March 25th, 2013
Al Jazeera, a news network that has been repeatedly accused by pundits of being the “voice of terrorism” and “propaganda for Muslim violence and terrorism,” recently acquired a share in the American television market. In early January, the Doha-based media company announced the purchase of Al Gore’s Current TV channel, to mixed reception. The channel that showed an unmatched commitment to the coverage of the Arab Spring protests will now be a presence in the U.S. mass media landscape, presenting an opportunity for coverage of often ignored topics as well as their signature coverage of the Global South, prompting questions of just how the company will accomplish these aims in the U.S..
In a statement, Al Jazeera Director General Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani called the purchase of Current TV an “historic” achievement that will significantly expand Al Jazeera’s existing distribution footprint in the U.S., as well as increase their newsgathering and reporting efforts in America. According to Al Jazeera English, 40 percent of all online viewing comes from America and, as far as they are concerned, they are merely responding to the country’s need for a different news perspective. They claim that they will attempt to reach out to American viewers and fill a void by being the “voice of the voiceless.” But just hours after the $500 million purchase, Time Warner cable dropped Current TV from its roster, citing dismal ratings.
While many see Al Jazeera’s U.S. presence as a step toward introducing a new perspective in the American media market, it has been speculated that they will mostly share stories with American news sources and borrow about 40 percent of its content from its sister channel, Al Jazeera English. This new focus on the United States will perhaps appeal to some of their new American audience, as polling illustrates that Americans care less about foreign policy than domestic policy. Unlike in other countries, international news networks in general, including CNN International and BBC World, have been unable to fare well in U.S. media markets.
Al Jazeera’s dedication to transparency, proudly engraved on the walls of its Doha office, and its aims to “bridge the gap between cultures,” have been found questionable. The network has avoided coverage of the wave of protests that have hit the Gulf region over the past two years, including those in al Qatif in Saudi Arabia and the popular uprising in Bahrain. Some who follow the channel closely are distrustful of the news network and see their purchase of Current TV as just another tool for the Qatari government to push their agenda, evident in the channel’s audacious backing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, Tunis and Egypt. The government’s strong support of the political organization has not been limited to positive media coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies — it was further enunciated when Qatar pledged to invest $18 billion in Egypt’s economy after talks with the country’s newly elected Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi. Political analyst, Ghanem Nuseibeh has pointed to the bias by comparing the channel’s take on Egypt to their coverage of the protests in Bahrain. “Despite being banned in Egypt, Al Jazeera went to great lengths to provide non-stop live coverage of events,” Nuseibeh was quoted saying in a 2011 Reuters article. “It did not do that in Bahrain.”
Amidst criticism, Al Gore defended the sale of Current TV in an interview with David Letterman, saying Al Jazeera is a “widely respected news-gathering organization.” Former American Ambassador to Qatar, Patrick N. Theros, called Time Warner’s decision to drop Current TV from its roster a “short sighted” one, in an opinion piece on The Daily Beast. Hillary Clinton came to the defense of Al Jazeera saying, “You may not agree with [Al Jazeera], but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.” US News, once known as one of the most conservative American news magazines added to this view that Al Jazeera could bring a new perspective and reinforce America’s core values of freedom of speech and expression.
Al Jazeera will probably try to counter the general American perception by concentrating on quality programming and recruiting commonly known American media names, as sister channel Al Jazeera English has done by hiring ABC’s Dave Marash and CNN’s Tony Harris. Whether the new channel succeeds or not remains to be seen but Al Jazeera’s experiment should be one in adding a new and different voice to the American news market. Al Jazeera America will, at the very least, broaden the discussion and add to the debate in the many issues that the United States has yet to publicly discuss.