Monday, January 25, 2016

A EULOGY FOR AL JAZEERA AMERICA


By Ronald T. Fox 


Aljazerra america.II

Al Jazeera America, the cable network that has been repeatedly recognized for excellence in journalism by industry peers, I wrote so glowingly about back in November (see: Investigative Journalism in America: Rest in Peace) announced on January 6 that it will be shutting down by the end of April.  The only cable news option in the US that offered thoughtful, in-depth, contextual journalism from an international rather than an American-focused perspective, will be gone.  I guess it had to be. Serious journalism is a poor fit in the highly competitive, profit-driven US media marketplace.

With the US also lacking an extensive national public news option not captive to profit, similar to, say, the BBC, Agence France-Presse or Sveriges Television (Sweden), Americans thirsting for serious global news coverage will now have to turn exclusively to web sources.  (I understand public networks have their issues, but I would take any of the above listed offerings over the private networks or limited public broadcasting we have in the United States.)


AL-JAZEERA-AMERICA-Newsroom
The Al Jazeera America Newsroom
I can’t say I’m surprised by AJAM’s downfall.  It’s commitment to in-depth investigative reporting didn’t find traction with an American audience accustomed to shallow, feel-good  stories designed more to entertain and titillate than inform and provoke thought.  AJAM presented viewers news from an international perspective, albeit from a developing world viewpoint, that contrasted sharply with American cable networks, who consider global issues newsworthy only when they directly and obviously affect US power.  Unfortunately the Al Jazeera America perspective resonated mainly with an internationally-minded elite class, an insufficient audience for financial sustainability, especially with so many web options available. 

Al Jazeera America faced a stacked deck before it even started.  The highly competitive news environment, dominated by three well-established players (CNN, MSNBC and Fox News), isn't welcoming to upstart companies. From the outset, AJAM had trouble cutting into the cable market.  Time Warner Cable had previously dropped the struggling cable network Current TV, which AJAM had purchased to enter the cable market, several months before the new network hit the air.  Worse yet, before it launched, cable giant AT&T dropped it from its channel lineup over a contract dispute, cutting off access to millions of homes.  These actions left it with a household distribution a third less than its major rivals. 

AJAM didn't connect well with typical American viewers.  United States cable networks play well to chauvinistic Americans with little knowledge of the outside world who strongly believe in the exceptionalism and moral righteousness of their country and race. This audience does not take kindly to news that paints America in anything less than a favorable light.  Stories with an historical context that chronicle failed US foreign policies, point out double standards, or raise questions about the purity of Washington motives are more likely to evoke hostility toward the messenger than reflection and thought. American viewers tend to find the drama of extended single-event coverage compelling, even when it amounts to overkill.  They have little problem with newscasters who toss out softball questions to people they put on the air (at least not as long as they look good doing it.) When was the last time you heard an "expert" interviewed on a mainstream media say anything interesting?

This wasn't AJAM's style. The network didn't hesitate to depart from the Washington consensus position when the facts called for an alternative explanation.  It of course covered dramatic events, but not to the neglect of other important things happening in the world.  The experts it interviewed offered substance and insight, which AJAM journalists encouraged with tough questions and probing follow-ups.  

Aljazerra.bin laden
Osama bin Laden
It also didn’t help that AJAM was associated with all things Middle East.  Many Americans remembered that Al Jazeera was an outlet for videos distributed by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden after 9/11.  Who doesn’t remember these evil images visiting our living rooms?  Conservatives in particular have been hostile to Al Jazeera, although I suspect few have actually watched it. Word on the conservative street is that Al Jazeera is anti-Western, or, worse yet, an apologist for Islamic extremism.  Far from the truth, this image remains in the consciousness of many Islamaphobes on the right. 

I lament the passing of AJAM.  It was done in by a media marketplace that is inherently hostile to probing news presentations that might make viewers uncomfortable.  The wealthy royal family of Qatar, who purchased Current TV and launched AJAM back in 2013, was no longer willing to bankroll the enterprise, especially with oil prices tumbling.  I’ll miss it.  Oh I can still get news from an internationalist perspective by exploring web sources, and I’m pleased Al Jazeera plans to expand its English language international digital operations, but things won’t be the same.  I shouldn’t have to work so hard to get thoughtful global news.






2 comments:

  1. I, too, will miss AJAmAs, but not because it offered hard-hitting, unbiased reporting. I'm not sure it did. After all, as Khrushchev notably stated nations are neutral, individuals are not. Rather, I watched it to get the outsider point of view you mentioned. I tune in Fox News for the same reason -- to see what those nutjobs are spewing. That's what we're reduced to. But we, as people, are really getting the news we want and have to accept much of the blame for that.

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  2. Good "obit" for AJAM, Ron...I must admit that I wasn't a regular reader, but, not because I'm not interested in getting their perspective. Too bad that America has become so "dumbed down" that there isn't a viable market for a broad range of perspectives. One must only look at the political landscape of our current elections to get an accurate picture of how small the market has become for intelligent discourse on almost any topic. Sad, sad, sad... :O(

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