Politics & Policy

Al Jazeera America’s Debut

It was simply dreadful. But then, news isn’t what the Qatar-backed channel is about.

Al Jazeera America launched its much-ballyhooed channel Tuesday, providing a mix of unoriginal stories, uninspired reporting, and anti-American bias. Despite the earlier stories in nearly every major news outlet in which AJAM promised a different approach to the news, its debut, simply put, was dreadful.

The only real news AJAM made was filing a lawsuit against AT&T, which decided not to run the channel on its U-verse cable system. The channel is offered, however, on Comcast, Verizon, FiOS, DirecTV, and Dish Network, and on its first day it reached an estimated 48 million households, or less than half the viewership other 24/7 news operations have.

AJAM launched its first “live” programming at 3 p.m. EDT, with a taped promotional video touting its worldview. Hosts Antonio Mora and Richelle Carey recited the AJAM mantra that the channel plans to focus on hard news and “real stories about real people.” The video included former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain lauding coverage by AJAM’s predecessor, Al Jazeera English, which ironically was switched off in the United States to allow AJAM to broadcast. The video also jabbed Fox News, the leading 24/7 cable channel, with a clip of a shouting match on The O’Reilly Factor.

I didn’t think it could get worse, but it did. In AJAM’s Nightly News program, anchored by John Seigenthaler, who left NBC News in 2008, AJAM provided little to excite its viewers. As I took notes about the program, I scribbled a variety of expletives, which I cannot repeat here, about the coverage of a hunger strike at a California prison, where the authorities were force-feeding 130 inmates. I remember that the prison meme, along with crime and racial strife, dominated Soviet television coverage of the United States.

And the anti-American undercurrent didn’t stop there. The intrepid AJAM team found Bangladeshi workers in allegedly substandard conditions making pants for Old Navy, which again allegedly ended up in the United States. The broadcaster said proof existed for these claims, such as a pair of pants actually being sold somewhere in the United States. But no footage of  the store or the pants was shown. I guess physical proof was hard to come by.

The broadcast had little advertising, which means AJAM couldn’t sell much. But AJAM’s spin on this fact has been that it wants to provide more time for news. Interspersed between the nearly ad-free programs were vignettes of various AJAM employees, who said they were excited about working there. In these tough times, journalists would be happy working almost anywhere.

America Tonight, the prime-time magazine show anchored by Joie Chen, reminded me of the inauspicious start of 20/20 in 1978, when Geraldo Rivera investigated the mistreatment of hares in dog racing; the show included a standup from behind a bush at a dog track, in which Rivera spoke earnestly to the camera, and a Claymation caricature of President Jimmy Carter singing “Georgia on My Mind.” ABC News president Roone Arledge fired nearly everyone involved after that first broadcast. America Tonight needs a fresh start, too.

The opening story was about the events in Egypt. Much of the story featured the reporter in the back seat of an automobile telling the audience how dangerous it was. I served as ABC News bureau chief in Cairo starting in ­­1980 and spent nearly a decade covering terrorism and wars for ABC and Newsweek. Of course it’s dangerous! Three journalists and more than 1,000 other people died in Egypt during the past week. Journalists need to talk about the story, not their safety.

Then AJAM turned again to prisons — that familiar theme to show how bad America really is. This story focused on the conditions at Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans and provided exclusive footage of the problems there. A few pertinent facts were downplayed, however. For example, the city and the parish have agreed to a multimillion-dollar building project to make the prison better equipped and more secure. But AJAM didn’t let that fact get in the way of a good story.

The third story was about a young woman who overcame a brain tumor thanks to an experimental program. I was happy to see she made it, but it was difficult to determine whether the treatment could help a significant number of people.

Many news organizations pointed out that AJAM has hired 900 people, including top executives from ABC News and CNN, and opened bureaus throughout the country. I don’t know many of these journalists, but AJAM has to do better than what I saw.

But maybe the news isn’t what AJAM is really about. Qatar, which provides much of the funding for the cable channel, has deeper pockets than Jeff Bezos, who recently bought the Washington Post for $250 million. Simply put, I don’t think the channel is about making money in an already-crowded 24/7 cable milieu. AJAM provides the government of Qatar, which has said it will not be involved in the editorial product, a seat at the political table in the United States. One of the richest countries in the world, Qatar provides aid to the Syrian rebels and has reportedly paid al-Qaeda to stay away from Qatari territory. Qataris practice Wahhabi Islam, the same conservative style as Saudi Arabia. The government has been accused of promoting anti-American sentiment through the Arabic channel of Al Jazeera and has backed the Palestinians against Israel as an official policy.

If AJAM is really about news, it needs a serious rewind. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. For example, America Tonight has started a multipart series on gangs in Chicago. The first part, which aired yesterday evening, touched the usual themes — the prevalence of drugs, guns, and poverty. That’s another page out of the old Soviet propaganda handbook: Show the economic disparity between blacks and whites. In fact, most gang members in Chicago are thugs the city can no longer control. But at least the reporter got out of his car to speak with some of the good guys and the bad guys.

I did think the sets looked nice.

— Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News, and 20/20.



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