Al Jazeera America promises something revolutionary: solid TV journalism

Qatar-based channel arrives in 50 million U.S. homes Aug. 20

  • Screen grab of Adam May covering a story for Al Jazeera America in a New Orleans jail. The report will air on the channel's flagship show, "America Tonight." The channel will launch Aug. 20.
Screen grab of Adam May covering a story for Al Jazeera America… (Al Jazeera America )
August 02, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

Can a TV news channel based in Qatar really be good for America?

That's the $500 million question as Al Jazeera America prepares to launch this month in 50 million U.S. homes.

The build-up, which has included hiring more than 400 journalists led by such national and Baltimore TV names as Ali Velshi and Adam May, respectively, has been chronicled with fascination by media reporters used to covering mostly stories of downsizing and closings in recent years. Last week alone, Al Jazeera America opened 12 domestic bureaus in such cities as Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco and Dallas.

But despite the positive story of a new journalistic entity with deep pockets coming to life, the coverage has in large part been political from the start, when former Vice President Al Gore sold his Current TV channel to Al Jazeera in January for a reported $500 million. As a source of news and information, Gore's channel was a bust, but the purchase guaranteed the global news operation access to those 50 million American households, thanks to Current's agreements with cable operators.

Despite winning Peabody, Polk and Robert F. Kennedy awards for its BBC-inspired style of journalism on the Al Jazeera (Arabic) and Al Jazeera English channels, the brand has been characterized since the Iraq war as a mouthpiece for al Qaida by such members of the George W. Bush administration as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

While it would be challenge enough for any foreign media company to try to establish a new cable news channel on the highly competitive landscape of American television these days, analysts say that Bush-era stigma makes it even more difficult — especially when it comes to winning over those American viewers unwilling to look beyond the ideologically charged labels.

"The biggest challenge for Al Jazeera America is to create an identity that will be different enough for it to stand out from CNN, Fox or MSNBC, but not so different as to the point where American viewers are alienated by it," says Mohammed el-Nawawy, author of "Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism" (Westview Press, 2003).

"Al Jazeera is still suffering from the negative image and the negative framing campaign that was launched during the Bush administration by Rumsfeld and company," el-Nawawy says. "Al Jazeera America has to overcome that baggage, even as it walks the fine line of trying to distinguish itself in America with the kind of aggressive reporting Al Jazeera has always been known for."

Philip Seib, author of "The Al Jazeera Effect" (Potomac Books, 2008), says the new channel has no choice but to go with hard news and investigative journalism. That's what makes Al Jazeera Al Jazeera — whether or not some critics will claim there's an anti-American bias driving such tough-minded journalism.

"I don't think they'll do well if they're just another television news operation," says Seib. "If they emphasize investigative reporting, if they provide a harder kind of news than we've been getting in the past few years from the American networks, then, yes, I think Al Jazeera America will find an audience — an audience that will stick with them."

Solid, traditional journalism is at the heart of Al Jazeera America's strategy, according to Paul Eedle, head of programming at Al Jazeera English and deputy launch manager for the new American channel.

"I hope that we'll distinguish ourselves through the breadth and depth of our firsthand reporting," says Eedle, pointing to the 12 U.S. bureaus and 16 investigative reporters. "We're putting a lot of reporting resources out there right across the country to cover stories that matter to Americans."

Having deep pockets in the home office gives Al Jazeera America a keen advantage in these cost-cutting media days, Eedle says.

"There's a tremendous history of television journalism in this country, but it does feel in recent years as if a lot of television journalism has been on the retreat with resources being squeezed," he says. "We are making the commitment of resources to get back out into the country to cover stories where they are a priority."

With the political orientation of MSNBC and Fox and a more sensational bent at CNN under new president Jeff Zucker, Al Jazeera management sees a further opening.

"We think there's room for a new voice in American news," Eedle adds, "and we will do our level best to bring people the in-depth, unbiased, human reporting that really helps people live their lives."

One of the people the channel is counting on to do some of that reporting is Adam May, one of six reporters on its nightly prime-time show "America Tonight," which is hosted by former CNN anchor Joie Chen. The team's work will be augmented with reports from special correspondents like Soledad O'Brien, who contracted with the channel to do reports and documentaries through her production company.

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