The Al Jazeera media network is about to launch a new American channel, but limited cable carriage and negative perceptions about the Al Jazeera name might make it difficult to attract viewers. OTM producer Sarah Abdurrahman goes inside Al Jazeera America to find out how the new channel is trying to break into the US media market.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if ESPN’s winning formula was to corner the market on the biggest sports, what’s the recipe for 24-hour news? The opinionated Fox News is still on top, but this summer the opinionated MSNBC lost its second place position to long- time third place, CNN. Is news about niche programming, quality or what?
This week, a new 24-hour news channel will enter the market, with the stated intention of bringing richer programming, less timewasting piffle to the US. Al Jazeera, launched by the Emir of Qatar in 1996, already operates channels in Arabic and in English, both based in the Middle East, but now it wants to create a news channel headquartered in New York City, with a distinctly American flavor. OTM Producer Sarah Abdurrahman went inside Al Jazeera America to bring us a taste.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: You may have heard the news back in January.
MALE CORRESOPNDENT: Al Jazeera is making a strong push for a wider American audience.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Al Gore officially sold his operation, Current TV, to Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera plans to replace Current TV with its own English news network.
PAUL EEDLE: In America, it’s the first new channel launch since the mid-nineties with Fox.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: That last voice was Paul Eedle, program director of the Al Jazeera English channel based in Doha. For the past eight months, he's been working on the new American channel slated to launch on Tuesday.
PAUL EEDLE: The studio used to be one of New York's most famous nightclubs in the forties and fifties, and upstairs here used to be a derelict banking hall. It hadn’t been used, I think, for 30 years. And we connected the two spaces – and built a newsroom.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: This latest addition to the Al Jazeera media empire aims to be an American channel, for an American audience, anchored by its flagship weeknight show, America Tonight. Its senior executive producer, Kim Bondy, formerly of CNN, says it’ll be a current affairs program with a focus on character- driven stories.
KIM BONDY: It has some of the sensibilities of CBS Sunday Morning. It should also look a little bit probably like Rock Center, and we’re stealing a couple of pages out of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Another CNN transplant is Ali Velshi, the first big name to join the new network. He’ll host a nightly show called Real Money, and says if he had a dollar for every person that asked him why he took the job, he wouldn't even need it.
ALI VELSHI: I'm a business reporter who has never had their hands in the business. So the idea that I could come here and leave an impression on this organization, because I was here from day one, was very, very exciting to me. This is not the glamorous life. This office that we’re sitting in bears a striking resemblance to a jail cell. This is a startup.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: On this day, Velshi is meeting with his producers, having just finished a mock run-through of his show.
PRODUCER: …at the top of the segment or you want to try re – referring to them in the middle segment?
ALI VELSHI: I think it’s – I think in this particular case the top of the segment worked well.
ALI VELSHI: A lot of it is the director understanding how I point at things, where I’m gonna stand, whether the monitor in which we're showing that graphic should be oriented as a portrait or as a landscape. As a landscape, which we did today, there’s too much distance that I have to walk. We literally try the same block of news over and over again.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Is it kind of like rehearsing for a school play?
ALI VELSHI: Exactly like rehearsing for a school play.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: You nervous?
ALI VELSHI: The excitement is an anesthetic to the nerves. I, I – I get down there for these rehearsals and for a couple of minutes I think this might actually be real, and then I get excited because I'm talking to my viewers.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: But come Tuesday, will they have viewers? The biggest problem facing the new channel is that many Americans have already made up their minds about it.
MAN: I have to admit that when I hear about Al Jazeera, it does conjure up some negative images because of the whole terrorism in this country, and all that.
WOMAN: It’s Islamic affiliated and it's a very big and an important news source in the Middle East.
MAN: There are individuals who have been sought after. Their information could be broadcast through that station.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Is there any individual that comes to mind when you say that?
MAN: One individual who’s not alive anymore, Bin Laden. His propaganda was filtered through that network.
