Al Jazeera Media Network, the Qatar-based channel once described by the George W. Bush administration as a “terror network,” announced on January 2 that it acquired Current TV, launched by former Vice President Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt in 2005, in a deal reportedly worth $500 million. In doing so, it will debut a new US-based channel, paving the way for Al Jazeera to potentially reach some 40 million American viewers — up from the current 4.7 million.
Al Jazeera America — the network’s new name — will be headquartered in New York City and plans to use existing Al Jazeera bureaus in addition to opening several new offices in key US locations. With this revamped network, Al Jazeera will double its US-based staff to more than 300 employees.
These are ambitious plans to become a significant player in the American market, but they come at a time when internal changes at Al Jazeera threaten to compromise the brand it has built, according to Georgetown’s Adel Iskandar, a lecturer of Arab media studies and co-author of the book Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network that is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism.
“The Al Jazeera of 2010 is not the Al Jazeera of 2013,” he said. “The director general of the network has left and was replaced by a member of the [Qatari] royal family. Al Jazeera Arabic has very much become an instrument of Qatari foreign policy, so it’s no longer a freewheeling network. The English network has higher standards, but still has problems. We’ve seen the departure of various people at the network who claim that it no longer practices independent journalism.”
Al Jazeera has come a long way since the days it was associated with the likes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, but its battle for acceptance by the American people is not nearly won—US public opinion, as Al Jazeera’s history and its smaller forays into the market here have shown, could prove its greatest obstacle yet.
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Al Jazeera — launched in 1996 by the government of Qatar, a gas-rich emirate in the Persian Gulf — sought to provide Arabic-speaking audiences with a free-and-fair alternative to Western media like the BBC and CNN, as well as to state-run media, which tends to serve more as a mouthpiece for individual governments.
This was especially true in the period between 2001 and 2004 following the attacks on September 11 and the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Jazeera immediately distinguished itself from its Western counterparts both with its deeper access and its uncensored exposure to some of the more gruesome sides to the wars, showing bloody corpses and other delicate images that Western organizations tend to avoid. At the same time, it took various measures to prove itself different from other Arab networks; most significantly, Al Jazeera was the first Arab network to interview Israeli government officials. Though it attracted criticism for its softer approach to issues concerning the Qatari government, its coverage was groundbreaking, and its novelty captivated audiences across the region.
All the while, the network began making enemies abroad with its approach to stories that related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader “War on Terror.” Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld branded it “the terror network” when it ran graphic videos of American Humvees being blown up by roadside bombs. The network was also the only one to access and interview Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks, prompting a flurry of questions and suspicion surrounding its access to the Al Qaeda leader. While it opted against airing most of the footage obtained at that interview, CNN, which had signed an agreement of cooperation at the start of the Afghan war, obtained the videotape and aired it, causing strife between the two networks and prompting many in America to associate Al Jazeera with the 9/11 mastermind. Al Jazeera would later become a rallying point for anti-American sentiments at the height of the Iraq war, after a coalition bombing raid hit its Baghdad bureau, killing cameraman Tareq Ayyoub.