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Al-Jazeera America: Will Americans Watch?

Aug 23, 2013
Originally published on August 23, 2013 4:20 pm

Qatar’s Al-Jazeera Media Network launched the U.S. cable network Al-Jazeera America this week.

Billing itself for “real news for real people,” the network promised unbiased coverage from its 12 bureaus across the U.S.

The network is available in 40 million households. But there are questions over whether Americans will tune in.


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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Welcome to Al-Jazeera America.


Qatar's Al-Jazeera News Network launched an American cable channel this week. It's called Al-Jazeera America, and it joins the network's Arabic and English language versions. Al-Jazeera America is opening 12 bureaus across the country, and thanks to the deep pockets of the Qatari royal family, there's speculation that profit is not a main goal. It will not be carried by all providers, but it is carried by Comcast and DirecTV, among others. But will Americans tune in? Lawrence Pintak is dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. He's also the author of "The New Arab Journalist," and he's with us now. Welcome.

LAWRENCE PINTAK: Thank you very much.

HOBSON: Well, do you think that there is an appetite for Al-Jazeera America in the U.S.?

PINTAK: Well, if you don't have a business plan, you don't have to make money, yeah, because there is probably a niche there of people who actually want to be able to turn on their TV and get news rather than talking heads and people shouting at each other.

HOBSON: So these are not people that are already watching, let's say, Fox News or MSNBC or CNN. These are new people. Or are these people that Al-Jazeera is going to have to pull away from the other cable networks?

PINTAK: Oh, I think for the most part they don't have to pull them away. I'm not sure how many Fox viewers are going to over to Jazeera. But certainly the people that go to CNN or MSNBC, or I suppose at some level Fox, and just get tired of hearing celebrity news and hearing people shouting may in fact go over and sample Jazeera.

HOBSON: Well, let's listen to one of the promos that they are running where Americans talk about why they are dissatisfied with current news offerings.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm always amazed at how American-centric the news is here, and I'm not sure that it's always the same in other countries.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We don't always feel like we're getting fed the truth and the whole story.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If the news cared more about the communities, I think it would help everyone.

HOBSON: So that's the message they're sending, but of course there are a lot of questions about the objectivity of Al-Jazeera Arabic, especially on issues like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Mohammed Morsi. There are many people saying that they supported him.

PINTAK: It's - the catch is they. Who's they? Al-Jazeera Arabic, the mother ship, has certainly been widely criticized for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Jazeera English much less so. It's a largely foreign-run and foreign-sounding network. But Jazeera America, or AJAM, as they call it, is carrying that albatross. Their strength and their weakness is the name Al-Jazeera. And to try to get over that, they're emphasizing that we're just like you. They're trotting out all these fresh-scrubbed young reporters from local American TV. We're American is apple pie.

And at one point on the first day there was an exchange when Ed Harris, the anchor, introduced Ali Velshi, the business reporter who came over from CNN. Velshi said, oh, it's great to work with you again, Ed, emphasizing the fact that they're both refugees from CNN.

HOBSON: And they are incorporating a lot of Americans into their reporting. Here is a reporter, Robert Ray, taking a boat ride in the bayou in Louisiana, talking with residents about a sinkhole that state officials believe is linked with mining.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: For people who haven't seen Bayou Corne, it really and truly is a beautiful bayou paradise.

ROBERT RAY: One year ago, people in the small community of Bayou Corne began to sense that something was wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You cannot walk outside. It burns your nose. It burns your throat. It was horrible.

RAY: The smell of natural gas and crude oil was swirling around. The ground was trembling.

HOBSON: So a real focus on U.S. local stories in the heartland, it seems like.

PINTAK: Indeed. And you notice that the tone is more measured. The pieces are longer. The overall tone is calmer. It's really you guys. It's NPR with pictures at some level.

HOBSON: Interesting, which is a very different model than a lot of the other news on television these days.

PINTAK: Absolutely. I think the best example of that was on day one when over on CNN they were endlessly looping footage of the kids running out of that school in Georgia where there had been the shooter, and they're flashing on the screen: breaking news, school shooting. Long after the guy have been caught. Over on AJAM they said, well, kids are out. Kids are safe. Shooter is caught. Now, basically, let's move on.

HOBSON: What about the connections to Qatar? How is that going to play into this? How much of an influence do the Qataris have on the content on Al-Jazeera America?

PINTAK: Well, that's the $500 million question, which of course is what they paid for Current TV to put this on the air. Qatar has not overtly interfered very much with Al-Jazeera English. Al-Jazeera Arabic clearly reflects Qatari foreign policy. But one would think that - the Qataris are pretty smart, and they're here because they want to be players on a global basis. And they've hired, you know, the - head of this network's from ABC, the head of newsgathering's from CBS, et cetera, et cetera. And they're not going to start messing with these people on day one.

I think the big test will come when and if the U.S. gets involved in another foreign war, and they're reporting that war from a very different perspective. And/or they dig out some big story that affects either U.S. foreign policy negatively, or there's something going on in Qatar, an uprising in Qatar that they don't want covered.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk about some of the criticism that has come from the commentator Glenn Beck. He calls Al-Jazeera America, "the voice of the enemy." That is a quote. He says it will pump propaganda into America.

PINTAK: The idea that the Qataris would come here to overtly pump propaganda is unlikely, to say the least. They have hired a group of people who all have strong journalistic chops. And if they become a propaganda mouthpiece or they try to make the network a propaganda mouthpiece, these people are going to flee. It's much more subtle. Qatar absolutely wants to be a player on the global stage.

They have, through Al-Jazeera Arabic and other steps they've taken in recent years, have become major players in the Middle East. And they want to be players on a global basis. So do they want to influence the world, show the world that they are important? Absolutely. Are we going to see radical clerics spouting calls for jihad on Al-Jazeera America? Not going to happen.

HOBSON: Lawrence Pintak, how are you going to measure success, and when will we know if this channel is going to be successful or a flop?

PINTAK: I think it comes down to what people are saying about it and how many people are watching it. If a relative handful of people are watching it, saying good things about it, if we walk into the White House briefing room and it's on the monitors, if it's on the monitors at the State Department - which you know it's going to be - that's going to be success from the Qatari's standpoint. Because, of course, there is no business model here. They don't have to make money, which makes them unique.

HOBSON: Lawrence Pintak is dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. He's also the author of "The New Arab Journalist." Lawrence Pintak, thanks so much for joining us.

PINTAK: Thank you.

HOBSON: And coming up, something completely different. We'll get a taste of the alternative music trends at this weekend's Afropunk festival in Brooklyn. We'll be back with that, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.