EHAB AL SHIHABI: I would acknowledge there is a perception, but I will tell you, it’s a perception, not reality.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Al Jazeera America’s CEO, Ehab Al Shihabi, is convinced those perceptions will vanish, once people try it out. He told me about an experiment Al Jazeera English conducted, playing the channel without its logo for a focus group.
EHAB AL SHIHABI: And the focus group came very positive.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: You took off the brand, people watched the product and they liked it. Why not change the logo or do something that might differentiate it a little bit, for people who might have that negative perception?
EHAB AL SHIHABI: We thrive on our name. In 2010, it's been rated #5 strongest brand in the world. So we are sticking with that brand.
ALI VELSHI: I don't think you can ever distance yourself from someone who shares the same corporate parentage or name.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Velshi says he expects viewers will grow to accept the Al Jazeera name, but that right now Americans just aren’t accustomed to Arabic products. He likens it to American attitudes toward Japanese cars in the sixties and seventies.
ALI VELSHI: You were gonna get in a lot of trouble from your neighbors if you pulled up in a Toyota or a Honda. We were not that far removed from a very bitter war with Japan. These people were considered enemies to many Americans, so it was culturally a problem. So when you look at Al Jazeera today, it’s a lack of familiarity and a lot of Americans who think that we are culturally in a different place than a media organization based in the Middle East.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: That base is Qatar, which bankrolls Al Jazeera, opening up the network to criticism that its editorial policy is too much aligned with Qatar’s own interests. America Tonight’s Kim Bondy says conflicts of interest are not unique to Al Jazeera.
KIM BONDY: What media organization has not had its own form of scrutiny, in one way or the other, about the stories that they cover, media networks, you know, that can't do a critical story about a particular advertiser?
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Even so, CEO Ehab Al Shihabi insists that there is no editorial influence from the network’s funders.
EHAB AL SHIHABI: There is a strong firewall between the government of Qatar and Al Jazeera.
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: I think you have to ask, well, what does [LAUGHS] the firewall consist of?
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Politico’s Blake Hounshell, former managing editor for foreign policy, has been told by Al Jazeera Arabic staffers and board members that there is editorial direction from the Qatari government, but it comes at a very high level.
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: It’s not gonna be, you know, people walking down to the newsroom and saying, okay, the Emir wants you to do this and not that. It works, I think, a lot more subtly than that.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: The direction might be subtle but the outcome isn’t always, like when Al Jazeera became the de facto cheerleader for the Arab Spring.
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: During the Libyan uprising, there was this kind of musical introduction to all of their Libya coverage, and it was extremely over the top, really just propaganda glorifying the Libyan rebels. There wasn't a lot of critical coverage of -just who are these people really, and what’s gonna happen after Qaddafi?
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: During Egypt’s first uprising in 2011, Al Jazeera was praised for its coverage of Tahrir Square, but the way it handled this summer's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi damaged the Channel's credibility, even prompting the resignation of 22 of its staffers in Egypt.
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: They were barely covering this huge event, millions of people on the streets, and a lot of people said this was because they’ve got this pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Another time that Al Jazeera was conspicuously quiet was when protests got a little too close to home, in Qatar’s fellow Gulf monarchy of Bahrain. And when the English-language channel did air its award-winning documentary about the harsh government crackdown on Bahraini protesters, scheduled rebroadcasts of the program were canceled.
BLAKE HOUNSHELL: I don't think that the Qatari government really wanted to establish the precedent that massive street protests in a Gulf country are considered a good thing. A lot of particularly American journalists have gone over to Al Jazeera English and felt strongly that it was an independent channel. And this was really the first moment, I think, when a lot of them realized, you know what, this really is a state-owned and operated network, and there are redlines that we can’t cross.
KATE O’BRIAN: I frankly wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that this is an editorially independent media company and channel.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Kate O’Brian, formally of ABC News, is Al Jazeera America's new president.
