Al Jazeera -- one of the best cable news networks in the world -- has always had a tough time here in the U.S. It's been derided as a "terror network" and propaganda organ. It's been denounced by publicity-seeking politicians for airing messages from Al Qaeda. Its reporters have been imprisoned in the Guantanamo gulag for years before being released after having never been tried or convicted of any terrorist ties. Others have been targeted by U.S. forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, shot at, had missiles fired at them, and even killed.
As a result -- despite longstanding lobbying and advertising campaigns by Al Jazeera -- most major cable and satellite television networks in the U.S. have refused to offer its English-language service to their audiences ever since its inception six years ago. Instead, it's clearly been blacklisted and made almost impossible to find on America's airwaves.
Now, in the most American of solutions, the pan-Arab news leader has gone ahead and simply bought its seat at the media table. As Brian Stelter reported in the New York Times, "Al Jazeera... announced a deal to take over Current TV, the low-rated cable channel that was founded by Al Gore, a former vice president, and his business partners seven years ago." For the relatively small sum of $500 million dollars (at least as measured by its oil-rich owner in Qatar) Al Jaz has just purchased entree into more than 40 million cable-ready living rooms across the U.S.
Political concerns aside, some media observers have questioned whether Al Jazeera has, as Stelter phrased it, "The journalistic muscle and the money to compete head-to-head with CNN and other news channels in the United States." What a joke! The last time I checked, Sheikj Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler of Qatar, had more money than Allah. And really, how much "journalistic muscle" does one need to compete with CNN these days -- not to mention the braying heads of such opinionated and politicized putative "news channels" as Fox or MSNBC? Judging from their most recent efforts -- such as completely misreporting the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, for example -- what little journalism is being practiced at outlets such as CNN and Fox these days is, shall we say, far from muscular!
Is it any wonder that "the television sets of White House officials and lawmakers were tuned to the channel during the Arab Spring?" Inquiring minds want to know, after all! Meanwhile, "ordinary" citizens like you and me had to search out a live stream on the Internet if we wanted to be informed.
And Current, which began around the same time as Al Jazeera English, is no great loss. After years of stumbling, "nobody's watching," as Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced politician and failed CNN talker who is one of Current's current program hosts, recently confessed to reporters.
Well, almost no one, Mr. Spitzer... Actually, according to the Nielsen ratings service, on a typical night last year some 42,000 people tuned in to the network's shows.
Rather than distributing its excellent already-existing English-language channel, Al Jazeera plans instead to create something brand new. Al Jazeera America will based in New York, and about two thirds of it will be originally produced domestically, with the rest coming from AJE, which already has bureaus in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago.
Will AJA focus on offering another perspective to America's abysmal domestic news sources, in the mode of Russia Today or the BBC World News, now available in 25 million U.S. homes after a recent deal with Time Warner Cable? Will it try to fill the gap in international news instead? Will it attempt to do both?
It's still way too early to tell. For now, it's enough simply to be able to say, at long last, "Welcome to America, Al Jazeera!"