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Danny Schechter

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel1.org. He is the author of The Crime of Our Time.

Next steps for Al Jazeera America

The new Al Jazeera America is still under attack. How can it respond?
Last Modified: 23 Jan 2013 08:53
The Al Jazeera Network recently acquired Al Gore's Current TV and plans to relaunch the channel under its brand [AP]

Media may define our age, but media deals define our media, especially in a country allegedly committed to both a free market and freedom of expression. 

The deal culture - the endless shifting of investments and acquisitions or promotion of media brands - often gets as much attention as the content of media itself.

2012 was supposed to have been defined as the year of Facebook going public in a mega billion dollar coming out party, but, despite or perhaps because of intervention by big name investment bankers, something went very wrong, when the event turned into a mini-fiasco,

Unknown as the year ended, was that another big deal was in the making that would soon generate even more attention.

Al Jazeera, once the fifth most influential brand in the world, frustrated by its inability to gain carriage in one of the world's biggest media markets, decided to do what Rupert Murdoch and so many other media moguls had done in the past; buy their way in to American media by acquiring an existing channel and turning it into one of their own.

The Doha-based media power-house, owned by the government of Qatar, one of the world's top producers of natural gas, had no problem coming up with the $500 million it took to acquire Current TV, a little known news and documentary channel.

Best known about the channel was that former Vice President (and journalist) Al Gore was one of its principal founding investors.

Al Jazeera did not necessarily want Current's programming, only its placement on the cable spectrum and the 40-50 million viewers it could potentially reach in the United States to supplement the 220 million households that can see Al Jazeera channels in more than 120 countries.

 Al Jazeera launches US channel

Its plan was to build a distinctively US channel for American viewers with 60 percent of the content produced locally and 40 percent coming from Al Jazeera English, their global network. That network is not yet available but that hasn't stopped media outlets hostile to Al Jazeera from arguing that because Current, or even Al Jazeera's current feed, has had a relatively smaller viewership in the US the new channel will as well. That extrapolation makes no sense.

To build the new channel, Al Jazeera will double the US staff to more than 300.

Derision of Al Jazeera

It's not clear if all the negativity towards the channel is driven by fear that it might succeed or just plain American arrogance fed by a cocky sense of superiority towards foreigners, even as many domestic TV news channels now report serious ratings slides.

The volume of derision has not diminished even if the assertion that Al Jazeera is pro-terrorist because it has covered terrorists goes unchallenged, and even as cable system operator TimeWarner's decision not to offer the new channel - even before it sees what it is - has not been contested by regulators, or even, to my knowledge, human rights and freedom of expression groups.

Outfits like the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies - a right-wing policy institute focusing on terrorism - has distributed articles to newspapers nationwide attacking the channel. Their broadside is peppered with inflammatory quotes as well saying, "Al Jazeera may not officially be the Osama bin Laden channel, but he is clearly its star."

Clearly? What's the evidence?

"A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden's silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set at Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, the capital city of Qatar."

This is nonsense, at least there was no such photo when I was there, but the bashers rely on selective quotes and images of their own creation, playing to an overall ignorance about the Arab world in the US (visit Tianaman Square and you can see the picture of Mao even as the revolution he led is now as pro-capitalist as the Republican Party).

Al Jazeera's many critics are driven by political beliefs, not media values. Politico recently showed that many of the critics are part of a calculated campaign.

"Al Jazeera has had to face a decade of propoganda against them from the political right in this country, and hostility against them from the Israeli right," David Marash, Al Jazeera English's former Washington anchor, told Politico.

"There is an embedded, ongoing discomfort with Al Jazeera because of people's internal biases about the Arab world after September 11, a discomfort due to misinformation and untruths," said Steve Clemons, the founder of the New America Foundation's American Strategy Program and an editor at large at The Atlantic.

No less an establishment figure than Hillary Clinton acknowledged that Al Jazeera's approach was worth emulating. In a bid to get more money for US backed broadcasting channels, she said:

You may not agree with [Al Jazeera], but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.

