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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.

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