What’s more rare — a unicorn or an Al Jazeera America viewer?
Al Jazeera America draws such a teensy audience — 15,000 on average during prime time, according to Nielsen — that if you dropped all of the fledgling cable news channel’s viewers into a modern NBA arena you’d leave a couple of thousand vacant seats. To place Al Jazeera America’s audience in perspective, it’s less than half of that once attracted by Al Gore’s Current TV, the channel it replaced last August. Ratings leader Fox News Channel pulls in an evening average of about 1.6 million.
Such miserable ratings would be understandable if Al Jazeera America produced its shows on a shoestring, as did Current TV, or if it marginalized itself by broadcasting bonkers propaganda like RT (formerly Russia Today), or if most cable households couldn’t receive it.
But none of those excuses apply. Al Jazeera America’s executives have claimed that the company was spending “hundreds of millions” to establish 12 U.S. bureaus, not to mention the $500 million it gave Current TV’s owners to go away. Unlike the bombastic RT, Al Jazeera America has to date avoided peddling any country’s political line, even though it’s owned by the wealthy Kingdom of Qatar, a hereditary monarchy. (If prizes are a measure of journalistic worth, Al Jazeera has already established its legitimacy by winning two Peabody Awards.) And while not available everywhere, Al Jazeera America can be viewed in about 55 million of the country’s 100 million pay-TV households.
America hasn’t exactly snubbed Al Jazeera America. The rebuke has been more akin to a shrug. Go ahead and spend your millions, the nation seems to be saying to the channel. Hire all the network retreads you want, people like John Seigenthaler, David Shuster, Antonio Mora, Ray Suarez and Joie Chen, so that if by a long shot viewers stumble upon your channel, they’ll recognize some familiar faces. The country will still shrug.
Stock your newsroom with all the experienced journalists your billions can buy, flood the zone with your reporters, and build modern broadcast studios. Still more shrugs. Madison Avenue is shrugging, too. Commercials for “major brands are still a rarity on the network,” Advertising Age reported.
Why the antipathy? In some ways, Al Jazeera America has out-CNN’ed the old CNN with its plodding, responsible, in-depth and conventional approach to news. “There’s no real estate for partisan bickering” at Al Jazeera America, wrote USA Today‘s Rem Rieder earlier this year. “Its diet of top national and international stories is a throwback to the story lineup on the network newscasts of decades ago.” The channel’s anchors serve no candy, and no whiskey, either. Al Jazeera America isn’t just the anti-Vice, it’s the anti-Fox, and its sobriety makes PBS’s NewsHour seem like a TV riot in comparison. Is sobriety really the direction Al Jazeera America wants to go? As David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun has written, NewsHour lost 48 percent of its audience between 2005 and 2013, indicating that Al Jazeera America is pursuing a class of viewers that’s headed for extinction.
But it’s not just the formula. The Al Thani family that rules Qatar hasn’t financed a U.S. news channel just to keep us informed about drug-related deaths in Vermont, the horrors of the Rust Belt or the shame of the Indian reservation system, to pick a few top, recent stories on Al Jazeera America. We already know about those stories from other outlets! The Qataris believe that Western media doesn’t treat Arabs and Muslims fairly when covering the Middle East, and they want Al Jazeera America to change that. The best marker of the Qataris’ influence isn’t what Al Jazeera America covers or even how it covers stories, but what it regards as the top story on the evening news. On Monday night, the channel led with a reasonable account of the Hamas and Israeli skirmish in Gaza. Last week, the Sun‘s Zurawik singled out Al Jazeera America’s coverage of the killing of three Israeli teens for extreme praise.
Has the domestic audience given Al Jazeera America the big shrug because it’s owned by monarchs who forbid political parties at home and don’t have an independent legislature? I doubt that one regular TV viewer in 1,000 has investigated the channel in that detail, but if they did, they might find the analysis at the lefty Nation rewarding. The magazine recently entertained the notion that Al Jazeera classic tilted toward the Muslim Brotherhood in its Egypt coverage, and acknowledged that the Arabic channel ignored the anti-government protests in Bahrain, a neighbor and ally of Qatar. If it’s not uncommon for Qatar-sponsored media overseas to line up with Qatar foreign policy, it’s not unreasonable to think that it might do the same thing with its American media extension.
And then there is that name. We Americans have a knack for making the foreign our own. We live for burritos. We’ve given Fiat another chance in our car market, not that it deserves one. The United States is home to more foreign-born residents than any other country. We elected to the White House a man named Barack Hussein Obama. Twice. Perhaps the coolness toward Al Jazeera America has something to do with how similar its name is to al Qaeda — at least to some American ears. Maybe our subliminal perceptions link it to the unpleasantness of 9/11 and we will never accept it as a good name for a domestic news channel. A major corporation wouldn’t try to sell us an Al Jazeera line of soup, so why stick it on a news channel that professes a devotion to straight, old-school reporting?
Because, of course, Al Jazeera America’s owners would have even more explaining to do if they dared to dub the channel anything other than what it is — the American edition of their international Al Jazeera brand. In addition to Al Jazeera classic, which speaks Arabic to the Arab world, the brand also serves Turkey and the Balkans in the local lingo and caters to the international audience with the Al Jazeera English channel. Had the Qataris called the new channel “America Today” or something equally generic, we’d be pitchforking them for trying to pull a fast one.
The premise that the channel’s low ratings cause its owners to fret may be faulty. They’re not the first wealthy operators to attempt to re-engineer the news with a product whose commercial potential was limited. In 1908, Christian Science Church founder Mary Baker Eddy used church funds to launch the Christian Science Monitor as an alternative to the sensationalist journalism of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and the muckraking of McClure’s magazine, both of which she thought had unfairly maligned her and her church. “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind,” was the credo Eddy applied to her paper, and like Al Jazeera America, she promised an outlet that would produce fair and impartial news. More recently, in 1982, another would-be messiah, convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon, spent billions to establish the Washington Times, his conservative daily, to advance his political and cultural goals.
Eventually, both the Monitor and the Washington Times ran short on funds. The Monitor ceased daily printing in 2009, and today’s Washington Times is racing in that direction. Al Jazeera America will never want for anything as long as the Al Thani monarchy continues to divert Qatari oil money its way. Given Al Jazeera’s success at sculpting Middle East politics and the acclaim it received for covering the “Arab Spring” uprisings, the Al Thani family has every right to believe that with enough patience and money, they can tip American opinion at the margins with Al Jazeera America.
So will they? Assuming the Qataris haven’t brought Al Jazeera America to us as a pure journalistic gift, and like Eddy and Moon, they’re toting an agenda, we should expect a “reveal,” as they say in the movies, at some point. If and when that comes, I’ll be disappointed in them. If it never comes, I’ll be doubly disappointed.
Either way, I’ll be shrugging.
“Defiant Al Jazeera faces conservative backlash after Arab Spring”: A sharp Reuters piece from last week. Send reading suggestions to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed shrugs in your direction. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTOS: A man works at a desk in the Al Jazeera America broadcast center in New York, August 20, 2013. Al Jazeera America, a new 24-hour news channel was launched in the United States on Tuesday. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Journalists applaud in the newsroom as Al Jazeera America begins broadcasting in New York, August 20, 2013. Al Jazeera America, a new 24-hour news channel was launched in the United States on Tuesday. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid