30 Aug

A Radical Voice or Big Media Pawn?

Al Jazeera America: A Radical Voice or Big Media Pawn?

By J. Andres Araiza / Op-Ed
Published: Friday 30 August 2013
While Al Jazeera America’s presence here could be heralded as a radical shift in the overwhelmingly conservative media landscape, initial reaction seems to indicate that the channel may not be the roaring beast many feared or hoped.

The two great oceans to our East and West have long served as figurative earmuffs—drowning out critical international news reporting from reaching the continental U.S. However, what just landed on our shores has the potential to expose Americans to the sounds of new voices, different opinions and wider perspectives.

When Al Jazeera America (AJA) launched last week, the first few minutes welcomed viewers with flashes of different faces and sprinkles of interesting foreign accents. The anchors promised to “create a diverse news reporting team dedicated to providing a broader and deeper perspective on America’s stories.”

Watching those first few minutes of AJA felt like witnessing history: for the first time, a major television news network, founded by an Arab royal family and originally highly critical of the U.S., began covering domestic American news on a 24-hour basis. But while AJA’s presence here could be heralded as a radical shift in the overwhelmingly conservative media landscape, initial reaction seems to indicate that the channel may not be the roaring beast many feared or hoped.

AJA employs 900 journalists in a dozen American cities and offers daily news programing targeted to Americans. Now available in 45 million U.S. homes, it is part of the larger Al Jazeera Media Network that spans the globe. Al Jazeera in Arabic—the original network—was highly controversial during President George W. Bush’s illegal war against so-called “terrorism.” At that time, some considered Al Jazeera “terrorist television” because the network was infamous for airing recorded messages from Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was hiding from U.S. forces.Al Jazeera in English (AJE), another branch of the Al Jazeera media family, has been broadcasting overseas since 2006 and has long been praised for painting a more accurate picture of U.S. policy and military interventions. Scholars also noted how Al Jazeera in general could counter the insidious pro-American bias in our Fourth Estate.

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Professor Chris Harper, from Temple University’s School of Communications, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month: “Al Jazeera can cover the Arab world better than any U.S. network by far… Al Jazeera has its point of view and that includes a pro-Palestinian bias and to a certain extent an anti-American bias.”Even former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Al Jazeera when she was testifying on Capitol Hill in 2011: “Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it but you feel like you are getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials, arguments between talking heads, kind of stuff we do in our news, which is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”

Once the first day of AJA’s broadcasting concluded, it didn’t feel any longer like a monumental shift. Even Big Media journalists pointed out how much AJA reflected Big Media editorial judgment. Paul Farhi from the Washington Post wrote: “AJA’s initial news broadcast featured a conventional rundown of stories – turmoil in Egypt, gunfire at an elementary school in Georgia, wildfires out West, a feature on the new San Francisco Bay Bridge span.”

It’s unfair to wholly judge AJA after one week of programming. That’s why I’m posing an overarching question that will be answered over the coming year: Will AJA tackle major issues facing Americans that Big Media won’t accurately and thoroughly touch, such as climate change, genetically modified foods, the growing gap between the rich and poor, and President Obama’s illegal use of drones to pursue assassinations?

I’m skeptical that the station’s answer to that question will satisfy me because of how Big Media inherently operate. Multinational conglomerates have cheapened American news by focusing on profits, eliminating a diversity of voices and clogging the airways with manufactured crises, celebrities and talking heads. There’s plenty of reasons to suspect that AJA may be just another Big Media pawn.

Al Jazeera bought its way into the American television landscape by purchasing CurrentTV for $500 million. The purchase of the channel—once owned by Vice President Al Gore—allowed AJA to gain access to distribution contracts with cable companies. AJA also invested untold millions to build its bureaus and hire journalists across the U.S.

The only way for Al Jazeera to recoup its investment is to sell a lot of advertising. Ad space on network television news is an extremely expensive commodity. Will Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Walmart and General Motors purchase ad space on a network that challenges corporate America’s stranglehold on our democracy? I’m giving AJA a chance and leaving this question unanswered for the meantime.

But one observation keeps nagging at me. In order to radically alter the U.S. media landscape— including diverse voices, expanding coverage of issues with substance, and reporting on stories that truly affect people—will require less Big Media, not more of it.

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