Updated Friday, January 4, 2013 at 10:03 PM
Al-Jazeera has a growing reputation for serious news gathering and its reporters have won some of the biggest awards in journalism. What the Pan-Arab news network doesn’t have is a significant presence in the U.S.
That’s about to change now that Al-Jazeera is spending $500 million to acquire Current TV, the left-leaning cable-news network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore. The deal gives Al-Jazeera access to about 50 million U.S. homes. As part of an expansion, the network is promising to hire more journalists and double the number of U.S. news bureaus it has.
Still, some big questions remain for Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar: How will it stand out in a crowded field of cable-TV news channels? And how can it overcome an image that was cemented for many Americans when it gave voice to Osama bin Laden in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
Marwan Kraidy, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Arab media, said Al-Jazeera needs to overcome the perception among some Americans that it is a “toxic brand.”
The deal to sell Current, announced Wednesday, will make Gore, already estimated to be worth more than $100 million, even richer.
Gore said in an email Thursday: “I am incredibly proud of what Current has been able to accomplish. But broadcast media is a business and being an independent-content producer in a time of increasing consolidation is a challenge.”
Since its launch in 2006, Al-Jazeera TV’s English-language news channel has won prestigious journalism awards for its reporting on international issues, including the Arab Spring uprisings. The problem: Hardly anyone sees Al-Jazeera English (AJE) because few cable-TV operators carry it.
The deal will allow Al-Jazeera to start a new channel, Al-Jazeera America, that will produce news for and about Americans.
Al-Jazeera says it will operate AJE and Al-Jazeera America as separate channels, although about 40 percent of AJE’s content will appear on the new channel. It will use some of the resources of its existing Washington bureaus when it launches this year. In addition, it plans to add five news bureaus across the country to the 10 AJE already operates.
The deal could mark a new era in a new hemisphere for a news organization that helped smash apart government control of information in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera — “the peninsula” in Arabic — transcended national censors when it began broadcasting across the Middle East via satellite in 1996.
But its attempts to enter the rich media markets of the West haven’t been quite as revolutionary. Some of the low visibility of the English-language AJE channel has been economic and technological; cable companies have limited channel positions and have been reluctant to give up slots unless programmers pay steep entry fees.
Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, for example, secured valuable spots on cable systems when it started in 1996 only by paying system owners then-record sums.
But there also have been overtones of an anti-Arabic backlash in AJE’s struggles. The network has operated in the shadow of its Arab-language parent, which was often the first to air Osama bin Laden’s video messages, showed images of dead American soldiers at the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and gave a megaphone to Holocaust deniers and anti-Jewish hate speech.
Bottom line: Despite winning Polk, Peabody and DuPont awards during its six years on the air, AJE has managed to gain access to just 4.7 million of the nation’s 100 million cable and satellite TV homes.
The deal for Current, which is based in San Francisco, has several potential glitches.
Al-Jazeera’s plan to turn Current into Al-Jazeera America could run afoul of some of Current’s programming contracts with cable operators; the contracts prohibit cable networks from making major programming changes without the operators’ consent.
Within hours of the news, Time Warner Cable, the country’s second-largest system owner, dropped Current from its channel lineup, saying its agreement to carry the channel is no longer in effect. But the channel will continue to be carried by DirecTV, Dish Network, Comcast, AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Even with more distribution and beefed-up reporting, an old issue looms: Will Americans watch news from a foreign-based source? They’ve shown little proclivity to do so before. The BBC — one of the world’s most successful international broadcasters — has found only a small following with its domestic channel, BBC America, which carries entertainment and news programs. English-language news channels from China (CCTV), France (France 24) and Russia (RT), among others, are virtual nonentities among U.S. viewers.
Al-Jazeera’s name and notoriety make its American channel perhaps even more problematic than most.
While the Arabic network has been praised by the likes of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for challenging dictators throughout the Arab world, both the Arabic and English-language channels have been accused of an anti-Western bias.
Although anchors and programming have not been determined for the new channel, “it’s not going to be opinion network or about celebrity news,” said Stan Collender, a spokesman for Al-Jazeera America. “It’s not going to be people screaming at each other. We’ll be in-depth, and we won’t reflect only one point of view.”
Al-Jazeera and Al-Jazeera English have long claimed independence from their benefactor in Qatar, but criticism of Qatar’s ruling family or its government has been almost nonexistent on the channels, said Steven Stalinsky, executive director of Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization that monitors Arabic media and describes itself as nonpartisan.
Stalinsky has documented ties between Al-Jazeera’s management and journalists — including its former boss, Wadah Khanfar — and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Pan-Arabic political movement. He is particularly critical of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who appears frequently on Al-Jazeera to inveigh against Jews, the United States and gays and has praised suicide bombings.
Stalinsky calls AJE “a paler version” of the Arab channel that is less hostile to Western interests.
As for the U.S. version: “It’s impossible to know what it will be. ... All I can really say is that it has the same owners and the same money as their other channels,” he said.
Collender acknowledges that criticism of Al-Jazeera has held back AJE and could affect the reception for Al-Jazeera America.
But, he added, “If you mention Fox (News), half the people in a room would roll their eyes, too. Our pitch is that the world is a different place now. What we’re trying to do is prove through the quality that we’re providing that we’re worth watching.”
Al Gore sold cable-TV channel Current TV to Arab news channel Al-Jazeera for a reported $500 million.
Al Gore, Current TV co-founder