Meet Al Jazeera America

by Eliana Johnson
The new channel is not exactly transforming the landscape of American television.

You may not have known it, but there is an infant-mortality crisis sweeping the country. An hour-long documentary from the new cable-news channel Al Jazeera America called attention to the situation, with correspondent Sebastian Walker reporting from Cleveland, Ohio, “America’s infant-mortality capital.” There, he spoke with new mothers about why a country that spends so much on health care is “failing to ensure the health of its newest citizens.” A disproportionate number of African-American babies die in the first year of their lives. “So you have this huge, huge disparity, and that’s kind of business as usual. It’s been going on for decades,” a local doctor told Walker. A state senator put it more bluntly: “It seems to some communities and the communities that I represent that some babies matter more than others.” In Cleveland, there is no good news: “We are not anywhere close to being that vigilant about trying to practice preventative medicine, about trying to keep families out of crisis,” the doctor said.

Welcome to Al Jazeera America, the new cable-news channel that came to millions of American homes in August with a unique approach to the cutthroat business of TV news: Money was no object, ratings were of no consequence, and programming was going to be serious and important.

The stated goal of the pan-Arab network’s American satellite was, according to AJA’s CEO, Ehab Al Shihabi, to provide “fact-based, unbiased, and in-depth news” with “less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings” than its competitors. If you build it, they will come.

Or will they?

The network used its Qatari riches to stir great speculation about its plans, hiring over 850 staffers and opening bureaus in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. It is building up the kind of assets that the big-three broadcast networks used to enjoy, producing 14 hours of hard news everyday and a raft of lengthy, multi-part documentaries.

Its employees have not been shy about boasting of the channel’s financial assets. “I had a career at CBS News for 35 years, and we were shrinking our bureaus,” AJA’s senior vice president for news gathering, Marcy McGinnis, has said.

Much of that reporting presents to an American audience a rather bleak vision of their country — heroin in Vermont, domestic violence in South Carolina, subpar neonatal care in Ohio — that hasn’t been covered extensively by other networks, but probably for a reason: These things aren’t really that much of a problem. But AJA is determined to paint a dreary, depressing, and often pedantic view of the country in which we live. It’s easy to imagine why more viewers aren’t flocking to a channel offering little more than doom and gloom.

To gain access to American living rooms, Al Jazeera proper opened the checkbook after its original English-language channel proved a flop, failing to reach more than 5 million homes in the United States. In the years following the second Gulf War, American cable companies were wary of a channel whose parent network aired programming deeply hostile to Israel and whose reporters seemed disturbingly sympathetic to the anti-American passions of the Arab street.

But AJA gained a foothold in approximately 60 million of the 100 million American households with cable access when it purchased Al Gore’s Current TV in January 2013 for a whopping $500 million. (Though Time Warner, which had carried Current TV, said at the time of the sale that it would drop carriage for AJA, the channel has since struck a deal with the distributor that gives it access to 10 million additional homes and makes it available in key markets like Los Angeles and New York.) The powers that be in Qatar, whose support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has recently raised eyebrows, also bought Gore’s influence, placing him on AJA’s “advisory board.”

All of this produced a lot of excitement among AJA’s employees and media analysts alike.

A week before AJA’s launch, Al Shihabi, the CEO, told the New York Times that viewers would see “a news channel unlike the others.” AJA president Kate O’Brian predicted in a year-end memo to staff that the channel would in time be “the envy of the industry.”

National Press Foundation president Bob Meyers said AJA’s launch would transform the news business. He compared AJA’s entry into the market to the emergence of CNN in 1980, Bloomberg News in 1990, and Politico in 2007, events that fundamentally reshaped the news landscape. Brian Stelter, then at the New York Times, called AJA “the most ambitious American television news venture” since the launch of Fox News in 1996.

Thus far, though, despite its unique focus and all that money, the channel has managed to accomplish just one impressive feat: drawing an even tinier audience than Gore’s Current TV. As of last month, it was averaging approximately 10,000 viewers at any given point during the day. It has been on the air for just seven months, sure, and it’s available in just half the number of homes its competitors are. But that 10,000 statistic is minuscule, especially compared to what AJA’s competitors are logging. In February, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News averaged 272,000, 349,000,and 924,000 viewers a day, respectively.

But it’s not just distribution issues and relative youth that have kept AJA from sparking the media revolution some predicted.

In New York’s brutal TV-news world, Al Jazeera has become a warren of the displaced, a home of last resort for many anchors, reporters, and producers who have been fired, laid off, or otherwise discarded by better-known networks.

