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.
Its overall success led the network to launch an English language subsidiary in 2006. Al-Jazeera English—first called Al-Jazeera International, but later rebranded—emerged under challenging circumstances. It lured a number of Western broadcasting icons, including Sir David Frost and Riz Khan, in an effort to win the confidence of English-speaking audiences. During the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza conflict, Al Jazeera and Iran’s Press TV were the only two English-language networks with reporters in both Gaza and Israel, giving it a leg up over other Western media. Then in 2011, the Arab Spring provided a significant opportunity for Al Jazeera to access and own coverage of the various uprisings, thanks in large part to the deep pockets of its benefactor, the Qatari government. Its English-language arm managed to maintain a respectable level of objectivity, despite the increasingly active role of the Qatari government in uprisings in Libya and Syria, something that has heavily slanted the coverage of Al Jazeera Arabic. Al Jazeera English’s award-winning coverage of the Arab revolutions earned it a new level of legitimacy among Western audiences, prompting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 to note:
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.
Al Jazeera English reaches 250 million households in 130 countries, but North American remains a place with potential for tremendous growth; officials with the company say that its English-language website receives some 50 percent of its daily traffic from the United States and Canada.
Al Jazeera isn’t completely new to the United States. In fact, a small handful of cable providers have been showing the network’s English-language broadcast, including Buckeye Cable in Toledo, OH, and Burlington Telecom in Burlington, VT. It’s the story of Burlington that may provide some insight into the battle that lay ahead for this network that many Americans have, for so long, loved to hate.
In 2007, Burlington Telecom, a small, publicly owned fiber optic network, opted to include Al Jazeera in its program rundown as airing it was in accordance with the Cable TV Channel Carriage Policy, the guidelines dictating the station’s right to carry certain programs. Executives with the cable provider noted that the decision was driven almost entirely by competitive edge. “We thought, here’s an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from our main competitor,” Richard Donnelly, sales and marketing manager of Burlington Telecom, told Salon.com last year. “But I’m not naïve. I knew there would be controversy.”
Indeed, complaints began to pour in from local opposition groups, as well as from national media watchdog Accuracy in Media and other groups that regard the channel as anti-American, and pressure began to mount to drop Al Jazeera. When the network bowed to pressure, it sparked outrage among an even greater number of local residents in this liberal New England city. The city’s mayor declared the issue the subject of a town hall meeting. After two public meetings, an oversight committee decided that Burlington Telecom should continue to offer Al Jazeera as part of certain cable packages.
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Although several foreign news networks can already be viewed in the United States on cable, from the BBC, to China’s CCTV, this is the first time an international broadcaster has taken over an American one (News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch is a naturalized American, though his company began as an Australian firm). But some analysts dismiss the purchase as just another reality of an increasingly globalized world, noting that the role of the Chinese government in the American economy, for example, is profound. Many questions remain about Al Jazeera’s American enterprise at this juncture, including whether the Qatari government will seek heavy involvement in its content, as well as about the news executives who will become the architects of this new network. “There is an enormous interest in Qatar to have a greater presence in the US, and having that blackout is very harmful to that interest,” says Everette Dennis, dean of the Qatar campus of Northwestern University, on the fact that Al Jazeera is mostly unavailable to viewers here.
Some are not willing to wait and see how this will unfold. The network has already come under fire from certain cable providers and several prominent Current TV staffers have already opted out, though Current TV remains on the air for a few more months. Eliot Spitzer, the politician turned host of Current’s main primetime current affairs show, Viewpoint, announced his resignation this week, stating that his relationship is with Gore and Hyatt, and not with Al Jazeera. (When it launched in 2005, Current’s mission was to provide a television portal to those Americans “who crave the empowerment of the Web,” Gore said at the time.) “Moving forward,” Spitzer said, “their mission will be different.” Two other Current TV hosts — former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm and California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom — also announced their resignations following the acquisition.
Time Warner announced the decision to drop Current TV almost immediately after the Al Jazeera sale was made public, but then said it would reconsider airing Al Jazeera America. A Huffington Post/YouGov survey of 1,000 adults published on January 7 found that 41 percent of Americans said they approve of Time Warner’s decision, while 22 percent said they disapprove of having any version of Al Jazeera available in the US. The acquisition was also criticized by conservative talk show host and FOX News veteran Glenn Beck, who had attempted to buy Current TV last year but was turned down.
“[Gore] didn’t sell to the highest bidder,” he said of the deal with Al Jazeera. “He looked for, ‘Who do I ideologically align with?’”
But some were quick to dismiss the news as just another day in show business. Asked by Tonight Show host Jay Leno how she felt about working for Osama bin Laden, Joy Behar, comedian and host of Current TV’s Joy Behar Say Anything! responded, “Al Gore, Al Jazeera, Al Pacino. It’s all the same thing to me.”