Notebook

August 22, 2013 3:10 pm

Al Jazeera: a good kind of un-American

Broadcaster’s US news channel provides a much-needed alternative view, writes Matthew Garrahan
Microphone with the logo of Al Jazeera©AFP

I turned on my television the other night, flicked to the Al Jazeera America cable news channel, which launched this week, and for a few minutes thought I had been transported to another country.

I saw an in-depth report on inhumane conditions at a prison in Louisiana, with people interviewed given plenty of time to explain their arguments. It was followed by a panel discussion on David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was recently detained for nine hours by police at Heathrow airport. There were no interruptions by the host on Al Jazeera America. No one raised their voice, and differences of opinion were expressed with civility. There was none of the hysteria that has become de rigueur in US cable news, the lengthy reports were measured and calm, and there were barely any commercial breaks. It was shocking.

Backed by the Qatari government, Al Jazeera has spent years trying to get a foothold in the world’s biggest media market. In January it paid $500m for Current TV – a liberal channel started by Al Gore, the former US vice-president, which had almost as many viewers as employees – and has transformed it into a 900-person operation with bureaux all over the world, promising a more internationalist take on the news than US viewers may be used to.

If the first few nights are anything to go by, the channel has already differentiated itself from its rivals. CNN, the former ratings leader that has trailed in the wake of Fox News for several years, has become increasingly tabloid, with a bigger focus on human interest stories. The network, which rose to prominence for its reporting on the first Gulf war, recently sent a battalion of reporters to the Gulf of Mexico to provide relentless, rolling coverage of a cruise ship floating adrift after an engine fire. Aside from overflowing toilets and irate passengers, there was not much to report, and the ship was eventually towed back to land. CNN was widely mocked by the likes of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, who said the network had “treated a stalled cruise ship like it was the Shackleton expedition”.

CNN has tried various strategies and changes in tone to claw back ground against Fox News, which has proved there is a sizeable audience for news with a conservative slant.

Fox’s slogan is “fair and balanced”, yet it often strikes a confrontational tone with guests. Consider a recent interview with Reza Aslan, an academic and professor of religious studies, who happens to be Muslim. The interviewer, apparently convinced Professor Aslan had an anti-Christian agenda, kept pressing him about why he had written a book about the life of Jesus. “It’s like a Democrat writing a book about Reagan,” the interviewer said, without a hint of irony.

Despite this, or rather because of it, Fox’s formula is commercially successful. Chase Carey, the chief operating officer of 21st Century Fox, which owns the news channel, recently called it “a juggernaut” for the company (presumably because watching it for a sustained period is like being run over by a truck). The Fox effect can be measured in other ways. MSNBC, the voice of liberal cable news, has tried to mimic its rival from the other end of the political spectrum but has failed to replicate its ratings. Meanwhile, CNN will in September bring back its much maligned political debate show, Crossfire – a forum for Fox-style rage and political jousting – with a roster of argumentative hosts that includes failed presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

So there would seem to be a gap in the market for Al Jazeera. This is particularly true on the west coast, which is neglected by CNN and Fox. This week, Al Jazeera aired live shows up to 10pm on the west coast; CNN stops its live transmission three hours earlier, while Fox stops two hours earlier, leaving viewers in Los Angeles and Seattle to watch evening repeats – a curious stance for channels that claim to be dedicated to news.

But it will not be plain sailing for Al Jazeera. It has already run into opposition from Glenn Beck, a former Fox host, who left the network to start his own online news operation, The Blaze. Mr Beck said this week that Al Jazeera had “always been anti-American” and would peddle Islamist “propaganda”.

I could not detect any Islamist propaganda in the news coverage I saw this week on the channel; it all seemed fairly anodyne to me. But then there is always the possibility that I missed it when I left the room to make a cup of tea.

matthew.garrahan@ft.com

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