Al Jazeera faces uphill battle with planned U.S. launch
Can Al-Jazeera win hearts and minds in America? The pan-Arab news giant is laying the groundwork for the launch of Al-Jazeera America after its purchase of Current TV, a struggling US cable channel.
It will likely face an uphill battle for viewers but could solidify its journalistic brand, analysts say.
“Al-Jazeera is going into extremely unfamiliar terrain,” said Adel Iskandar, a professor of communication at Georgetown University and co-author of a 2002 book on the Qatar-based news organization.
Iskandar noted, however, that Al-Jazeera’s English-language operation around the world “has done a spectacular job” in areas of the world “where international broadcasters can’t afford to go.”
He said that Al-Jazeera, with its “extremely deep pockets” thanks to funding by Qatar’s royal family, has the money to hire a solid team of journalists so that it can carve a niche in the difficult US market.
Al-Jazeera has not released details on the launch and declined a request for an interview. But it has announced plans to open offices in a dozen US cities, including Detroit and Chicago, and hired some respected journalists.
Among those on board are Ali Velshi, a former CNN business news host, and Edward Pound, a former investigative reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
“All Al-Jazeera America reporters will be fiercely objective, substantively strong and absolutely committed to the truth,” said a blog post from Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of Al-Jazeera international operations.
Deborah Potter, a longtime CBS News correspondent who now heads the journalism training center NewsLab, said Al-Jazeera has burnished its credentials in recent years.
“The Arab Spring was a real turning point for Al-Jazeera,” she said.
“Every single outlet used their news, and they got credit for it. They got a reputation as an organization that knows how to cover news.”
Potter acknowledged, however, that Al-Jazeera America “will have a long way to go to build an audience” in the US market, facing rivals in the news segment like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
“I do think they have an opportunity to be distinctly different by not doing talk in primetime and by having a presence where other news channels don’t.”
But in order to gain viewers, “they need some big names,” Potter said.
“Because of the way American consumes television news, a lot of it is personality-driven. And so far, Al-Jazeera doesn’t have those names to draw an audience.”
Media analyst Ken Doctor said that even without a large audience, Al-Jazeera can make a name for itself in the US and boost its prestige.
“They will be able to break some news,” he said.
“They will be all over the Internet, and I believe they will have a social (media) strategy. They are not going to have a huge audience, but their impact will be magnified by the Internet.”
Al-Jazeera will be able to select from a wide range of journalists. The group said it received 22,000 applications for some 800 job openings.
The US launch was announced in January, when Al-Jazeera said it was acquiring Current, a channel co-founded by former US vice president Al Gore.
Al-Jazeera, whose English service has been available on a handful of US cable systems, will be able to reach millions more US homes than it does at present.
But the news channel could face a harsh reception from some quarters, with critics complaining about the network known previously for broadcasting videos from Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Republican Congressman Tim Murphy asked the Federal Communications Commission to review the deal for Current, citing “legitimate concerns about the sale of an American news channel to a media corporation owned by a foreign government.”
The conservative activist group Accuracy in Media accused Al-Jazeera of being a “mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood and its various terrorist affiliates.”
“Al-Jazeera has already been shown to play a role in radicalizing Muslims abroad to make Americans into terrorist targets,” AIM’s Cliff Kincaid said.
“Is there any reason to believe its impact in America itself would be any different?”
The reasons remain unclear for Al-Jazeera’s US launch, likely to be a huge financial drain and unlikely to turn a profit anytime soon.
Georgetown’s Iskandar said the group appears to be seeking to boost the prestige and influence of Al-Jazeera, and of Qatar.
“They want to be able to project an influential image for their nation state,” he said.
But he noted that “there could be a certain naivete” by its owners about the news business, and that things could backfire if Al-Jazeera trips up, or is seen as a mere tool of Qatar.
This has happened among Arabic-speaking audiences, Iskandar said, as the network lost credibility for its coverage of the Syria crisis.
“Al-Jazeera made a name for itself doing investigative reporting but has lost a large amount of its audience in the Syrian conflict by being seen an extension of the Qatari foreign ministry,” he said.
“In the US, there are a minefield of problems. They are walking into this blindfolded, but that may be why they might succeed.”