Al-Jazeera America's Strategic Missteps

Al-Jazeera's toned-down coverage is surprising and ironic in light of the current media landscape. Indeed, al-Jazeera America is launching at precisely the moment when cable news is cratering in the public imagination.
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At long last, I have finally been able to tune into al-Jazeera America, which is now available in the New York metropolitan area on cable television. How does the new network stack up? For me, the current coverage is decidedly mixed. If anything, al-Jazeera America is committing many of the same strategic missteps that I warned about in an earlier article.

First, the good news: al-Jazeera America looks much more streamlined than al-Jazeera English. For an American audience accustomed to glitzy production values, this will serve the network in good stead. Moreover, the pacing seems to have improved upon al-Jazeera English, which sometimes seemed to lag or drone on. Furthermore, al-Jazeera America has a diverse group of newscasters which is surely a positive development.

Having just watched one or two hours of airtime, it's a little premature for me to judge the overall news content on the new network. However, I was very interested to see a lengthy segment about Fukushima and exploited relief workers. I had read about the story in the media, but I was not aware that Yakuza crime gangs had corralled workers into laboring within this highly dangerous sector. Al-Jazeera America deserves credit for bringing new information to the American public.

On the other hand, judging from this initial viewing, it seems that al-Jazeera America has made an unfortunate decision to cover more domestic news rather than international fare. Indeed, the Fukushima segment was sandwiched between a rather humdrum newscast dealing with American weather and a talk show dealing with Washington politics.

Al-Jazeera's decision to focus on domestic news to the detriment of international journalism is a serious drawback. In my view, the new network cannot really compete against CNN, MSNBC and Fox when it comes to domestic news, though to be sure there's a need for much more hard journalism in this department.

Perhaps al-Jazeera America caved under pressure to the cable providers, which probably pressured the network into concentrating on domestic news. Why didn't al-Jazeera America adopt a different approach by bypassing the cable providers altogether? Indeed, with the rise of digital television, Netflix and the hit series House of Cards, it has become easier to simply establish one's own channel and become much more independent of the system.

My other concern has to do with the overall politics of the network. To be sure, I understand the high-ups in Doha want to reverse the network's image and to come across as inoffensive to uninformed Americans who may even equate al-Jazeera with the likes of al-Qaeda. On the other hand, in an effort to go "mainstream" the network loses its edge.

One case in point is al-Jazeera America's John Seigenthaler, who was at pains on the Colbert Report last night to stress that his new network will pursue "fact-based" journalism. That's surely an improvement over Fox News, but does the network have an actual viewpoint? Why not come right out and say it, as opposed to being so fearful of alienating the American heartland?

You can palpably sense the network's cautiousness. Al-Jazeera America has hired old hands like Ray Suarez and Ali Velshi in an effort to put on a familiar face. Anchor Antonio Mora meanwhile seems to be bending over backward to court the establishment and present political debates in a non-threatening light.

Take, for example, last night's segment dealing with Robert Gates, who has just published a "tell-all" memoir lambasting the Obama administration. Mora had a couple of conservative guests on his show from the military establishment to talk about the former Defense Secretary, and pretty much all of them pulled their punches. Why not simply tell it like it is? Gates brought the country to ruin and is now disingenuously cashing in on the book circuit by trashing those who attempted to rein in George Bush's mistakes. It is jarring that Gates has the audacity to write such a book, though you wouldn't get much of a radical critique from the likes of Mora or his guests.

Al-Jazeera's toned-down coverage is surprising and ironic in light of the current media landscape. Indeed, al-Jazeera America is launching at precisely the moment when cable news is cratering in the public imagination. In recent months, MSNBC has been sorely discredited, with its pundits stooping to the same low level as Fox. There is a real need for a radical yet independent network that would provoke thoughtful discussion, though oddly al-Jazeera America doesn't seem to know how to take advantage of its newfound position.

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