Al Jazeera – one of the best cable news networks in the world – has always had a tough time in the US. It’s long been derided by conservatives here as a “terror network” and propaganda organ. It’s been widely denounced by publicity-seeking politicians for airing messages from al-Qaeda.Its reporters have been imprisoned in the Guantanamo gulag for years before being released after having never been tried or convicted of any terrorist ties. Others have been targeted by US forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, shot at, had missiles fired at them, and even killed.
As a result – despite massive lobbying and advertising campaigns – most major cable and satellite television network in the US have refused to offer Al Jazeera’s English-language service to their audiences ever since its inception six years ago. Instead, it’s clearly been blacklisted and made almost impossible to find on America’s airwaves.
Now, in the most American of solutions, the pan-Arab news leader has gone ahead and simply bought its seat at the media table, with the purchase of Current TV, a low-rated cable channel founded by former US Vice-President AlGore and his partners seven years ago. For the relatively small sum of $500m, it has just bought entree into at least 40 million cable-ready living rooms all across the US.
Welcome to America, Al Jazeera!
Sounds good, right? And it is, both for American audiences, starved for real news about what’s going on in the world around them but plagued instead with a surfeit of gossip, celebrity doings and opinionated bloviators from both the right and left on such putative cable “news” channels such as Fox and MSNBC, and for Al Jazeera itself, which will only extend its global influence by finally gaining a foothold in two crucial American marketplaces – that of commerce, of course, but also that of ideas.
Moreover, this is an excellent time for any entity interested in making an impact in the increasingly dismal US cable news environment. Fox News, which has long been the industry leader in ratings, has lost huge audience share since the re-election of its bete noir Barack Obama. Fox stars like Sean Hannity are reportedly “haemorrhaging viewers” – Hannity has lost nearly half of his audience since the election, with the biggest drop in ratings coming in the coveted 24 to 54-year-old demographic, which had been one of his strongest groups of viewers.
Al Jazeera English
And with both Fox and MSNBC still largely focused on opinion and chat, Al Jazeera America’s only “real news” competitor among major domestic cable channels is the weakened and crisis-ridden CNN, now newly under the helm of ex-NBC executive Jeff Zucker, who is expected to transform it soon into more of an entertainment vehicle modelled on his previous success with the Today Show.
Still, some US media observers question whether Al Jazeera has, as Brian Stelter phrased it in the New York Times: “The journalistic muscle and the money to compete head-to-head with CNN and other news channels in the United States.”
What a joke! The last time I checked, Al Jazeera’s owners weren’t strapped for cash. And really, how much “journalistic muscle” does one need to compete with CNN these days – not to mention the braying heads of such opinionated and politicised “news channels” as Fox or MSNBC? Judging from their most recent efforts (such as completely misreporting the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, for example) what little journalism is being practised at outlets such as CNN and Fox these days is, shall we say, far from muscular! Is it any wonder that “the television sets of White House officials and lawmakers were tuned to the channel during the Arab Spring?”
Inquiring minds wanted to now, after all! Meanwhile, “ordinary” citizens like me had to search out a live stream on the internet if we wanted to be informed.
Still, the outlook is not entirely rosy for Al Jazeera’s entry into America. For one thing, the powerful Time-Warner cable system, America’s second largest cable company with 12 million subscribers in New York, the largest media market in the US, used the occasion of the sale to drop its carriage of Current. That means AJA is not yet guaranteed access to Time-Warner’s subscribers, unlike those of such other major distributors as Dish, DirecTV, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, which did consent to the acquisition.
Although Time Warner executives said the channel wasn’t removed for political reasons, and that their decision had more to do with Current’s low ratings, many were quick to see a conspiracy and politics at play, and a firestorm of protest rapidly spread through social media. Late on January 3, as it continued, Time Warner Cable issued a statement that opened the door to carrying Al Jazeera America in the future. “We are keeping an open mind, and as the service develops, we will evaluate whether it makes sense, for our customers, to launch the network,” the statement read.
Now the smart money says that the dispute more likely a money issue, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it settled soon, resulting in AJ America on cable in NYC as well.
The final challenge for Al Jazeera, of course – the proof of the pudding, as it were – will come when we see the tenor and quality of the programming AJ America produces. Will its executives focus on offering another and fresher perspective to America’s abysmal domestic news sources, in the mode of Russia Today or the BBC World News, now available in 25 million US homes after a recent deal with Time Warner Cable?
Will it try to fill the gap in international news instead? Will it attempt to do both?
It’s too early to tell. For now, it’s enough simply to be able to say, at long last, “Welcome to America, Al Jazeera!”
Rory O’Connor is the author of Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima, and most, recently, Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media.