Peter Huck: Outsider rouses US media

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In a TV landscape of celebrity interviews and reality shows, Al Jazeera is planning something new

To detractors, Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network, is anti-American and anti-Semitic, a propagandist for al Qaeda that screened videos from Osama bin Laden.

It has also run foul of repressive Arab regimes. At times the network has been the story; invading US forces killed several staffers in Baghdad in 2003, fuelling suspicion, denied by Washington, they were targeted. And one of its cameramen, Sami al-Haj, languished for six years in Guantanamo without charge, the only journalist to be banged up in the notorious US prison.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton singled out Al Jazeera as a source of "real news", a commodity often absent on US networks, where news coverage can be shallow, insular and celebrity-obsessed or, as the former Secretary of State noted, "not particularly informative".

Clinton felt the US was losing the global "information war" and that Americans were often poorly informed about foreign events, and even those at home. While Al Jazeera was all over the Arab Spring, a rolling event with huge consequences for US interests, few Americans saw coverage via Al Jazeera English (AJE) as most US cable and satellite operators refused to carry it, forcing anyone interested to search online.

Now, as Washington ponders how to "step up" aid to Syrian rebels, Americans can sample the network's hard-hitting, investigative journalism when Al Jazeera America (AJAM) makes its much anticipated debut, especially in the world of journalism, on August 20.

In her acceptance speech as AJAM's president, Kate O'Brian, formerly of ABC News, said the nascent network would use root-and-branch innovation to fill "a gap" in a tepid television landscape, reeling from loss of advertising revenue to digital devices and savage budget cuts.

"We can start from scratch, producing in-depth, quality content for the viewers who are looking for something different. It will be a new product, not incremental tweaks in existing news formats."

The Pew Research Centre's State of the News Media 2012 report found reporters often acted as "megaphones", amplifying opinion - evidence flacks outnumber hacks - instead of investigating stories.

The network has the potential to dramatically increase news coverage of foreign and local events. Meanwhile, it must overcome deep-rooted insularity and residual distrust that the network is hostile to the US. It's a big ask. But Americans have begun to buck stereotypes, going online to seek foreign news sites beyond their shores. Is this Al Jazeera's moment?

The New York-based network will run a dozen US bureaux and can draw on 70 international bureaux, a global reach that dwarfs competitors CNN (33), MSNBC (14), Fox (6) and BBC America (41). The network will hire about 800 staff, a bold move in an era of cutbacks, and will broadcast around the clock as other networks switch to tape in the wee, small hours. It will run fewer ads - eight minutes an hour as against the 15-minute industry standard - evidence AJAM, owned by the gas and oil-rich emir of Qatar, has deep pockets.

This will allow AJAM to pursue costly investigative journalism, fulfilling Al Jazeera's pledge to be "a voice of the voiceless". And The Stream, a citizen journalism show, may coax social network-savvy viewers, a crucial demographic if television is to survive. The Pew report found 31 per cent "have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to". Story budgets plummeted; CNN, launched in 1980 as America's first 24-hour, all-news channel, cut budgets by almost half between 2007 and 2012. CNN, Fox and MSNBC cut live reports 30 per cent in this period. Cheap-to-shoot interviews went up 31 per cent.

Can AJAM sell an investigative brand? Al Jazeera's last bid to woo Americans, via AJE, failed to find an audience. This time AJAM will use Current TV - co-founded by Al Gore and bought in January for about $500 million ($623.8 million) - to broadcast to 49 million homes, half the reach of CNN, Fox and MSNBC, via cable and satellite networks.

Yet some already sense an imminent AJAM cop-out. In January, the network said 60 per cent of its programming would be produced in the US and the remainder would come from overseas bureaux.

By May, the New York Times reported, this vision had imploded, with AJAM intending to source all its content from within the US.

Apparently with irony, given that it and the Washington Post are widely viewed as the voice of the US establishment, the Times said "questions about bias persist" after an op-ed, posted on the Al Jazeera website by Columbia University's Joseph Massad, was withdrawn when Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg damned it as "one of the most anti-Jewish screeds in recent memory". The network withdrew, then reposted the piece, a flip-flop interpreted by staff journalists as a bid to placate US opinion. The Times said the network aimed to be "American through and through".

Pointing to recent senior hires from US television, critics feared AJAM would emasculate itself, embracing mediocrity where complex issues are made simple in the dumbing down of news. In the Toronto Star, Tony Burman, the ex-head of Al Jazeera English and CBS News, said AJAM "has the odour of potential disaster" and risked damaging its brand of "fearless, provocative international journalism".

This cry was taken up by Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the NSA mass surveillance story leaked by Edward Snowden. He cited an email sent to Al Jazeera executives by the network's senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, who accused his bosses of "appeasement" that "insult[s] the intelligence of the American people". Is criticising US policies anti-American, he asked?

How AJAM answers that challenge may get the voiceless, in places such as Detroit, on board.

Worldwide reach and deep pockets mean AJAM can mount a good fight. And in an era of Twitter-driven grassroots protest Al Jazeera is arguably more in tune with the zeitgeist of a younger generation.

In a rapidly shifting global landscape, where America's hegemony is no longer taken for granted, AJAM could grab pole position, educating Americans in a process many believe vital if the US is to remain a global player. But does it have the nerve?

"Putting the human beings at the heart of our news agenda is at the heart of what we do," Al Jazeera stated. In an ailing TV news industry debased by shout-fests and celebrity gossip, in which ordinary citizens often are ignored, AJAM may be on to something.

- NZ Herald

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