KATE O’BRIAN: I don't think the director general and the board would have asked me to join, had they not appreciated and respected editorial independence.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: What happens a year from now, when you have to report a story that’s not positive about the Emir of Qatar, what do you do?
KATE O’BRIAN: We report the story as a news story.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: For O’Brian, having Qatar’s backing means access to resources that the rest of the news industry is steadily losing.
KATE O’BRIAN: We will be able to tell stories from places that our competitors will not be able to.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: If you turn on your competitors right now, if you see CNN, MSNBC, Fox and the kind of wall-to-wall coverage that they have of things like the Jodi Arias trial or the George Zimmerman trial - I mean, I could go back years and name countless trials - how are you gonna compete, when that seems to be what your competitors think an American audience wants?
KATE O’BRIAN: I disagree with the premise that that is what American audiences want. That is what American audiences have at their disposal to watch. It's a resource issue. It's a lot easier for a cable channel to put up a trial that has essentially pool video rolling all day long. You don't have to be spending money and resources doing other things. We are so lucky in that we have the resources to be able to tap into stories that are happening all over the world and all over the United States.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: They'll do that by utilizing the 70 bureaus Al Jazeera has around the world and establishing 12 new bureaus in traditionally under-covered places around the US, like Nashville or Detroit.
ALI VEHSLI: People who were disaffected by what they are accustomed to seeing on cable news will detect the difference immediately.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Al Jazeera America host, Ali Velshi.
ALI VEHSHI: They will detect that we are not focusing on those things that they don't think are news. They’ll detect that we do not necessarily look for guests who take the most extreme views. They’ll detect that we allow more time; we don't have rules that say that story’s longer than two minutes, it can’t go on TV. You will know that it is not the same as Fox and MSNBC and CNN, from day one.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: But some critics worry it will actually look exactly like CNN.
GLENN GREENWALD: They seem to have this philosophy that in order to host a show you have to be a current or former CNN employee, which suggests that what they’re really trying to do is replicate the CNN model of being this kind of uncontroversial “offend-nobody” approach to the news.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who’s been a contributor to Al Jazeera's English Channel, says the new network appears to be diluting its brand to curry favor with advertisers and cable carriers, like Time Warner, which dropped Current TV as soon as Al Jazeera bought it.
GLENN GREENWALD: I’ve heard from lots of people on the inside who work at Al Jazeera that they seem very eager to avoid any kind of perception that they are anti-American or anti-Israel, by watering down or outright avoiding the kind of journalism that rings strange to American ears. They also have tried to avoid hiring lots of foreigners or people who look or sound foreign.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Perhaps the most scathing criticism of the network's approach came from one of its own, Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera English’s senior political analyst. He sent a letter to executives at the network, saying that the new channel benefits from the Al Jazeera brand and that any attempt to separate it from the greater network insults the intelligence of the American people.
MARWAN BISHARA: I think it is a sign of a healthy organization that that kind of internal discussion is going on. There's a real question about what does Al Jazeera America have to do to survive. None of us want to give up the reputation that Al Jazeera English has earned. But, at the same time, we do need to have cable carriage. We do need people to understand that this is a station that will cater to their consuming habits.
GLENN GREENWALD: I just don’t think it’s gonna work because Al Jazeera already is, by its very name, associated with Muslims and a foreign news outlet. Some segment of the population is always gonna regard them as some sort of an enemy force. Anybody who has those kind of biases is never gonna watch Al Jazeera, no matter what they do.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Channel President Kate O’Brian doesn’t see the Americanization of Al Jazeera as a bad thing. After all, she says, it is a channel for Americans.
KATE O’BRIAN: So the formats, the talent, the producers will be American. That’s why Al Jazeera America is different from Al Jazeera English. That’s a, an international channel. This is an American channel.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Many people at the network told me they’re hoping for a “Field of Dreams” moment here, that if they build that channel, Americans will come. For On the Media, I’m Sarah Abdurrahman.
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