By Amy E. Schwartz
An American offshoot of the Qatari network makes some watchdogs nervous.
Media observers buzzed with consternation last August when Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned network that played such a dramatic role broadcasting the Arab Spring, bought Al Gore’s cable network, Current TV, and launched Al Jazeera America. It hired seasoned American journalists, some of them Jewish, and promised to cover America for America. Dark predictions flew. Would Al Jazeera America fulfill the fears of Cliff Kincaid of the watchdog group Accuracy in Media, who in 2011 called for a congressional investigation into whether Al Jazeera English—the international service then available mostly on the Internet—was “playing a role” in homegrown American terror plots?
Months later, fears continue to bubble. For many, it rankles that the network broadcasts some programs from prestigious rented studio space in Washington’s Newseum. For others, no amount of seemingly anodyne programming—on state abortion restrictions, domestic violence on Indian reservations and the dangers of gold mining, to cite a recent lineup—can trump their sense that the network is up to something shady. This despite the fact that the biggest news angle so far is the network’s emphasis on outside-the-Beltway sources and its shunning of celebrity coverage such as singer Justin Bieber’s arrest.
No one doubts that the original Arabic-language Al Jazeera drastically reshaped the world’s media landscape. Robust, even rollicking debate came to dozens of countries where it had been unknown. The network was sharply criticized from the start for showcasing anti-American and anti-Israel bias, and specific outrages have attracted considerable attention: broadcasting Osama bin Laden, throwing an on-air “birthday party” in Gaza for the release of a Palestinian prisoner who had brutally murdered a four-year-old Israeli child, airing the violently anti-Semitic talk show hosted by the Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Al Jazeera sprang from plausible journalistic roots in 1995 when a liberal new Qatari emir, fresh from deposing his father in a coup, saw the chance to hire some 120 BBC-trained Arab journalists who’d been cut adrift after a failed attempt to start a BBC Arabic service. The companion Al Jazeera English service began in 2006, openly intended to clean up the Arabic service’s anti-Western reputation. During the Arab Spring, both President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said they were watching it daily. Anti-Israel bias on the Palestinian question remains blatant on Al Jazeera English, but the network also covers Israel more broadly, and Israeli cable providers readily carry it in both languages. (At one point in 2007, Israel’s second-largest cable network notoriously dropped CNN in favor of Al Jazeera English.)
There’s always been copious head-scratching as to what the Qataris think they are getting for their money—the American venture cost them $500 million for the network alone. But it’s quite possible that the emirs have found, like many media barons before them, that an empire built on actual journalism gives them more power and global influence than they could attain any other way.
Most observers draw a distinction between the space given to ranting “opinion” like Qaradawi and the network’s wide-ranging if sometimes agenda-driven reporting. This isn’t unanimous: Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg says he doesn’t see how any Jew could accept money from an institution that employs Qaradawi. When Al Jazeera English first launched, it hired the well-respected (and Jewish) journalist Dave Marash as its marquee anchor in Washington. Marash vouched for the network, calling its Qatari bosses “Jeffersonian” in their commitment to free speech. But he resigned two years later, saying the Doha powers had insisted on covering some American issues, such as poverty, in “reductive” ways he couldn’t support. Another close observer of the network, scientist Judea Pearl—father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl—fears that the Qataris want to “undermine the West in a Western way” and that respectful reception of Al Jazeera America could lend cultural legitimacy to the blatant transgressions by the Arabic-language network.
So far, the cultural impact of Al Jazeera America has apparently been nil. The network failed initially even to capture Current TV’s 48 million households, partly because Time Warner and other carriers quickly dropped Current TV from their packages when the sale was announced. More damaging for the network, agreements it reached with the cable carriers required it to take down nearly all of its flourishing Internet content—a “terrible” deal from a business perspective, says Shawn Powers, a Georgia State University communications professor who has studied Al Jazeera for a decade. From 10 million views a day on YouTube, Al Jazeera’s online U.S. traffic has become a trickle. If TV viewers have glimpsed it lately, it’s by proxy, in the signs that say “#FreeAJStaff” held up on the air by some journalists—notably Christiane Amanpour on CNN—in solidarity with four Al Jazeera staffers jailed in Egypt.
Some see a sharp decline even in the once-mighty Arabic-language service, especially since 2012, when the network’s longtime editorial overseer—a Palestinian-born, Western-trained journalist named Wadah Khanfar—was forced to resign in an improbable piece of collateral damage from the WikiLeaks scandal. (Leaked cables featured Khanfar agreeing, in conversation with the U.S. State Department, to tone down coverage; he was replaced by a member of the Qatari royal family.)
Does watching Al Jazeera pose a danger to viewers? I put the Cliff Kincaid question to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank in Washington, DC: If a teenager in, say, rural Ohio starts watching Al Jazeera America, will he become a suicide bomber? Gartenstein-Ross thought not; the only effect he could imagine, he said, would be a sort of creeping loss of faith in the American dream, based on the station’s dogged coverage of the underprivileged. This doesn’t sound like the work of wild-eyed clerics, but you never know. Americans should make the effort to tune into Al Jazeera America—if only to sort out legitimate concerns from unfounded fears.
Amy E. Schwartz is Moment’s opinion editor.