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Al Jazeera America: The Real-Life ‘Newsroom’?
September 3, 2013  | By Monique Nazareth  | 4 comments
 

Fans of HBO’s The Newsroom may remember a discussion between MacKenzie McHale and Will McAvoy, in the very first episode, about what a proper newscast could be – a discussion that might serve as a mission statement for America’s newest news network…

“We’re going to do a good news show and make it popular at the same time,” MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) tells Will (Jeff Daniels).  “People will want the news if you give it to them with integrity. Not everybody, not even a lot of people. Five percent. And five percent more of anything is what makes a difference in this country. So we can do better.”

When Will asks his idealistic executive producer what winning looks like to her, she replies: “Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect and a return to what’s important. The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid.”

That discussion could well describe the stated mission of Al Jazeera America (or AJAM.) AJAM’s interim chief executive, Ehab Al Shihabi, vowed the network would air “fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news.” CNN would seem to be the primary cable competition, as it already claims to have unbiased reporting compared to left-leaning MSNBC and right-leaning FOX News. However, AJAM, in its first days of operation, seems to be looking more at NPR and PBS as the models for what it is trying to achieve.

The news channel went on the air Tuesday, August 20, at 3 p.m. ET. And yes, it’s operated by the same Al Jazeera news organization that was accused by some of being anti-U.S., and sympathetic to terrorists, after September 11, especially for airing videos from Al Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden.

Al Jazeera also was viewed suspiciously, in some quarters, for being funded and owned by the leaders of Qatar, an oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate. Though the network received praise around the world for its coverage of important stories, it was largely kept out of the U.S. cable market, managing to build an American audience mostly with its online site, Al Jazeera English. That changed earlier this year when it acquired Current TV, the channel founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communications at Washington State University, thinks the network, despite its baggage, has done pretty well so far. He writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, “The first few days’ programming was a bit of an anti-climax...think NPR with pictures (and a little political baggage). The reporting was solid, the few ‘expert’ guests really were experts, interviews were, for the most part, intelligent, and the rundowns were a predictable mixture of the top stories of the day. No reason to be either horrified or gasp in awe.”

Others were horrified by the very idea of Al Jazeera having a cable presence in the U.S. Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, writes online in The National Review about the beginnings of Al Jazeera, and criticism of it by several prestigious professors. He also cites allegedly anti-American and anti-Semitic guests and hosts on Al Jazeera Arabic.

“I’m not suggesting Al Jazeera America will be an echo of Al Jazeera Arabic,” he writes. “I am suggesting that, like its sister station, AJAM — as it’s affectionately called – will have a mission, drive specific messages, and observe certain prohibitions.”

May opted not to watch AJAM himself, but instead quotes from another opinion piece in National Review.   In that review, Temple professor Christopher Harper describes AJAM’s coverage as having “an anti-American undercurrent,” even comparing it to Soviet television coverage of the U.S.

“Simply put,” Harper writes, “I don’t think the channel is about making money in an already-crowded 24/7 cable milieu. AJAM provides the government of Qatar, which has said it will not be involved in the editorial product, a seat at the political table in the United States.”

Harper’s one bit of praise: “I did think the sets looked nice.”

USA Today’s Rem Rieder had a very different point of view. He even notes: “Oh, in case you were wondering: I couldn't detect a hint of a Middle Eastern ideology shaping the coverage…”
 
While Rieder commends much of AJAM’s coverage, he questions whether there is still too much of a focus on overseas stories that have nothing to do with the U.S. He also ponders “the overarching question is whether there is a market for the weighty, no-frills diet of news that AJAM is offering.”
  
The channel operates 24/7, during which time some of the shows are repeated. You can watch Real Money with Ali Vleshi at 7 p. m., 7:30 a.m. or 7 a.m. ET.  At 3 p.m. ET on a weekday afternoon, you might find a 2011or 2012 documentary produced by Al Jazeera English.

What’s missing, writes Rieder, is “The Hannah Anderson kidnapping aftermath in California. The shooting near a school near Atlanta. The Inside-the-Beltway flaplet du jour (who knew Ted Cruz was Canadian?).”

Al Shihabi noted, "There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings."

