20 August 2013

Al Jazeera America Begins Broadcasting

Al Jazeera America (AJAM), a division of the Doha based global media empire owned by the royal family of Qatar began broadcasting in 48 million American cable and satellite households. In January 2013, Al Jazeera acquired the assets of Current TV for a reported $400 million (of which Al Gore is thought to have pocketed $100 million).  Current TV's most important asset was carriage on most cable and satellite services. Time Warner Cable, which has franchises in New York City and Los Angeles, immediately pulled the plug on Current TV upon the announcement of the sale to Al Jazeera. 

Al Jazeera America hopes to distinguish itself by unbiased news, compelling story telling, long-form journalism, American focused but leveraging Al Jazeera's world-wide resources. Al Jazeera America will have twelve American news bureaus, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC, Detroit (surprising that it's not Dearborn), Miami and Nashville.   And Al Jazeera will have fewer commercials, showing only six minutes per hour compared with 15 minutes with other cable channels. 

Some of Al Jazeera America's promotional propaganda requires parsing.  Al Jazeera America may cite the hunger of American audiences for unbiased news, but it is worth remembering that Al Jazeera was Usama bin Laden's favorite channel for releasing unfiltered messages. Language used when referring to news events may jaundice the aspiration to be unbiased.  For example, are Islamist suicide bombers referred to as martyrs? What about news that does not jibe with the Qatari Al Thami royal family's international interests?  Per Bloomberg, the Qatari emiate "lent" Egypt $8 billion after the Arab Spring overthrow of ex-Egyptian President Hosni Murbarak, but a score of Al Jazeera employees quit over what they characterized as the biased coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood.
New Al Jazeera anchor Ali Veshi insisted in a Maclean's interview that the new network will aspire to give unbiased news:

I think we have created a world in which extreme views push out moderate views... We are going to put the resources behind commercializing real news. We are going to track those people who are NPR listeners, who watch BBC America. They exist. And we're going after them with real resources. The reason that dumbed-down news has prevailed is because there's a lot of money in producing it. And it's ubiquitous.

Former journalists from Al Jazeera have expressed concerns that the Qatari government is exerting undue pressure upon Al Jazeera journalists to further its political interests.  Former Al Jazeera Berlin correspondent Aktham Suliman has said:

You notice with these cases that it involves governments who have fallen out of favor with Qatar's rulers. Libya, Syria and Yemen, for example. Other countries like Jordan and Bahrain are experiencing similar phenomena - rebellion and protest against their ruling classes. But there's far less reporting on them. You'll notice how that corresponds to the state of Qatar's foreign policy. This is a very serious issue, because we at Al Jazeera were always proud to say: We're financed by Qatar, but the state never interferes with our reporting. Now we suddenly find ourselves in a situation in which our reporting is precisely aligned with Qatari foreign policy.
A discerning news consumer knows that it is impossible to get unbiased news coverage, but one must account for their weltanschaaung and be aware of their bias. Some corporate interests like  G.E. (or Comcast)  powered NBC, or the Mouse House served ABC's interest influence coverage.  Even conservatives are chary of Fox News Channel because News Corps increased 18.5% interest in the Rotana  media entity owned by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. So it is incumbent for news consumers to account for being educated by an Emirate which has been hands on in tweaking the reportage. 

 Long-story reporting is a rarity among American news networks but if so called journalists serve as stenographers for their favored sources, it is simply propaganda.  For instance, during the Israeli incursions into Lebanon in 2006, Israel was initially condemned for bombing an ambulance.  But it was later shown that the incident was a hoax, but not before long-form reporting got out the propaganda.  Or consider the a heart wrenching candlelight march in Gaza.  But will Al Jazeera America appreciate that the Gaza government might have deliberately cut the power to dramatize the issue?