On air, former CBS News correspondent and CNN anchor Joie Chen now anchors AJA’s flagship broadcast, America Tonight; John Seigenthaler, whose NBC News contract was not renewed several years ago as a cost-saving measure, now delivers the channel’s 8 p.m. evening newscast; Antonia Mora, the former Good Morning America news reader, now reads to a profoundly smaller audience; David Shuster, who landed at Current TV after he was forced out of MSNBC, serves as an anchor; Soledad O’Brien, one of the first to go when Jeff Zucker took the reins at CNN, is one of AJA’s “special correspondents”; Sheila MacVicar, laid off by ABC News and then by CBS News, is a correspondent. As is Mike Viqueira, whom NBC News would never let off the weekend White House shift. Lisa Fletcher, laid off by ABC News in 2010, is an anchor.

AJA has scooped up the same sort of refugees to work behind the scenes. The senior vice president for news gathering, Marcy McGinnis, was teaching journalism at Stony Brook University when AJA came knocking, after being forced out of CBS News. David Doss, the longtime executive producer of CNN’s AC360, was unemployed before he started at AJA in July. The pattern holds all the way on down to the network’s social-media editor, Jared Keller, who was fired by Bloomberg after text messages surfaced in which he complained about his job. His next stop? Al Jazeera America.

The situation is particularly poignant for Jewish producers, some of whom had to choose between unemployment and relatively well-paying work for a channel whose parent network has exhibited virulent anti-Semitism. A cynical joke making the rounds of television Jewry refers to “Jews for Jazeera,” a subtle play, of course, on “Jews for Jesus.”

The network may be covering the news straight on, but, like its sister network Al Jazeera English, which is based in London and broadcasts online and all over the world, it favors narratives that give voice to the “Global South.” It brings attention to people and on areas it believes have been overlooked by the West and America’s power elite.

Perhaps that’s why the documentaries that make up much of the prime-time broadcasts present such a bleak picture of America. They have the look and feel of slow-moving National Geographic films, complete with exotic music, but they focus on dark and depressing corners of the United States. The topics invite reporters to discuss them in a sanctimonious and subtly anti-American way. And they’re boring.

Last week, the flagship broadcast, America Tonight, presented a series of reports on the heroin crisis sweeping rural Vermont. “Heroin is spreading through rural America striking small towns like Rutland, Vermont,” correspondent Adam May reported. There, heroin is “almost as easy to find as a scoop of ice cream.” The show offered no uplifting news, and apparently there are no solutions. May reported that the governor’s plan to tackle the crisis is backfiring, resulting in relapse rates that, at times, reach 100 percent.

On Friday’s edition of Fault Lines, a documentary series intended to examine America’s role in the world and “hold the powerful to account,” AJA revealed another epidemic. In “Death in Plain Sight,”correspondent Teresa Bo brought to light the epidemic of domestic-violence homicide, which, she said, “reaches into every corner of America every day in this country.”

Reporting from outside Columbia, S.C., Bo stated that “more women are killed by men” in South Carolina “than in any other state in the country.” Background reading for the show posted on AJA’s website included a piece from The Atlantic titled, “Having a Gun in the House Doesn’t Make a Woman Safer,” and a Washington Post report about a study showing that the 2007 repeal of a Missouri law that required background checks and licenses for handgun owners was associated with a corresponding increase in murders.

These sorts of depressing programs are only the beginning. Next month, the network is kicking off Borderland, a reality show in which six Americans will retrace the footsteps of migrants from Mexico who died in their attempt to cross the border to the United States. They will “confront their own ‘issues’ when it comes to migration,” AJA says, and “their views on the issue of immigration will not remain the same.”

And, for a channel backed by the ultra-rich Qatari government, AJA is producing remarkably cheap looks and sounds. The green-screen backgrounds look like 1980s artifacts. Guests appear on air with little or no makeup. Scenes in documentaries feel awkward and uncomfortable — there often is no music track where there should be one; when music plays, it often feels out of place.

Perhaps all the dreary programming reflects the worldview of the channel’s producers and talent, for whom AJA is the end of the line in careers that have fallen short of their expectations. “Everything I’ve done for the last 20 years has been leading up to this,” former PBS correspondent Ray Suarez, now the host of AJA’s 5 p.m. show Inside Story, said in an interview. “Frankly, it’s not living hand to mouth as the NewsHour was.”

It’s an odd place to be, getting paid good Arab oil money to produce somber, liberal news programing that nobody watches. Is this really a career, or it is journalism’s version of mowing the grass at the Astrodome?

The question hovering over the channel is how long this gravy train will last. AJA’s employees enjoy good fortune at the pleasure of the Emir of Qatar, the 33-year-old Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, whose father abdicated last June. Not much is known about whether he shares his father’s ambitions to get a toehold in the United States, especially if it means incurring huge financial losses.

Industry experts say AJA’s only value lies in the real estate it occupies on the cable dial. If the young emir decides to, say, turn AJA into a soccer and cricket channel, or to replace sanctimonious documentaries about rural Vermont with redneck reality shows, New York’s most curious welfare program may come to an end.

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

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