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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)

After a recent Friday taping, the staff of the Al Jazeera America news discussion show The Stream gathered for a brief postmortem. Standing around the orange L-shaped couch that functions as the newsroom’s public square, co-hosts Wajahat Ali and Lisa Fletcher, executive producer Jennifer Salan and a few others began to run through an obviously familiar agenda. In a matter of minutes, they deconstructed that night’s show—featuring a debate about regulating e-cigarettes—and tallied up the good and the bad of the cable news they’d just produced. 

One downside was quickly identified: the show’s three white male guests—an academic researcher, an anti-tobacco-lobby advocate and the CEO of an e-cigarette trade group—suffered from demographic uniformity. Also unfortunate: the show hadn’t included the voice of a nonexpert, someone with a more personal story to tell. And the lack of online community involvement disappointed the 33-year-old Ali, the show’s somewhat manic social media conduit. That disinterest compounded the final annoyance: one determined e-cigarette fan had flooded the show’s Twitter feed with spiteful criticism, which prompted Ali to note: “This was our second-most-trolled show ever.”

Still, there were plenty of things the staff thought had gone well. The guests had provided a healthy cross section of viewpoints. Even better, the anti-tobacco and e-cig activists, despite being beamed in via grainy Skype connections, had engaged in a lively debate. Ali and Fletcher’s steady moderation and on-the-spot fact-checks, everyone agreed, had kept the debate honest and on track, avoiding a Crossfire-like shouting match. The final consensus: a surprisingly good show.

Watching it unfold in the studio, I had to agree. That half-hour of TV proved to be both enlightening and entertaining. What’s more, viewers weren’t left with a predictable sense of which point of view the hosts or the network endorsed. I couldn’t say the same about the other cable news channels when I went back and watched what they had offered during the same block of time. CNN was off chasing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 liabilities and pondering a Justin Bieber intervention. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was coasting through a roundup of late-night TV jokes about Republicans and delivering a breathless monologue on the Clintons’ resilience. And on Fox News, Greta Van Susteren was trotting out four GOP senators to bash Obamacare, airing a clip from Rush Limbaugh and throwing in a rant about Jay-Z and Beyoncé for good measure. When you consider the competition, it’s easy to see why Al Jazeera America believes it can deliver programming that lives up to its slogan: “There’s more to it.”

“More” is the operative word for a lot of what Al Jazeera America—or AJAM, as folks inside the network call it—is doing. Thanks to a massive $500 million buyout of Al Gore’s Current TV last year and a hiring spree that brought close to 800 journalists onboard last summer, the Qatari-funded network launched in roughly 40 million American homes last August. It marked the largest cable news rollout in a generation. AJAM now broadcasts fourteen to sixteen hours of original programming daily, nearly three-quarters of which is devoted to live news reports. The remainder is filled by news documentaries; panel shows like The Stream; a weekly tech roundup called TechKnow; and the network’s flagship, the prime-time newsmagazine America Tonight.

AJAM isn’t stopping there. In the next few months, the network plans to unveil a morning show, add to its twelve national bureaus and put greater emphasis on its sixteen-person investigative unit. And in February, AJAM announced that it had commissioned fifty-two hours of original documentary programming, a lineup that will include high-profile projects from Oscar-winning directors Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA). 

In a cable news era awash in partisan punditry and celebrity sensationalism, Al Jazeera America has placed a big bet on the idea that intrepid, unbiased, long-form TV journalism is so old it just might be new again.

* * *

“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.”  

* * *

But if this is a revolution that will be televised, it won’t amount to much if no one watches. And so far, almost nobody is tuning in. During the channel’s first few months, its ratings, which capture the number of people watching at any one point in time, reportedly averaged just over 10,000 viewers a day. Compare that with the 394,000, 413,000 and 1.76 million daily viewers who watched MSNBC, CNN and Fox News last year, respectively. The network declined to release more recent ratings and has asked Nielsen to embargo those numbers from the media as well. (This is not unusual; Nielsen did not publicly release ratings for Fox News until six months after its launch.)

