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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

What Al Jazeera America's death means to TV news

Reasons to mourn Al Jazeera America, even if you didn't watch.

The closing of a news outlet that puts hundreds of people out of work is always a sad story to report. But in the case of Al Jazeera America, which announced Wednesday that it would shut down operations by April 30, the implications for the entire TV news industry, its audiences and democracy are even more depressing.

While Al Jazeera management bears much of the blame, one of the lessons of the channel's failure is that the cable news landscape, once seen as a fertile expanse large enough to sustain a great number of diverse voices and views with myriad channels, is now a closed frontier. And it's all owned by the big, mainstream, corporate folks who live and die with Wall Street.

"I'm not sure anything went wrong with Al Jazeera America in terms of what they did. The problem from the beginning was that they were entering a very, very competitive market in which the pie had already been sliced up," said Philip Seib, a professor of global journalism at the University of Southern California who has written two books on Al Jazeera.

"The reputation among journalists is that Al Jazeera America does good work, but that's irrelevant," he said. "The environment is such that I don't care who you are, how much money you have and how good your journalism is, getting into the market and avoiding catastrophic financial loss is virtually impossible."

Adam May, a former WJZ-TV anchor and reporter who went to work in 2013 as a correspondent for Al Jazeera America's prime-time newsmagazine, "America Tonight," offered a similar analysis.

"I think it was a complicated media landscape for Al Jazeera to try to get into in the first shot," he said in a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday shortly after he and other staff members were told of plans to shut the channel down. "There are so many cable channels now. And TV is losing viewers to the Internet. ... So I think it was acomplicated business model for them to try and break in with from the start."

Al Anstey, the channel's CEO, explained it this way in his email to staffers: "The decision is driven by the fact that our business model is simply not sustainable in an increasingly digital world, and because of the current global financial challenges."

Those global challenges include the huge slump in oil prices that is making the deep pockets in Qatar, the headquarters of Al Jazeera, not so deep these days.

Still, mistakes were made, and baggage came with the Al Jazeera brand that proved especially problematic amid the current political climate in the United States.

One mistake that surely contributed to the channel's stunningly poor ratings was management's failure to calibrate its look and presentation to contemporary American tastes.

It pains me to say this after writing pieces critical of CNN President Jeff Zucker for sometimes emphasizing the show-biz aspects of cable news over what I considered its journalistic imperatives, but the medium is television, after all, and cosmetics matter.

Al Jazeera America looked flat and boring. Outside of "America Tonight," its prime-time shows were woefully lacking in energy.

Clicking from Al Jazeera to Fox News when a host such as Megyn Kelly was front and center was like going from a university lecture to a Broadway opening.

And that was the result of a larger problem: hiring too many former American network and cable news executives to build and shape the look of the channel. Like generals fighting the last war, these older executives seemed to be trying to make Al Jazeera America into the CNN of the 1990s, when it was widely admired after reporting from inside Iraq in 1991 as U.S. bombs fell on Baghdad.

But even CNN knows that media world is dead and long gone. For cable TV news to survive, it has to look and feel as fast as digital, while holding to the higher standards of legacy media. Not an easy task.

Al Jazeera America found out how fierce the blowback could be for slipping from those standards when it recently published a questionably sourced report linking Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to performance-enhancing drugs.

One of Al Jazeera America's greatest and least-acknowledged problems from the beginning was the way its corporate parent Al Jazeera was branded anti-American and linked to terrorism — first and foremost by members of the administration of George W. Bush.

The continued acceptance of that characterization was evidenced by CBS anchor Scott Pelley, who in announcing the closing of the channel Wednesday said, "Al Jazeera's Arabic language channel has a reputation of being anti-American."

There were no qualifiers, no evidence, no analysts shown saying that, just the anchorman stating it as accepted fact in one of the two sentences he read about the closing. Fighting that kind of prejudice is an uphill battle no matter how much money you have — particularly at a time when a politician like Donald Trump can find traction for his anti-Arab and anti-Muslim pronouncements.

Whatever the reasons for its closing, the part of the story that matters most is the much-needed diversity in coverage that is lost with the death of Al Jazeera America.

I was an advocate for the channel when it was struggling to find a way onto American television because of what I saw as the different voices and points of view it could bring to the national conversation.

A documentary, "Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City," which premiered on Al Jazeera English in 2012, helped me understand that Al Jazeera does have a bias, but it's not the simple-minded notion of being "anti-American" that Pelley sounded.

The news operation's bias is toward stories that show the ways in which some populations, particularly those of color, have been and are exploited by huge national or corporate interests.

"Their basic approach to narrative is that they favor the interests of what they call the Global South," Seib said, "which has never been the case with the American and European broadcasting giants in the past. They're sensitive to the idea that they are giving voice to and adopting the outlook of parts of the world that in the past were very much just passive recipients and have been condescended to."

"Global South" refers to countries south of the equator that were colonized by nations to the north. In covering the United States, that outlook is extended to Native Americans and people of color in cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago.

What most impressed me about that documentary was the way everything was presented from the ground up: Even the camera point of view was from the street looking up at City Hall. The words of people in the street were privileged over those of city officials spouting spin.

Al Jazeera America never abandoned that commitment to the testimony of the voiceless, no matter how dismal ratings got, according to May.

"I got a chance to do stories no other media organization would touch with a 10-foot pole," he said Wednesday. "I mean stories like Native American issues in Arizona when energy conglomerates are trying to steal their holy lands. The original, driving motto of the network was we're going to give voice to the voiceless, tell the stories of those underserved by mainstream media. And we got a chance to do that."

"We definitely need that," Seib said. "If you look at the American political climate today, the situation just cries out for more diversity of voices."

But you won't find them on cable TV anymore.

Al Jazeera America says it will continue to have some sort of online presence. But no one has yet figured out a business model that will support the kind of news-gathering infrastructure that CNN has and Al Jazeera America once hoped to achieve.

"Probably the last great triumph in the TV marketplace was Roger Ailes and Fox News, because he identified a constituency, the right wing, and said, 'We'll do whatever is necessary to get that underserved constituency,'" Seib said.

"The television marketplace is now pretty much set in concrete, and what we'll see over the next few years are chips of that concrete flying away," he added. "We'll see some survivors. Fox will probably be a survivor. CNN? I don't know."

I know I hope I never have to write about a cable TV news landscape that has room for Fox but none for CNN.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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