As Al Jazeera America began broadcasting, their headlines were: Turmoil in Egypt; School Shooting Outside Atlanta; Wildfires in the West; and the New Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge.  But their website had other interesting deviations.  For example, the lead story was an accusation of widespread overuse of mind altering anti-malarial drugs at Guantanimo Bay  a feature about  U.S. soldier Staff Sgt. Bates who was convicted of a massacre in Afghanistan who is seeking a reduction of his life sentence and a headline that the CIA admitted involvement with the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953.  Is that dogged reportage or catering to an Islamist audience?

It is amusing to dissect Al Jazeera America's brag that they are only broadcasting six minutes of commercials an hour.  Might this be because the fledgling network can't sell commercial time?  It's not a total commercial blackout as Gillette and Vonage has been in heavy rotation 
There are lots of promos for Al Jazeera America to fill the time.  But to be fair, this was not uncommon with cable news networks which have not gained the approbation of Madison Avenue.  Fox News Channel was still showing Miss Cleo ads in 2000.  Moreover, when opponents of Glenn Beck's old FNC 5 PM show, major advertisers pulled out so there were more Goldline ads.  

Al Jazeera America is seeking to have a distinctive visual aesthetic during their 14 hours a day of live programming.  In the Al Jazeera America's New York Studios, the camera shots offer a full body shot of the anchors standing before large 10 foot video screen when not sitting behind the brushed metal desk.  Alas, the picture does not look as stunning through DirectTV as it is only a standard definition picture which looks somewhat fuzzy on a large screen television.  Another quirk of Al Jazeera America's news ticker is the time shown.  The network premiered at 4 PM ET, but the Al Jazeera ticker indicated 23.00 ET, which might be right for Doha  but not GMT which is often an international standard.

Al Jazeera America has tried to buy credibility by attracting some well known names in broadcast journalism.  Soledad O'Brien  was lured from NBC to do special reports for Al Jazeera America.  The flagship show, America Tonight, will be hosted by long-time CNN alumna Joie Chen.  Al Jazeera America's financial show Real Money will be hosted by former CNN chief business correspondent Ali Veshi. A weeknight talk show Consider This will be hosted by former ABC News correspondent Antonio Mora. And don't forget about former CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and Current TV anchor David Shuster, who will now host a show on Al Jazeera America.  

 To a conservative news junkie's ears in the District of Calamity (sic), these names sound like C List reporters, some of whom give a nodding name recognition but seemingly not remarkable reporters.  It's too bad that ESPN re-hired Keith Olbermann, as Al Jazeera America sounds like a refuge for misfit reporters. But Olbermann's sports reincarnation has just begun. But could the former King of Countdown take having his opinion influenced by the Qatari powers that be lest Olbermann himself become "The Worst Person in the World."?

Al Jazeera America also gained some prime studio space in the nation's capital at the Newseum.  When ABC's This Week moved back to the ABC DC Bureau for its once a month show with Martha Radditz, Al Jazeera America moved into the Newseum.  It is unknown how much  Al Jazeera America pays for the privilege of being at the Newseum, but when a network is backed by an oil rich emirate, ordinary economics of news gathering are inapplicable. 

Al Jazeera America is not the only new news network which is vying for space on the digital TV dial.  Glenn Beck's The Blaze TV has been seeking to get carriage on more cable and satellite services along with the subscription streaming internet medium.  Glenn Beck welcome Al Jazeera America as the voice of [Sunni] Terrorists. The Blaze Network used the occasion of Al Jazeera America's premiere as a day of action to promote more carriage. 

One America News  launched on July 4th 2013.  One America News is a joint project between San Diego based Herring Broadcasting and the Washington Times. One America News seeks to fill the libertarian, independent and conservative views on the news.  It is struggling with carriage issues but One America News can be watched via livestream.

As for Al Jazeera America, their aspiration to be unbiased journalists will be tested with their coverage of the so called Million American March (a.k.a. the Million Muslim March) on Washington set for September 11th, 2013 as well as how Al Jazeera America treats coverage with the turmoil in Egypt and the Syrian Civil War.  In the early going, Al Jazeera America seemed like a somnolent Sunni version of CNN.  Such an impression might not boost ratings, but ratings (or advertising dollars) may not be the ultimate goal of Al Jazeera America. 

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