A new news network financed by an undemocratic foreign government is about to become a major presence in American television. The network is Al Jazeera America, which will be owned and operated by the Arab and English language news network of the same name.
The official purpose of Al Jazeera America is to put real news back onto television. Al Jazeera will have fewer commercials and four hours of straight news a day. Its publicity people also promise hard hitting documentaries and investigative journalism.
Observers note that Al Jazeera America seems to buck many of the trends of television news. It promises more news and less fluff; there will be fewer talking heads and more straight news coverage.
Owned by a Foreign Government
Al Jazeera is owned by a foundation connected to the government of Qatar, a wealthy Persian Gulf state that is ruled by an absolute monarchy. The foundation is supposedly independent, but it has a lot of money to spend. The foundation spent $500 million to purchase Current TV, a low-rated cable channel, to get spots on cable in major American cities.
At least one major cable provider, Time Warner Cable, has dropped Current TV. It isn’t clear why this is, but Time Warner Cable is part of Time Warner AOL, which owns one of Al Jazeera America’s main potential rivals—CNN.
The Qatar rulers are spending a lot of money on Al Jazeera America; they’re hiring 900 employees and planning to open a dozen news bureaus. The attempt is to recreate the kind of coverage that CNN offered back in its heyday.
Even though it is owned by Qatar, most of the people working at Al Jazeera will be veterans of U.S. network and cable TV news. A lot of the faces will be familiar to viewers even if the brand is not.
A Major News Operation
Al Jazeera America is going to be a major news operation; The New York Times reports that it is costing hundreds of millions of dollars to set up. They’ve hired some big name TV reporters, including Joie Chen.
The question we have to ask is, is this good or bad? That’s difficult to say because we have not seen the finished product yet.
If Al Jazeera America actually puts some news back on television, that would certainly be a good thing. I for one am sick and tired of so-called news networks that consist of talking heads ranting and raving at each other and celebrity gossip.
Television news in the United States has been seriously dumbed down over the last 10 years or so. If Al Jazeera is actually going to try and show intelligent news, that will certainly be welcome.
Foreign Organization Could Have Vast Power and Influence in the United States
The downside of this is that a foreign organization that is beholden to a foreign government for its financing could get a great deal of influence in the United States. Spending all that money and employing all those journalists will certainly get it influence.
One has to wonder if Al Jazeera’s commitment to ethical, no-holds-barred journalism will extend to the Emirate of Qatar and its allies in the Persian Gulf. Will the network be willing to air stories that make Arabs or Muslims look bad? What about stories critical of Qatar’s influence around the world?
Is It Really Independent
If WikiLeaks exposes corruption in Qatar, will Al Jazeera America run the story? There’s also Qatar’s dependence on the U.S. military for defense. Qatar needs the presence of U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf to protect it from hostile powers like Iran. Qatar also benefits from U.S. military operations against Al Qaeda and other extremists that would presumably destroy its modern capitalist society if given the chance.
So we have to ask if there is an agenda to influence American public opinion and politics here. We have to be very skeptical of Al Jazeera America, but we have to be skeptical of all news organizations.
There is no such thing as an unbiased journalist or a journalist that doesn’t have ulterior motives. The other networks have agendas whether they admit it or not.
A big agenda in recent years has been the commercialization of news. There was a time when networks and TV stations viewed news as an obligation rather than a profit center. In recent years TV stations in particular have gone to great length to try and get news to generate income.
In recent years news networks have started running a lot of programming that looks like infomercials. Journalists and hosts are now promoting products on air during newscasts. Local TV is the worst offender here, but some of the national news broadcasts are getting just as bad.
One interesting problem is what happens if Al Jazeera becomes the place for serious news. A lot of average people will turn to it because they like the idea of seeing news and not hearing about Miley Cyrus or listening to a diatribe about some Obama Administration policy when they try to get news.
That could give Al Jazeera America a huge potential audience to reach. Such an audience might be fairly easy to manipulate, particularly if the vast majority of the programming consists of real news. Propaganda can be quietly inserted among the real news.
However, it might be too late for Al Jazeera America; most news junkies simply turn to their tablet and the Internet for their news fix instead of to television. It might be too late for Al Jazeera America because the kind of educated and literate audiences it is aiming at have already given up on TV news.
Al Jazeera America will be an interesting experiment. Because we have the First Amendment in America, this station has the right to sit at the news table if it so chooses. Whether it wins the trust of the American people is another story.