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Learning (Yes, Really) from Al Jazeera


By Robert Ikenberry

Last week on our bridge demo project, I ran into a news reporter I know who hopes to be involved in building the future of science and technology reporting—a particular passion of mine.

His name is Jacob Ward (@_jacobward_), and he recently left his position as Editor in Chief at Popular Science to join the broadcast world.

His new network? Al Jazeera Americaa name still likely to ignite passion, or even revulsion, among those who recognize it.

AlJazeera America logo

Al Jazeera (the name means "peninsula") America is part of the Arab-owned Al Jazeera Media Network. It purports to be an independent, global news source.

(The company is a U.S. offshoot of the Al Jazeera Media Network, which is funded by the ruling family of Qatar.)

What Religion is Information?

Can Al Jazeera get past the connotations of its name to be accepted as a credible, independent news source in the United States? The century-old Christian Science Monitor eventually did.

I’m optimistic. I think that Jacob and Al Jazeera America are committed to solid science and technology journalism and informing the public on complex topics, without worry for the immediate bottom line.

In fact, I’m optimistic about the future in general. And I’m not alone. In a recent issue of Wired Magazine (Dec 2013), Bill Gates and Bill Clinton both professed optimism for the future of society.

They look at the problems in Africa and Central Asia and see vast improvement in income, infant mortality, lifespan, and other critical metrics.

Building Bridges

Why does this matter, and what does it have to do with infrastructure, or coatings, or engineering?

Everything. As a planet and a people, our most important advances come from science and technology.

And those advances are rooted in our information sources.

Doha Port

The Port of Doha megaproject in Qatar is scheduled to open in 2016. Information about the world's best technology, projects and advances is available to all of us if we avail ourselves of it.

My guess is, you probably want to drive over bridges and through tunnels built by engineers who understand physics and engineering, forged from steel made by workers in mills who understand materials science, assembled and painted by contractors who understand blueprints, specifications, and data sheets.

In this age of information overload, we can’t just stand in front of the news fire hose, or we’ll be washed away. So we make choices. And increasingly, we choose and “Follow” the voices and sources (Twitter, TV, Facebook) we already “Like” and agree with.

Life in the Comfort Zone

We listen to what’s comforting to our world view, and what’s easy. Our customized information feeds affirm our views and reassure us that there are simple, agreeable solutions to complex problems.

But comfort zones are not where progress and growth occur—in the personal, physical, intellectual or scientific realm.

NYT Logo
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For 150 years, The New York Times has pledged to publish "All the News that's Fit to Print." Are we moving toward "All the Stuff we Tweet and Like?"

When the news isn’t based on facts, and the simple “answers” aren’t real, we all lose. 

Compared to our peers in other developed countries, Americans appear to be one of the least informed, least scientifically savvy—and unfortunately, least interested—in what’s happening outside our self-selected community.

This is not a statement of fact, just my impression, but it concerns me and makes me want to foster and support anyone who is attempting to inform and educate us.  Particularly new and passionate voices (including, yes, Al Jazeera America).

Building the Future

Going forward, will we be masters of our own infrastructure?  Or will we be focused on gadgets and on who’s saying what in the tabloids?

The next generations will build our future.  I’m not worried about their abilities, intelligence, and drive. I’m worried that we won’t give them the information, tools and investments they need—either because we were too busy bickering about minutiae, or gave up trying to understand the stuff that’s too hard.

Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, The Christian Science Monitor is now a secular and widely respected international news outlet. Can Al Jazeera make the same leap?

One option is that we outsource the tough construction jobs like designing bridges and making shop drawings to emerging developed nations like India, or forging steel to superior specialty builders like South Korea.

To the Moon—Again

But the option I like better is that we identify another Apollo space program or interstate highway system to get excited about, and master, to lead and inspire the rest of the world.

In the past, we’ve been powerful because we were informed.  I hope we are not becoming a society where the powerful select how we’re informed, or where we limit ourselves to what we want to know (or already know).

Al Jazeera America may not be a name that makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

But for now, I’m convinced it is trying to put together a news organization that shares my goals: informing and exciting the American public with fact- and science-based news, which will help us understand our world and what’s happening in it.

Maybe if we give Al Jazeera America a chance, it will change my perception of us Americans as isolationist-leaning, internationally uninformed, and scientifically naive.


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Information technology; Robert Ikenberry

Comment from Stephen Dobrosielski, (5/1/2014, 7:28 AM)

I have watched Al Jazeera America for their news “content” and find it to be amazingly refreshing. There does not appear to be any agenda other than facts presented clearly and concisely. The mainstream media should take note as the traditional ax grinding of traditional "news" organizations has made this guy quite weary.

Comment from Charles Stewart, (5/1/2014, 10:08 AM)

Robert, you are a great mentor and have always demonstrated the ability to see the bigger picture. I trust that this is another example of that quality. But for me, this redneck from down on the river, a USMC veteran and lover of this country cannot embrace 'Al Jazeera'. I concede your position and foresight but can't abandon my heart.

Comment from Warren Brand, (5/2/2014, 10:45 AM)

Hey Bob, Really nice piece. I was in Jerusalem, in the old city, a few years back with my family. It is, in many respects, like stepping back in time. We were eating at a small hole in the wall (literally, all the shops there are holes in the wall) and I was speaking with the owner, who was Palestinian. His family had owned this restaurant for generations. He was the father of daughters, as am I. And a businessman, as am I. Our conversation was fascinating. His contention is that what the world needed was more business interactions - and that's what has kept the old city functioning for thousands of years. Fundamentally, we all want to feed our kids and have some level of quality of life. He said, we do that through business. He felt that business was an equalizer and, in doing business, as we all know, people must meet each other. And speak to each other. And compromise. And work together. And form a relationship. Like Charles, I am somewhat torn over the role of AJ in the past. And while I have never been in the military, I am a student of conflict. And, Charles, thank you very much for your service. I'll close with one of the mottos that I use to live my life, "Adapt and overcome." If by business, or in this case, technological change, we can do both, so be it. Semper Fi, Warren

Comment from Car F., (5/2/2014, 12:00 PM)

I read news in three languages from 6 different sources and I realize that the American myths and its messianic delusions expressed in the “Manifest Destiny” and “Exceptionality” fanaticism does not allow for a dosage of world reality. This great country does not need bayonets or the policeman club to force compliance and sell illusions: it has the media and a conglomerate of asinine subjects to divert its attention from reality: entertainment gossips, millionaires sports, personality divorces and scandals; the Gopher Prairie, the Zenith and the George Babbitt mentality that permeates real life, so brilliantly expressed by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis Someday it may become a real democracy....... with a real life..

Comment from John Fauth, (5/5/2014, 8:22 AM)

And the "America hater" turns out to be....

Comment from William Cornelius, (5/6/2014, 8:06 AM)

A 75 word sentence? Really?

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