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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)

Early criticism about whether AJAM is delivering on its promise of unbiased, globally connected journalism has raised this concern. Before AJAM launched, Al Jazeera English senior political analyst Marwan Bishara sent a long e-mail to multiple executives, subsequently published by The Guardian, suggesting that the new network was desperate to avoid being seen as “anti-American.” After watching AJAM’s early coverage, Tony Burman, a journalism professor at Ryerson University who was once the managing director of the Americas for Al Jazeera English, echoed this complaint. “That presumably was a strategic decision,” Burman says, “but I think they ditched their global brand in the process.” A Pew cable news analysis of the Syria crisis last August lent credence to these claims. It found that AJAM’s coverage closely mirrored that of its US counterparts and relied more heavily on US-based sources and datelines than did CNN.

O’Brian dismisses the idea that the network has sandbagged its foreign coverage to win over US cable companies or viewers. As for the Pew report, she doesn’t question the results, but points out that AJAM wasn’t fully staffed when the Syria crisis hit. “We certainly used as much as we could from our Al Jazeera English colleagues,” she says. “If that happened now, what you would see on our air would be different.” 

As proof, she points to the well-rounded coverage of the recent crisis in South Sudan, where the network pulled from five correspondents in and around that country, some of whom work for AJAM and some for Al Jazeera English. Furthermore, AJAM’s intensive coverage of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has routinely lapped its US cable competition. In part, this is due to its expansive news hole, which provides more opportunities to stand out. For instance, when Russian troops launched an incursion into Crimea on what was a late Friday night for the American East Coast (typically a throwaway zone for US cable news programming), AJAM was broadcasting live reports from Washington, Moscow, Kiev and Simferopol. Over at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News? Reruns of Blackfish, Lockup and The O’Reilly Factor, respectively.

No doubt, tapping into the global Al Jazeera news infrastructure can help differentiate the network. The nearly seventy worldwide bureaus may offer AJAM its best chance at a breakthrough news moment, much like the acclaim Al Jazeera English garnered in the United States for its on-the-ground coverage of the Arab Spring uprising in Tahrir Square three years ago. “We share assignment sheets with our Al Jazeera English colleagues. We know where their folks are,” O’Brian explains. And to drive home the point that AJAM is part of a seamless global news entity, she notes that every correspondent around the world signs off the same way, by simply saying “Al Jazeera.”

With that global access comes baggage, though. As Philip Seib, professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, notes, Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language network has often been accused of playing favorites in Middle East politics. One embarrassing example: last July, nearly two dozen of Al Jazeera’s Egypt-based journalists resigned en masse—one did so while on the air with a rival network—in protest over what they said was their own channel’s pro–Muslim Brotherhood editorial slant. The alleged bias just so happens to align with the political preferences of the Qatari government. (The implications of these claims have gained a frightening urgency of late: the Egyptian government has used them as the pretense to arrest or detain twenty Al Jazeera journalists on trumped-up charges of conspiring with terrorists. Three remain in custody as this story goes to press.) Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel has also faced criticism for all but ignoring the 2011 anti-government uprisings in Qatar’s Gulf state ally and neighbor Bahrain. 

Al Shihabi adamantly maintains that a firewall exists between his network’s newsroom and, as he obliquely puts it, “the funder.” Nevertheless, it’s healthy to question the expectations and motives behind the Qatari royal family’s vast investment in Al Jazeera America. After all, the perils of a foreign government funding a US cable news network came into sharp relief this winter when numerous critics decried RT America’s coverage of the crisis in Ukraine. One of the network’s anchors even quit live on the air after accusing RT America of pushing a pro-Russian bias to appease its financial backer, the Russian government. 

Trying to predict similar editorial flash points for AJAM isn’t so easy, because Qatar is a relatively young country. “Al Jazeera is the single most prominent thing that Qatar has done,” explains David B. Roberts, author of the forthcoming book Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State. “[AJAM] was an opportunity for them to jump into the American market, and they took it.” There isn’t a complex geopolitical strategy at work, he says, or a secret plan to push an Islamic worldview: Qatar’s immense investment is best understood as a way to extend a global brand.

