Can a TV news channel based in Qatar really be good for America?
That's the $500 million question as Al Jazeera America prepares to launch this month in 50 million U.S. homes.
The build-up, which has included hiring more than 400 journalists led by such national and Baltimore TV names as Ali Velshi and Adam May, respectively, has been chronicled with fascination by media reporters used to covering mostly stories of downsizing and closings in recent years. Last week alone, Al Jazeera America opened 12 domestic bureaus in such cities as Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco and Dallas.
But despite the positive story of a new journalistic entity with deep pockets coming to life, the coverage has in large part been political from the start, when former Vice President Al Gore sold his Current TV channel to Al Jazeera in January for a reported $500 million. As a source of news and information, Gore's channel was a bust, but the purchase guaranteed the global news operation access to those 50 million American households, thanks to Current's agreements with cable operators.
Despite winning Peabody, Polk and Robert F. Kennedy awards for its BBC-inspired style of journalism on the Al Jazeera (Arabic) and Al Jazeera English channels, the brand has been characterized since the Iraq war as a mouthpiece for al Qaida by such members of the George W. Bush administration as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
While it would be challenge enough for any foreign media company to try to establish a new cable news channel on the highly competitive landscape of American television these days, analysts say that Bush-era stigma makes it even more difficult — especially when it comes to winning over those American viewers unwilling to look beyond the ideologically charged labels.
"The biggest challenge for Al Jazeera America is to create an identity that will be different enough for it to stand out from CNN, Fox or MSNBC, but not so different as to the point where American viewers are alienated by it," says Mohammed el-Nawawy, author of "Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism" (Westview Press, 2003).
"Al Jazeera is still suffering from the negative image and the negative framing campaign that was launched during the Bush administration by Rumsfeld and company," el-Nawawy says. "Al Jazeera America has to overcome that baggage, even as it walks the fine line of trying to distinguish itself in America with the kind of aggressive reporting Al Jazeera has always been known for."
Philip Seib, author of "The Al Jazeera Effect" (Potomac Books, 2008), says the new channel has no choice but to go with hard news and investigative journalism. That's what makes Al Jazeera Al Jazeera — whether or not some critics will claim there's an anti-American bias driving such tough-minded journalism.
"I don't think they'll do well if they're just another television news operation," says Seib. "If they emphasize investigative reporting, if they provide a harder kind of news than we've been getting in the past few years from the American networks, then, yes, I think Al Jazeera America will find an audience — an audience that will stick with them."
Solid, traditional journalism is at the heart of Al Jazeera America's strategy, according to Paul Eedle, head of programming at Al Jazeera English and deputy launch manager for the new American channel.
"I hope that we'll distinguish ourselves through the breadth and depth of our firsthand reporting," says Eedle, pointing to the 12 U.S. bureaus and 16 investigative reporters. "We're putting a lot of reporting resources out there right across the country to cover stories that matter to Americans."
Having deep pockets in the home office gives Al Jazeera America a keen advantage in these cost-cutting media days, Eedle says.
"There's a tremendous history of television journalism in this country, but it does feel in recent years as if a lot of television journalism has been on the retreat with resources being squeezed," he says. "We are making the commitment of resources to get back out into the country to cover stories where they are a priority."
With the political orientation of MSNBC and Fox and a more sensational bent at CNN under new president Jeff Zucker, Al Jazeera management sees a further opening.
"We think there's room for a new voice in American news," Eedle adds, "and we will do our level best to bring people the in-depth, unbiased, human reporting that really helps people live their lives."
One of the people the channel is counting on to do some of that reporting is Adam May, one of six reporters on its nightly prime-time show "America Tonight," which is hosted by former CNN anchor Joie Chen. The team's work will be augmented with reports from special correspondents like Soledad O'Brien, who contracted with the channel to do reports and documentaries through her production company.
After a decade at WJZ-TV, the CBS-owned station in Baltimore, May joined Al Jazeera America in June, working out of its Washington bureau. He says be has been on the road virtually nonstop, reporting on stories about religious fundamentalism in Arizona, prison conditions in New Orleans, schools in Nebraska and big-box stores in Chicago.
"It doesn't matter where the story is in America. We have been given the green light to go ahead and get it," May says. "So if I need to get an interview in Alaska, I'll go to Alaska. If I need to go back across the country the next day and go to Maine, I'll head there."
The talent he's working with is top shelf as well, according to the 37-year-old Baltimore resident.
