welcome to america, al jazeera

Tuesday, Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera launched a 24-hour American news channel, the first since Fox News began in the mid-nineties. It replaced Current TV, a progressive media company founded by Al Gore that had been struggling with ratings, with promises to report substantive, in-depth news coverage as an alternative to the flashy but vacuous networks that currently dominate television news.

Ready for this shocker? I’m a news junkie. I listen to NPR whenever I’m in my car, click on every link tweeted my way from the BBC and The Daily Beast, pick up the New York Times whenever I have a chance, and spend an embarrassing amount of time scrolling through news blogs. However, if you ever were looking for an effective way to torture me (shame on you), you could lock me in a room and surround me with FOX News or CNN or MSNBC and I would crack within one hour of listening to this staged banter between anchors and piffle masked as news. I’m precisely the type of viewer that Al Jazeera hopes to snag, except that I don’t own a tv. Still, the idea of a news network that spends more than 90 seconds on a story and reports and analyzes the news from an unbiased perspective–which should not be a revolutionary concept in any way–is pretty exciting.

However, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) was riding the wave of criticism before it even aired this week. To begin with, it is based in the Middle East, which, of course, isn’t a problem in and of itself. But many people have made the connection between Al Jazeera and their own Islamophobia–although the network seems fairly optimistic that it will play a role in revising Americans’ perceptions of the Middle East. In an interview with NPR’s On The Media, CNN transplant and current host of AJAM’s Real Money Ali Velshi compared the network to Japanese cars in the sixties and seventies.

“You were gonna get in a lot of trouble from your neighbors if you pulled up in a Toyota or a Honda,” Velshi said. “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.”

I can easily dismiss the objections that are based solely on xenophobia, but the allegations against Al Jazeera actually might hold some weight. Consider this: during its much-criticized coverage of this summer’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, twenty-two staffers resigned. Many people blamed this on Al Jazeera’s intentional pro-Muslim brotherhood angle in its reporting.

Politico’s Blake Hounshell claims that there is editorial direction with Al Jazeera from the Qatari government, and that it comes from the top.

“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,” Hounshell said, and then recalled Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Arab Spring. “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?”

Kate O’Brian, another transplant (from ABC news) and current Al Jazeera president, disagrees.

“I frankly wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that this is an editorially independent media company and channel,” she said. “The formats, the talent, the producers will be American. That’s why Al Jazeera America is different from Al Jazeera English. That’s an international channel. This is an American channel.”

Furthermore, O’Brian adds that the Qatar base is actually an advantage.

“We will be able to tell stories from places that our competitors will not be able to… 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.”

I’m waiting until I can watch full stories on Al Jazeera’s website before I can provide any review on its news reporting, but I’m not the only one who doesn’t have full access to the network. In light of all of this controversy, AT&T U-Verse dropped Al Jazeera from its programming (although its official reason was “an inability to come to terms on a new agreement and due to certain breaches of the existing agreement”; I smell law-speak). This reduced the number of potential AJAM viewers from 48 million to 45 million, so now Al Jazeera is suing AT&T.* It hasn’t exactly been a smooth start.

What has struck me more than anything, however, is Al Jazeera’s claims to report serious, straightforward news without bias, but there is very strong evidence that they are guilty of bias and, moreover, that it was politically motivated. The well-known post-modernist argument contends that nothing exists without subjectivity and thus objectivity in news is impossible. But is it not necessary to have nonpartisan reporting of fact to make informed, conscientious judgments about the world in which we live? I’m both a journalist and surrounded by the news, and I have yet to decide my stance on these questions. What are your thoughts?

*I had AT&T’s wireless service for a week before my connection went out at my new place–and now I’ve been waiting for another week to get it back. Need any help suing U-Verse, AJAM?


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