“I think the bosses in Doha probably realize that the rules over here have to be different than they are in Qatar,” Seib notes. “They don’t expect Al Jazeera America to parrot or mirror…the political tone of Al Jazeera Arabic.” Still, the lack of an ideological bias doesn’t preclude an institutional one. In November, a member of AJAM’s investigative team was abruptly fired, after which reports surfaced that he had warned about conflicts of interest in the sources they were using for what appeared to be a blockbuster story that former PLO chair Yasir Arafat had been poisoned. When a French scientific report disputed the lab findings backing AJAM’s story, the network covered it, but did little to try to explain the contradiction. 

If AJAM must confront some skepticism about its international coverage, its domestic reporting has had fewer such problems. From the outset, the network, and more specifically America Tonight, has raised the bar for cable news coverage. After a massive chemical leak in West Virginia contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people, the show dispatched four reporters to the area. AJAM kept up its on-scene coverage long after the rest of the national news had moved on.

Then there are the stories you won’t see anywhere else on cable news: the piece on the mobile food truck servicing a poor Memphis neighborhood; the poignant profile of the marginalized LGBT community in the heavily rural Navajo Nation; the continuing multipart series The Other America, on the country’s struggling underclass. “Simply by having reporters out there covering what’s really happening, [AJAM] is going to give a much more nuanced view of the country than what people get from CNN and MSNBC,” notes Dan Froomkin, who wrote a stinging indictment in Nieman Reports last year on the media’s lack of interest in covering poverty. 

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Nuanced cable news? It sounds too good to be true. But serious, in-depth journalism that isn’t easily sidetracked by fickle advertisers or impatient shareholders just might be possible if it’s propelled by a benefactor with patience and deep pockets. “We know that whatever is going to be the next big thing is going to require a very long ramp,” says Froomkin, who recently joined billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s new $250 million journalism venture, First Look Media. An early validation of this strategy came in April, when AJAM won two Peabody Awards for documentary reporting on the source of a deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti and an exposé on US corporate complicity in unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh. 

To succeed on a large scale, the news organization will not only have to reach a broad audience but also deeply connect with it. To Ali, that means “you can’t be puritanical about your news delivery choices anymore.” He says this as we’re sitting in the middle of The Stream’s newsroom a few hours before his show. As he’s talking, I can look over his shoulder and see the tweet accusing him and his network of being a tool of Islamists on the bulletin board behind him. These days, he adds, “if you really are concerned about reaching out to those diverse global communities, the only meaningful way to engage with them is to democratize and equalize the playing field.”

He’s right. And in an era where the platforms matter less, there’s an opening for a news organization that believes the journalism matters more. Ali has faith. He says he’s seen this story line play out repeatedly after previous shows: people who were skeptical of Al Jazeera America find that the independence, inclusiveness and intelligence of its coverage have changed their outlook. “It flips a switch,” Ali says. “It’s kind of like winning the minds and, if you will, rewriting the narrative one tweet at a time, one guest at a time, one show at a time.”

Update: Just after publication of this story, AJAM announced it was laying off dozens of staff and freelancers. Although some of this was a natural shedding of temporary positions related to the launch, some of these cuts were undoubtedly growing pains that will directly impact the network's long-term programming direction. Not necessarily for the worse, however. For example, AJAM's decision to all but eliminate its sports staff seems like a wise reallocation of resources since its sports coverage had always felt incongruous and half-hearted at best. Likewise, the choice to scale back The Stream to once a week (instead of daily) comes across as a network realizing that a heavily web-focused show may not be as viable for a U.S. audience that can only watch it on cable TV.

Read Next: Last June, Bob Dreyfuss reported that twenty-two journalists who worked for Al Jazeera quit in protest after being told by their Qatari masters to support Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

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