Al Jazeera Can Upgrade Foreign News At A Cost
It’s a perpetual question the news media grapples with: how many Americans really want more information on foreign affairs? Of course, there's a hunger when there's a crisis that involves U.S. troops or an event like the deaths in Benghazi. But what about the nitty-gritty of how foreign aid is doled out or trade agreements with China?
Fox News and MSNBC clearly believe prime time should be mostly about slanted opinion on the oft-superficialities of American politics. Note: there is a difference between politics and policy. The emphasis is on the spicier – politics – with the idea being red meat appeals more than vegetables.
CNN may have more of an interest in what happens beyond the borders. But, again without a major event – where it shines – it isn’t exactly looking to give a premier spot to any TV version of Foreign Affairs. It would be tough to imagine new chief Jeff Zucker embracing more foreign coverage, but that’s TBD.
The BBC World News network is gaining reach, but cable operators may look at carrying it as sort of a public service. It probably costs them little and it's hard to imagine the ratings are anything notable.
BBC America tried a prime-time newscast that looked to cover America from sort of an outside perspective, but it’s gone. And, BBC content on radio isn’t exactly generating the appeal of Rush Limbaugh; it airs overnight on public radio in New York.
One esteemed MediaPost journalist suggested the Tribune Co. offered a commentary this week on how little Americans are interested in international affairs. Or, maybe more so, how little media outlets believe coverage of it makes money.
Word emerged that the Chicago Tribune and six other Tribune Co.-owned papers will soon be dropping the Associated Press. If that’s not a huge deal on the coasts, the esteemed journalist noted the AP helps papers in much of the country deliver global news to readers.
With its acquisition of Current TV (co-founded by Al Gore), Al Jazeera will now have a chance to stake ground as a leader in not only reporting international news, but offering coverage that tries to link what’s happening globally to domestic affairs (ostensibly what BBC America tried). With international reporting waning, Al Jazeera could have an outsized role, the esteemed journalist suggested.
Funded by the emir of Qatar, the coming American version of Al Jazeera wouldn’t appear to have to worry about making money. It might even be willing to pay distributors to carry it, allowing it to expand beyond a reported 40 million-plus homes. It probably can do what no other news organization can: place a correspondent in every UN country.
Al Jazeera engenders plenty of association with anti-Americanism going back to the early days of the second Iraq war. But its English-language version that’s been available live and free on the Web – as the network has struggled to gain carriage in the U.S. -- betrays little of that.
Al Jazeera English offered compelling coverage during the revolutions in Egypt and Libya that, if anything, appeared to slant in favor of the revolutionary movements. It may have been less aggressive with the uprising in Qatar. But the network appears to realize to be taken seriously, there must be down-the-middle reporting and with no efforts to advance an agenda.
“Everyone at Al Jazeera takes great pride in the independence, impartiality, professionalism and courage of our journalism,” said Al Jazeera Director General Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani in a statement. “I look forward to bringing these standards to our new American audiences and working with our new colleagues at Current.”
Americans would be right, though, to have some queasiness about Al Jazeera’s domestic expansion, which comes courtesy of Current co-founders Gore and partner Joel Hyatt, who made big-time profits by selling it. (Gore will reportedly remain an Al Jazeera advisor.)
While the Al Jazeera Arabic version may be top of mind, human rights advocate Freedom House lists Qatar's “press status” as “not free.” In a 2011 report, it wrote: “While Qatar permits its flagship satellite television channel Al Jazeera to air critical coverage of foreign countries and leaders, journalists are forbidden from criticizing the Qatari government, the ruling family, or Islam, and are subject to prosecution for such violations.”
In October, the emir of Qatar made a high-profile visit to the Gaza Strip, pledging money to help and offering an endorsement of Hamas, which the U.S. views as a terrorist organization. Also, Human Rights Watch has charged a life sentence given to a Qatari poet after apparent criticism of the emir and allies violates his right to free expression.
With Al Jazeera now in control of Current, Time Warner Cable has moved swiftly to drop the network. The move, however, may be more about TWC looking to drop as many low-rated networks as it can rather than any ideological position.
The American government considers Qatar an ally and the country has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the Middle East. It has also been awarded the 2022 World Cup, an indication the world community embraces it.
But the soon-to-be-launched Al Jazeera America still offers viewers a conflict. They may embrace strong and needed foreign coverage, while remembering its owner remains a wealthy Middle East ruler with the power – and apparent willingness -- to suppress.
Some may hope the emir comes to love the American media business. Perhaps he can help save the newspaper industry by buying the Tribune papers and many others.