Al Jazeera comes to America

aljazeeraCurrent TV is the left-leaning channel established by Al Gore to give himself something to do after his presidential election loss in 2000. The channel has a relatively robust distribution network, considering that it has few viewers and has been facing financial difficulty for some time. It is not unreasonable to attribute its distribution successes to Gore’s political connections. Cable companies do not want to be slated by members of Congress for ‘censoring’ a progressive voice by not carrying it just because no-one watches it. The channel is aimed at the 18-34 audience, and carries plenty of environmental programming. It refuses advertising from oil companies or ‘big oil’ as staffers call the sector. But now Gore has taken money from very big oil – selling the station to the Emir of Qatar.

The Emir’s international TV channel, al Jazeera, has announced that it will close down Current and use the channel’s access to cable franchises to launch al Jazeera America.  In common with most Americans, your columnist has never seen Current TV, but very much enjoys al Jazeera. This is a major step for media plurality.

Al Jazeera currently runs two channels: one in Arabic and one in English. The English channel is widely available in Europe, but has almost no cable access in the US at present. The current live-streaming of the English language service by web in the US will be ended when al Jazeera America launches. Al Jazeera has had difficulty negotiating cable access in the US partly because people confuse it with al Qaeda. This is moronic. The word “al” in Arabic simply means “the”, so, as you can imagine, it recurs quite a lot. Al Qaeda is “the base” and al Jazeera is “the island”. (Qatar is not actually an island, it is a peninsula, but is nearer to being an island than is Rhode Island).

It has been suggested – mostly by people who have never seen the channel – that al Jazeera is pro-terrorist or Islamist. Your columnist can give you no impression of the Arabic channel, and has certainly heard reports that it plays to its market, linking most stories back the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the English channel plays its news very straight. It is true that some of the discussion programs give air-time to conspiracy theory whack-jobs:  Oliver Stone, for example.  News broadcasts – much the majority of the English channel – are less anti-American than CNN, let alone the BBC.

Do not look to al Jazeera for hard-hitting investigations into the governance of Qatar, any more than you would expect ABC to expose financial issues at the Walt Disney Company, but for news with an international flavour, there is none better.  The coverage of the Arab Awakening has been criticized: excellent on Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but weaker on Syria, which is a little too close to Qatar for the Emir’s comfort. Imagine how disquieted Canada would be by a renewal of the American Civil War.

Al Jazeera’s documentaries are also first class, especially on Asia and Africa. Its exposure of the oppression of child “witches” in the West African state of Benin, where any breach-birth child is labeled a witch, is a very powerful piece of journalism (and probably still available online within the US).

The loss of Current TV will not be keenly felt in most American households, but al Jazeera America is a major gain.

 

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

 

 

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