“Our ratings are clearly not where we want them to be and where we expect them to be,” acknowledges O’Brian, who came to the network after three decades at ABC News. But, she adds, “I don’t spend a ton of time worrying about that right now, because we are so young.” It’s hard for an outsider to appreciate the gravitational pull that ratings have inside the world of TV news. Fletcher, who was an award-winning investigative reporter at ABC News’s Nightline before coming to The Stream, says she dismissed the idea that ratings wouldn’t have any effect on editorial decisions: “The background I come from, nobody would ever say that, and if they did, they would be drunk or joking.”

How many people watch is obviously a function of how many people can watch. Currently, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News are available in an estimated 100 million homes, most often as part of the basic cable package. After closing a deal with Time Warner Cable last December, AJAM now claims it reaches almost 55 million households. But this is a best-case figure, as providers like Dish Network and DirectTV offer AJAM only as part of their pricier, less popular premium tiers. 

Although current ratings don’t tell you much about AJAM’s prospects, that doesn’t mean network staff and executives are ignoring them. Spend some time at the New York and Washington studios and you’ll hear numerous oblique references to the overnight trends in ratings: Were they up? Were they down? Part of this curiosity is understandable: What is the point of producing hard-hitting, influential journalism if not to have it seen? And yet part of this is the result of old news habits dying hard.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, notes the same phenomenon among viewers. “TV viewing habits change glacially,” he says. And today’s news landscape is even more fragmented and cutthroat than the one Fox News and MSNBC faced in 1996. Some recent evidence suggests that the pay-TV industry has peaked and is heading into a state of slow but inevitable contraction amid the rise of streaming media. Of note: monthly cumulative viewership for all cable news channels was down again in 2012, the third significant drop in four years, more than 20 percent lower than its 2008 peak. In this increasingly competitive landscape, where more channels compete for fewer eyeballs, even the best journalism will struggle to get noticed.   

But besides the structural obstacles, AJAM faces another significant—and unique—challenge, Jurkowitz notes. “They have a whole perception issue that they are going to have to overcome, aside from everything else,” he points out. For many Americans, Al Jazeera’s notoriety is rooted in the post-9/11 years, when it became best known in the United States for broadcasting Osama bin Laden’s videos. During the Iraq War, the Bush administration showed little interest in treating it as a legitimate news organization. According to a top-secret document leaked to the British press, a frustrated President Bush reportedly considered an airstrike on Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar in 2004 to combat the network’s alleged anti-US propaganda—not exactly the best foundation from which a new cable network backed by a government in the Middle East builds trust with the public. 

Though Al Jazeera has become quite popular overseas—in 2005, a global marketing agency ranked it the fifth-most-influential brand worldwide—the “terror TV” caricature continues to haunt the name in the United States. The day AJAM launched, for example, right-wing TV and radio host Glenn Beck labeled the network “the voice of the enemy.” One source for an AJAM story last fall wouldn’t agree to talk until the network’s Seattle field producer provided a copy of her passport to prove she was a US citizen. And when Ali announced on Twitter that he was joining The Stream, he got this response within minutes: “Your agenda is controlled by islamists in Arabia [sic].” 

Across the network, this sort of background noise is met with both resignation and a kind of plucky determination. Shortly after the “islamists” tweet, Ali, who is Muslim, hung a printout of the exchange on a bulletin board near his desk, where it remains. “It would be foolish for us to bury our head in the sand and pretend that that bias doesn’t exist,” he says. “I tackle it with a dose of humor, which, I think, is the most healthy and, I think also, an intelligent way of confronting it head-on.”

Just how entrenched is this bias? In 2011, William Lafi Youmans, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, co-authored a study on the US audience perception of Al Jazeera English (AJAM’s sister channel, which preceded it into the English-language market), and its conclusions weren’t encouraging. American viewers, the study found, would avoid watching an Al Jazeera–branded channel, and even if they happened upon it, they would not watch it with an open mind. This deeply held prejudice, doubly rooted in ideology and ethnocentrism, presents a serious challenge to a network striving for mainstream status. 

There was a silver lining, however. Lafi Youmans also found that credible news sources could overcome negative bias over time through multiple exposures. He sees AJAM embracing this strategy. “They really believe that they can rehabilitate the brand if people just watch, which leads then to one concern: What if they are trying a little bit too hard to make themselves palatable to the American audience?”

* * *

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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