"I am one of only a couple people in my entire office with [only] a local news background," May says. "The head of my show [Kim Bondy], she was a VP at CNN. I've been in New Orleans for the past eight days shooting a couple of different reports, and the photographer I worked with, Fletcher Johnson, worked with Ted Koppel and 'Nightline' for the last couple of decades."
The job at Al Jazeera America has "exceeded" his expectations in virtually every way, May says.
"I was promised we would be doing in-depth, unbiased journalism, and we're doing exactly that," he says. "And when they say 'long-format pieces,' I just got an email from a producer for a story I worked on a couple of weeks ago, and the script is coming out at 12 minutes.
"So I am really excited that we're actually being given the time to tell these stories appropriately and to let the interviews breathe and to flesh out issues — and not do flash-in-the-pan journalism like so many people these days."
Roger Aronoff, editor at Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog organization that has worked to keep Al Jazeera English off TV in the U.S., acknowledges the global media giant's journalistic muscle.
"Look, if we're not talking about their coverage of Israel and situations in the Middle East and Egypt and all that, Al Jazeera English has some of the best coverage," he says. "If you want to follow the elections in Zimbabwe like I do or you want to know what's going in Mali, it's true, CNN and the others hardly have any coverage of that anymore."
But, he quickly adds, AIM sees Al Jazeera America as "a wolf in sheep's clothing" with "a long history of being tied to al Qaida."
"Our concern is that these people have a hidden agenda," Aronoff says. "I think they're thinking long term, 'Let's get in. Let's win their confidence. Let's just seem to be a normal, average network and not show our real agenda, and then 10, 20 years from now we'll be sitting pretty.' That's the fear we have."
Aronoff says AIM wants the House Committee on Homeland Security Committee to conduct hearings on Al Jazeera America.
"We think they should possibly be registered as a foreign agent for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari government," he says.
"Al Jazeera is not a network that is providing a platform for terrorists," el-Nawawy, the Knight-Crane professor of communications at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, says emphatically.
"Al Jazeera has done way more than air the bin Laden tapes," he adds, referring to audio and video tapes released by Osama bin Laden to Al Jazeera among others between 2001 and 2011.
"I think that kind of talk needs to end," he concludes. "There is still some remnant of that reputation in some people's minds, and I think that's the elephant in the room when you talk about Al Jazeera now. But I think it's the responsibility of mainstream American media to make it clear that Al Jazeera is a regular network that has very high journalistic standards. And that adding a network like Al Jazeera to the U.S. market will enrich and enliven and even revitalize the news media scheme in the United States."
Al Jazeera America did not respond to a request for comment on AIM's claims.
While efforts by AIM and others were successful in keeping Al Jazeera English off most U.S. cable systems, the only carrier so far that says it will not replace Current TV with Al Jazeera America on Aug. 20 is Time Warner. And the two sides are said to still be in negotiations.
In Baltimore City, for example, Comcast subscribers will find Al Jazeera America on Current TV's Channel 107 on Aug. 20 — where it will be grouped with the Fox Business Channel, C-SPAN2, C-SPAN3 and Bloomberg.
Still, 50 million homes is only half of the 100 million U.S. households that CNN, for example, has access to.
Thanks to financing from the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Al Jazeera doesn't need instant ratings. But it still has a long and uncertain way to go if it wants to play in the league of CNN and Fox News — and not be marginalized in the U.S. the way Current was.
"Cable operators perceive that there is a part of their audience that bought into the Bush administration arguments about Al Jazeera," says Seib, a professor of journalism and international relations at the University of Southern California.
"Most of these people have never even looked at Al Jazeera Arabic or Al Jazeera English, but there is a prejudice still out there," he adds. "And, you know, cable operators like to follow the path of least resistance.
"If this were a network emphasizing celebrity news, they'd gobble it right up. But this is going to be solid journalism, I think, based on the history of Al Jazeera. And cable operators aren't so enthusiastic about that. And the thing is, if there's anything that's lacking in American television news today it's solid journalism."
Al Jazeera America premieres Aug. 20.
In Baltimore, Comcast subscribers will find it on Current TV's Channel 107, grouped with the Fox Business Channel, C-SPAN2, C-SPAN3 and Bloomberg. It will be also be replacing Current on all Comcast, Verizon and AT&T systems.
It will be on Channel 358 on DirecTV and 215 on Dish, grouped with the same news kind of news channels.
[Correction: An earlier version incorrectly described the topic of the story Adam May worked on in Arizona.]