I wondered about that during the fall-out over Miley Cyrus’s performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards special.  That was a story covered even by NPR. So what did AJAM do? There it was in their Consider This blog: DID MILEY CYRUS’ VMA PERFORMANCE GO TOO FAR? (An AJAM spokesperson confirmed that Consider This “mentioned the Miley Cyrus performance only in passing. It was not covered in any news reports during the week because we did not consider it to be news.”)

Among those praising AJAM, David Kroll, a contributor to Forbes, writes, “How Al Jazeera America succeeds is anyone’s guess. But it gets a thumbs-up from me for what appears to be a commitment to substantive science and medical reporting.”

Brian Lowry, TV columnist for Variety, also acknowledges the significant challenges faced by AJAM, but writes: “..With Fox News Channel and MSNBC having migrated to politically polarized corners and CNN seeking to jazz up its product in sometimes-embarrassing ways, there might actually be a niche — and even a need — for something like Al Jazeera America.   Whether there’s enough demand, alas, might be a different matter entirely.”

When asked by TVWW about AJAM’s reaction to the reviews so far, a spokesperson replied, “Al Jazeera America is very pleased with the response it received from viewers during its launch week. The combination of those who watched our programming on air, those who visited our website and the huge positive buzz that was very evident on social media confirms that there is indeed a significant interest in and demand for the in-depth and unbiased reporting we are providing.”

One of AJAM’s assets may be the faces familiar to a cable news watching audience, including former CNN anchors Ali Velshi, Soledad O’Brien and Joie Chen (top photo). Velshi anchors the weeknight primetime show Real Money, while O’Brien (right) will produce documentaries and is a correspondent on a nightly newsmagazine show, America Tonight, hosted by Chen.

Former NBC and MSNBC journalists, including Michael Viqueira, David Shuster, and John Seigenthaler, also are on board, and Antonio Mora, formerly of ABC, hosts a nightly current affairs talk show, Consider This. Cable news junkies are bound to come across someone they watched on another station even if it was C-Span.  Libby Casey is hosting the daily discussion program, Inside Story.

Al Jazeera America is headquartered in New York City and has twelve domestic bureaus, in such cities as Washington, DC, Detroit, San Francisco, and New Orleans. It also will draw from its parent company’s seventy international bureaus. It has some 900 employees, 400 of which are in the newsroom.

Thanks to the wealth of its founders, the network will run fewer than half the commercials you see on its competitors. Al Shihabi says this isn’t an ad revenue problem, it’s so they can air more news. Some of the time is spent airing a lot of ads about its programs – too much time, according to USA Today columnist Rieder.

“I could live a full life without seeing another one of those constantly repeated, self-serving promotional ads about how special and wonderful AJAM is,” he writes.

So how will AJAM’s success be determined? The Poynter Online suggests five factors to look at:  Ratings, revenue, influence, awards, and exclusives. Kelly McBride, the author of the piece, says the latter three will be most applicable to AJAM. If the programming proves to be provocative, it could gain the attention and accolades to be really successful. Given the bureaus AJAM has that its competitors don’t, Al Jazeera America has the potential to do just that.

"We are not coming here to compete," Shihabi told the AP. “We are coming here to win."

It sounds, as The Newsroom’s MacKenzie McHale said, “Quixotic.”

 
 
 
 
 
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4 Comments
 
 
I join the throng. See my essay at current.org
Jan 27, 2014   |  Reply
 
 
kathie
I have enjoyed watching AJAM because it is intelligent news with no fluff. I like the emphasis on international news, which is not available anywhere else except the New York Times. There is a place for this kind of news presentation.
Sep 16, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
michael.strauss.1428@facebook.com
I like AJAM, watched it for years. When they're was no American coverage of student unrest in Montreal, AJAM Covered it. We watch German, English and Japanese news as we know a lot of pertinent news is not covered. By the US market's cowardly sponsors. I thought I'd choke from the Mily Cyrus footage, even my beloved PBS mentioned it. ACCCK!
Sep 9, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
Noel
Thanks for a really good, thorough and much-needed evaluation. AJAM is kind of like a round the clock version of PBS's NewsHour. And that, while worthy of applause, also makes me sorely doubt its survival potential. Much as I love what the NewsHour people do in theory, I find myself getting very antsy when there's extended coverage of a story or topic I'm not obsessively interested in.
Sep 5, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
 
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