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Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News? | The Nation

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Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News?

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Ehab Al Shihabi

Ehab Al Shihabi, second from right, interim CEO for Al-Jazeera America, gestures as he chats with newsroom staff, August 20, 2013 in New York (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

“If we do the kind of reporting that is considered ‘back to the future’—the hard-core journalistic reporting, not biased, not for entertainment, but fact-based—do we have a place? All the research indicates yes,” says Al Jazeera America’s interim CEO, Ehab Al Shihabi. US cable news is far too provincial, he adds, and leaves out too many voices from across the geographic, demographic and socioeconomic spectrum. His goal is “to interconnect America with the global audience and the global audience with America.” In all, Al Shihabi estimates that there are 55 million unsatisfied consumers not being served by the leading cable news channels. That figure is a clue to AJAM’s grand, if not grandiose, ambitions; one Princeton study found that only 24 million to 36 million Americans will watch ten minutes or more of cable news on any given day. 

This no-nonsense, straight-news approach inevitably brings up comparisons to CNN, which has long positioned itself as the lone beacon of objectivity between MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right. CNN’s tumbling prime-time ratings seem to have provoked an identity crisis. The network has resurrected old formats like Inside Politics and Crossfire while also embracing unscripted “nonfiction” shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Chicagoland. More recently, the network dumped its 9 pm host, Piers Morgan, and indulged in a myopic, weeks-long obsession with the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Al Shihabi doesn’t see the parallels between the two networks. His greatest challenge, he explains, is not to take on CNN but to reshape the market. During a long interview, he emphasizes that AJAM’s profitability will be subservient to journalism, at least initially. “We have the bandwidth to survive for many years,” he says, employing an artful euphemism to describe the Qatari royal family’s generosity. “Don’t misunderstand me, we are striving to break even… but not on the account of editorial independence and our journalistic values.” 

Kim Bondy, executive producer at America Tonight, says the network has lived up to those values. “We are not burdened with Lindsay Lohan. We are not burdened with some of the things that other people have to cover because that’s what’s in the zeitgeist,” she says. AJAM’s vast resources—both in money and airtime—enable her to follow her newsgathering instincts, and that freedom translates into omnivorous news coverage that offers up overlooked stories and more in-depth reporting about breaking news. No other network does this in prime time. But such is the state of TV journalism these days: Al Jazeera America can counter-program the rest of cable news by actually reporting news. 

It’s not just the “what” that sets AJAM apart; it’s also the “who.” Five of the seven news presenters on AJAM between 6 and 11 pm are people of color, and two are women. Just as notable, and often overlooked, the network’s diversity extends behind the camera to the control room. In these high-profile hours, AJAM has three women in the role of executive producer, including Bondy, who is African-American. Meanwhile, CNN’s prime-time show runners are two men and two women, only one of whom is a person of color. Fox News and MSNBC have no people of color running shows during that block, and MSNBC, conspicuously, is exclusively the domain of white male executive producers for all five hours.

“One of our producers said she was so proud she could say she worked for a woman, who worked for a woman, who worked for a woman,” notes America Tonight host Joie Chen, referring to Bondy, senior vice president Shannon High-Bassalik and AJAM president Kate O’Brian. In fact, O’Brian is only the second woman to run a major US TV news network. (The first, Deborah Turness, was named head of NBC News just two months before O’Brian.) This top-to-bottom diversity, in ways large and small, helps AJAM seek out points of view beyond the established corridors of power. “To be able to find these untold stories and go deeper into them?” says Chen, speaking more broadly. “This is quite revolutionary.”  

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