage of ordinary Americans willing to defy injustice that earned us the rights and dignity we take for granted today.
Black Lives Matter mattered to Al Jazeera America online not only because it highlighted the intolerable epidemic of police shootings of young people of color but also because it tapped into that tradition of active citizenship. So did the immigration reform campaign of the Dreamers. Our approach to politics was always centered far beyond the Beltway.
Our award-winning opinion page consistently punched above its weight, leading and shaping national conversations by going beyond the banal polarities of political partisanship. Our international coverage was guided by a belief in global citizenship, equality and shared responsibility for a connected world rather than narrated from the perspective of any one country’s foreign policy establishment. Awards came in recognition of our documentary-photography storytelling and our exceptional use of multimedia devices — even a comic on privacy and digital surveillance. And of course, day in and day out, our news desk weighed in on breaking news dramas with rare depth, breadth and perspective.
We set ourselves high standards on questions of race, class and gender biases in our reporting, always questioning from whose reality and experience a story was told, thinking about not only what was being said but also who was saying it. Much of the time, we knew we could do better. But the AJAM difference, for many of us, was that we sought to measure ourselves by those standards in the first place, trying amid the turbulence of an everyday American newsroom to question inherited assumptions about power and privilege in how stories are reported.
AJAM online’s legacy, some of it captured on these pages, is a journalism of value and of values not tied to any ideology or political entity but morally committed when confronted by racism and bigotry, violence against the innocent, injustice and inequality, sexism and homophobia.
We tried in our brief tenure to uphold the fine tradition of an American journalism that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Tradition long predates AJAM and will hopefully long outlive it. But AJAM offered us a brief, inspirational taste of a world where talented journalists are unleashed to pursue the profession’s best traditions without commercial pressure.
We are proud and honored to have been a part of it.