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.