Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network once labeled “vicious” by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is seeking to appeal to an American audience willing to look beyond its reputation as the mouthpiece of terrorists and Islamist militants.
Al Jazeera America, a new cable-news channel that begins airing today, is geared to Americans fed up with opinionated newscasts to tune in over rivals MSNBC, Fox News and CNN. The network, controlled by the Qatari royal family, paid $500 million for Al Gore’s money-losing Current TV in January and rebranded it. Al Jazeera America says it will offer unbiased, in-depth reporting on topics such as health-care reform, drugs in baseball, and gun violence in Chicago.
Domestic news will be complemented by reports from more than 400 international correspondents -- many stationed in countries where few Western reporters venture. The channel, which has hired some 700 staffers for a dozen U.S. bureaus including Nashville, New Orleans and Detroit, faces the hurdle of appealing to an American audience that remembers Al Jazeera as the forum for Osama bin Laden’s video messages after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
Former President George Bush considered the network sympathetic to terrorists, and the U.S. government was angered when Al Jazeera broadcast images of civilian casualties in the Iraqi City of Fallujah in 2003. That same year, the U.S. military mistakenly bombed Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office, killing one of its journalists.
“The mass American audience still has a negative perception around Al Jazeera post-Sept. 11 and the early days of the Iraq war,” said Philip Seib, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “Al Jazeera won’t run away from their Middle East identity, but stressing that connection will get it about a dozen viewers.”
To boost its appeal to Americans, Al Jazeera has brought on CNN personalities such as Soledad O’Brien, Ali Velshi and Emmy Award-winner Michael Okwu. And former ABC senior vice president Kate O’Brian serves as president. Programs include “Real Money” with Velshi and current affairs program “Consider This” with former ABC News correspondent Antonio Mora.
Al Jazeera America started service at 3 p.m. New York time with “This is Al Jazeera: Preview Hour,” followed by news headlines at 4 p.m. A rundown of Al Jazeera America’s top U.S. stories on its website today included California to force-feed inmates on hunger strike, the CIA admitting to its role in a 1953 Iran coup and a feature on a Detroit union challenging the city’s bankruptcy request.
Network research showed that some 50 million Americans “feel badly underserved by TV news,” said Paul Eedle, Al Jazeera America’s deputy news director. “They aren’t watching because the news doesn’t speak to them,” Eedle said. “We’re inviting people to watch us and make up their minds,”
The network tried for years to get U.S. cable operators to pick up its Al Jazeera English channel, which broadcasts to 220 million homes in more than 100 countries. Despite a campaign urging supporters to tweet about the channel and like it on Facebook, it’s only found in New York, Washington, and a handful of other markets.
Buying Current TV gives Al Jazeera America access to about 43 million homes nationwide, less than half of all pay-TV homes. It lost several million homes when Time Warner Cable Inc. dropped Current after the purchase, though the two companies are negotiating a return for Al Jazeera.
AT&T Inc. dropped the network from its U-verse TV service just a day before it was set to debut, according to Mark Siegel, a spokesman for the phone company. AT&T has about 5 million pay-TV households. Siegel declined to comment on whether the companies remain in talks.
The Qatar company also has deals with Comcast Corp., DirecTV and Dish Network Corp. for BeIN Sport, a group of channels it owns in France, the U.S. and Canada that have rights to European soccer leagues.
The push into the U.S. comes as Al Jazeera faces a crisis in core Middle Eastern markets, where the network once hailed as instrumental in the Arab Spring protests is being accused of bias. In Egypt, some of its journalists have quit, saying they were told to lionize ousted former Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Syria, Al Jazeera has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles citing former Al Jazeera staffers who say the network aided rebels during the civil war and encouraged reporters to write favorably about their cause. In Bahrain, the government banned Al Jazeera correspondents from reporting, citing bias toward Israel.
Al Jazeera has rejected those claims and accuses Egyptian authorities of intimidating its staff after security forces raided its Cairo offices and took several staffers into custody. But the popular perception of the network in the Middle East has shifted from a source of fair and accurate reporting to one that echoes the foreign policy and sentiment of the Qatari government.
“Al Jazeera is perceived as playing a political role more than that of a journalist,” said Fatima El-Issawi, who leads a London School of Economics research project titled Arab Revolutions: Media Revolutions.
There’s little doubt that some Americans are looking for an alternative to Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. BBC America and BBC World News have been in “demand as the trend has veered toward impartiality” in the U.S., said Ann Sarnoff, chief operating officer of the BBC Worldwide North America.
“It’s not going to be easy to displace those well-established heavyweights,” said Alex DeGroote, a media analyst at Panmure Gordon in London. “But if there’s a market for something like C-Span then there will be a market for Al Jazeera.”