Let’s get the cynicism out of the way first. Yes, the takeover of Al Gore’s Current TV by al-Jazeera, a pan-Arab broadcaster headquartered in and funded by the Qatari state, is unlikely to send tremors through the current American media landscape. The revamped al-Jazeera America channel — and, yes, it will actually be called that — will have a hard time winning its way into the American mainstream. Current TV, after all, is a fringe player with a small viewership. And some U.S. conservatives, like Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, remain convinced al-Jazeera is anti-American propaganda, a cipher for terrorist sympathizers and antiwar peaceniks. Others simply doubt the ability of an international news channel to spark interest in the U.S. Writing in the Guardian, American media critic Michael Wolff dismissed al-Jazeera English — the broadcaster’s international challenge to the BBC and CNN — as “so boring that there is no real reason to be hostile to it.”
But there are real reasons to welcome al-Jazeera’s $500 million entry into tens of millions of American households. The main one is that, contrary to what Wolff and O’Reilly think, al-Jazeera English (I’m in less of a position to judge its more controversial Arabic counterpart) is a very good news network. It’s sober, thoughtful and, flush with Qatar’s petrowealth, capable of devoting resources to stories other major news channels now eschew; few international networks cover Latin America and Africa, let alone the Middle East, with more authority and depth than al-Jazeera. Its journalists hail from some 50 countries, making it one of the most cosmopolitan enterprises in the news business. What Wolff deems “boring” has been praised by other prominent Americans as “real news.” Colin Powell apparently told Al Gore that it’s the only channel he watches. And here’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011:
You may not agree with [al-Jazeera English], but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads, and the kind of stuff that we do on our news. Which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.
Yes, critics are right to point to the network’s paymaster — a government whose political agenda has, at times, directly influenced its coverage. The channel, for example, has been one of the most avid watchers of the Syrian conflict (Qatar is known to be arming and funding factions of the Syrian rebellion) but was relatively quiet about Arab Spring unrest in the nearby Kingdom of Bahrain, a close Gulf state ally of Doha. But mainstream American networks are also susceptible to external political pressures. And while al-Jazeera presents the news sometimes with a discernible bias, it lacks the partisan shrillness of channels glued to the Beltway like MSNBC and Fox News.
In 2011, as al-Jazeera received plaudits for its unmatched coverage of the Arab Spring, I spoke with Abderrahim Foukara, the network’s Washington bureau chief. He rejected the much-vaunted (largely American) notion of “objective” journalism and outlined what al-Jazeera English seeks to do instead:
It’s focused on all parts of the world and therefore it has an eye on all sorts of different audiences. That’s what gives it its unique identity. Of course, from one crisis to another you adjust the focus — but the idea is that you’re actually catering to all different parts of the world. There’s a belief that we live in a global village, but a global village where until very recently information came down from the global north to the south. But now you’ve a channel that tries to reverse that movement from the south to the north.
There’s also an awareness that we live in a world that is increasingly characterized by people’s wishes to live in free and democratic systems. The notion is that you have to focus on people’s grievances and aspirations — because these are the people who are watching you — and if those people themselves are increasingly imbued with a certain skepticism of government, well that has to reflect in a channel like al-Jazeera English.
It’s that impulse, combined with al-Jazeera’s terrific production values and recent record of award-winning documentary journalism, that could very well animate the nascent al-Jazeera America network. There’s cause to believe that al-Jazeera America may better speak to the demographics of the 21st century U.S — championing minorities, inner cities and youth issues. Americans hungry for a change from the usual may start tuning in.
Even if it never achieves top ratings in the U.S., al-Jazeera has in many senses already stolen a march on mainstream American competitors. For example, al-Jazeera English’s Washington-based social-media news show The Stream is the progenitor of other Internet broadcasts like HuffPost Live that may well become the norm in the decades to come. Yesterday, as detractors elsewhere bloviated over al-Jazeera’s mythical terrorist ties, The Stream hosted famous epistemologist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. The show’s anchors quizzed him on systems of governance and the political dysfunction behind the fiscal cliff with the help of myriad viewers who joined in via a Google+ Hangout or on Twitter. Questions came from a remote town in western Texas, New York City and many places in between. Al-Jazeera knows that there’s already an American audience for a serious news network that manages to be at once both local and global. And it also knows there’s no other major American news network capable of matching that feat.