Distinguishing journalism

America is being poorly covered by its own networks. I know because I worked for three of the big ones. There is a well-paid DC-centric media army cut off from the pain and hopes of ordinary Americans. It identifies with the politicians in power and downplays critical commentary. They are riddled less by corporate censorship than by self-censorship with journalists who lack the guts or courage to pursue their principles.

No wonder so many news consumers are flocking to Twitter!

"You may not agree with [Al Jazeera], but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock."

- Hillary Clinton

Newsrooms in the service of the 1 percent, as staffed by a "newsbiz as showbiz" punditariat, are losing viewers.

Al Jazeera needs to understand why programmes like The Daily Show resonate so deeply or even why competing networks like RT or shows like Democracy Now win admiring audiences. They need a new approach based on honesty, not to be seen as another pretentious pool of "talent" or an establishment-rationalising apparatus.

The Columbian Journalism Review took a far more objective look and found, "Al Jazeera has come a long way since the early days, but its battle for acceptance by the American people is not nearly won."

Why? Because unlike the US media outlets who covered the Iraq war by marching in lockstep with the Bush administration, and whose officials from the president to the vice president and defence secretary were the ones framing the anti-Jazeera message points, it also needed to be less adversarial and more reflective. 

What US officials really disliked was not their occasional interviews with terrorists but with on-going, accurate and detailed media reporting that was more balanced and even more truthful, offering an independent narrative.

The CJR explained:

Al Jazeera immediately distinguished itself from its Western counterparts both with its deeper access and its uncensored exposure to some of the more gruesome sides to the wars, showing bloody corpses and other delicate images that Western organisations tend to avoid. At the same time, it took various measures to prove itself different from other Arab networks; most significantly, Al Jazeera was the first Arab network to interview Israeli government officials. Though it attracted criticism for its softer approach to issues concerning the Qatari government, its coverage was groundbreaking, and its novelty captivated audiences across the region.

Appealing to an audience

Al Jazeera can't rest on its laurels or even its current Third World-oriented programming mix. It can't be seen just as a better BBC with more Arabic flavouring or show how well it can cover an uncovered serving crew of haircuts and info pretension.

An Al Jazeera America needs to plug in to and resonate with American sensibilities and our mix of opinion from A to Z, not just A to B. It needs to understand our country's growing anger and frustration with such issues as inequality and dissatisfaction with posturing politicians of all political stripes.

It needs to stand up to corporate censorship and challenge those trying to silence its right to exist with outdated arguments that reek of parochialism, even racism.

It needs to carry hard hitting investigative journalism and even media criticism to show that its self-righteous critics have flaws and agendas.

Al Jazeera's reporting need to offer background and context, not just soundbites and predictable debates.

In short, it needs to listen to the audience, not just exploit it. It needs an identity built around the values like a commitment to "the opinion and the other opinion" that have made the network what it is.

It also needs to look for new models of news presentation, perhaps like the ones featured on HBO's The Newsroom series. Time Warner might learn something by having another look at this entertaining and devastating series on what's wrong with TV news. Time Warner carried it, but, alas, they often prefer fiction to reality and carry many news networks that shows like The News Room satirise.

At the same time, the network can't let critics working for competitors stop it in its tracks. Already, The Hollywood Reporter is quoting an "analyst" who advises that the only way for this commercial network to get seen is to go non-commercial and not charge any license fee. This is a way to try to insure the channel could not survive. Thanks a lot!

Let's give the last word to US News, once considered the most conservative of Amerca's news magazines:

Al Jazeera will need to provide quality and compelling journalism in the face of lingering Islamophobia and ignorant attacks. It's a daunting task, but if it succeeds, it could bring a perspective long missing from the conversation. Our country's fervent belief in the right to free speech is at the heart of who we are, rooted in the idea that information empowers. Its uphill battle is sure to continue, but Al Jazeera America could be a good reminder of the purpose that right serves.

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits the soon to be relaunched Mediachannel.org. He was a TV producer at three networks and wrote 15 books on media issues. He hosts a show on ProgressiveRadioNetwork (PRN.fm). He blogs at Newsdissector.net. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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