December 4, 2013
Al Jazeera America has substance but may need spice
By Paul Farhi
The Washington Post
In the first few hours of its début broadcast Tuesday, the new Al Jazeera America news channel proved itself to be what you might expect in a new mainstream news channel. It was accurate, responsible and technically polished.
The question is: is that enough?
The odds against the channel attracting a healthy audience are so formidable — more than half of American cable and satellite homes don’t even receive it — that Al Jazeera America (AJA) might need more than the “just-the-facts-ma’am” reporting that it aired in its debut. Despite its laudable goal of avoiding the polarizing aspects of cable news, AJA might be testing the proposition that the straight-up presentation of the news — sans some of the smoke and sizzle — can succeed in a crowded media landscape. It’s also testing whether Americans will embrace anything called Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera America is the fully Americanized version of Al Jazeera English (AJE), the English-language version of Al Jazeera — the pan-Arabic satellite channel that revolutionized news reporting in the Middle East starting in 1996.
AJA spent its first hour on the air Tuesday subtly addressing the elephant in its control room: the audience’s high level of prejudice. It aired a series of promos featuring its anchors and reporters, but also interviews with everyday Americans attesting that the arrival of AJA was welcome because the American news media wasn’t always so fair, either. Amid clips of MSNBC’s Al Sharpton and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, the central message was clear: Americans were being denied the news they deserve. “They’re entitled to set up a business,” one man says of AJA.
Some of the Americans featured in those promos weren’t so ordinary: AJA slipped in clips of onetime Republican presidential candidate John McCain and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton praising Al Jazeera. Clinton, for example, said Al Jazeera “gets ratings because it’s real news.”
Amid all its hype about “telling stories that haven’t been told before” and “putting the news in viewers’ hands,” AJA also told viewers that it had “created hundreds of jobs by starting the network and building an elaborate newsroom in Manhattan.”
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. The broadcast featured a number of faces familiar to cable news junkies, such as former CNN anchor Tony Harris and former CNN business host Ali Velshi.
There was little flash. The lead story — “team coverage” of the Egypt crisis — consisted solely of talking-head reports from White House correspondent Mike Viqueira and Cairo reporter David Jackson, with Harris hopping in for some cross talk.
The other stories also were presented without gimmickry. If anything, AJA was behind the curve. The detention of reporter Glenn Greenwald’s partner by anti-terrorism authorities in London aired more than 24 hours after the news broke; a story on Kodak’s retrenchment missed breaking news about the company winning court approval for its plan to emerge from bankruptcy protection.
Inside Story, a panel-discussion programme that followed the inaugural one-hour newscast, featured three academic experts on climate change. They essentially agreed that ocean levels are rising and that major American cities are threatened — thereby producing none of the sparks that usually fly when such topics are discussed on cable TV.
To be sure, the network has a handsome look. Anchors deliver the news in front of a floor-to-ceiling video wall and, at times, they seem to be part of the news photo projected behind them. Names and datelines are rendered in distinctive yellow, black and white lettering.
At the moment, the national cable-news marketplace is bustling, and perhaps bursting. In addition to the four leaders (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and HLN) there are successful niche and specialty players such as ESPN, CNBC, CSPAN, Bloomberg and the Weather Channel.
In late October, ABC News and Univision will launch Fusion, an English-language news-and-entertainment network aimed at younger Latinos. And that doesn’t count foreign-based news sources that are trying to chip off their own sliver of American mind-share, from the BBC to Russia’s RTV to China’s state-run CCTV.
Al Jazeera America’s slogan promises, “There’s more to it.” If it hopes to stand out in a crowded field, it knows it has to make good on that.