Why Al Jazeera America is going off the air April 30

Why Al Jazeera America is going off the air April 30
This file photo taken on August 16, 2013 shows news photographer filming the logo of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program America Tonight in the network's studio space at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Al Jazeera America, the cable news cable launched by the global Qatar-based media group in 2013, will be shut down April 30, the company said Wednesday. (SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images)

Cable news channel Al Jazeera America is going off the air April 30, employees of the Qatar-based media company were told Wednesday.

"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," Al Anstey, the network's CEO, said in an email to staffers.


A translation for that last sentence includes terrible ratings for the on-air channel and plummeting oil prices making the deep pockets in Qatar that kept the channel afloat no longer so deep.

"I know this will be a massive disappointment for everyone here who has worked tirelessly for our long-term future. The decision that has been made is in no way because AJAM has done anything but a great job. Our commitment to great journalism is unrivaled," Anstey added.

One of those staffers who got the bad news today is Adam May, a former WJZ-TV reporter who has been featured as a national correspondent since joining the channel in 2013.

"I think it was a complicated media landscape for Al Jazeera to try to get into in the first shot," he said in a phone interview. "And I think their early-on promise and commitment to bring a different kind of journalism to American viewers was a good journalistic choice, but perhaps they didn't properly estimate American media consumers."

As a media critic who has been critical of CNN President Jeff Zucker, for example, for making what I thought were show-biz decisions in prime time at the expense of traditional journalistic values, this is not easy to say. But I came to believe in recent months that Al Jazeera America executives had not paid nearly enough attention to the kinds of show hosts they featured and the way they presented their product.

It's easy to dismiss such matters as cosmetic, but in American television, they matter. And Al Jazeera America had no show-biz sizzle -- the opposite, to some extent, of Fox with Megyn Kelly.

May said the "one thing" he will "walk away from this with" is that he was able to report stories that he feels might otherwise not have been told to American audiences.

"I got a chance to do stories no other media organization would touch with a 10-foot pole," he said. "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 under-served by mainstream media. And we got a chance to do that."

May acknowledged some backlash to the Al Jazeera brand based on the way some tried to link it to terrorism.

"Were there issues with the name, the reputation -- albeit I think false -- you know, here in this country? I think so," he said.

I believe that backlash was political, ideological and, in part, fueled by some of Al Jazeera's competitors.

But, in the end, May feels it was more about business.

"There are so many cable channels now," he said. "And TV is losing viewers to the Internet.... So, I think it was a complicated business model for them to try and break in."

Most recently, Al Jazeera America was in the news for an investigative report that claimed Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had purchased banned human growth drugs through his wife in 2011 while he was recovering from surgery on his neck. Manning denied the reports, and Al Jazeera found itself under fire for the sourcing on its story.

I was cheered by the arrival of Al Jazeera America in 2013 after access to American homes was gained through the $500 million purchase of Al Gore's foundering Current TV channel. Based on documentaries made by English-language Al Jazeera about America cities like Baltimore, I saw the potential for a new and fresh voice that would make cable news more diverse and more willing to take on Wall Street.

So, I am disappointed by the news today.


But there is no story line bigger or stronger in American media than the failure of TV to live up to its promise as a force for democracy -- all of TV.

This is just another chapter in that tale.