Initially, its debut was met with skepticism and controversy. It has been criticized for maintaining an Arab bias and for providing selective coverage of news and events in the Arab region and across the globe. Expansion of its coverage directly into American homes has even been viewed as a propaganda and disinformation campaign — provocative to American interests.
The Al Jazeera Media Network, which includes Al Jazeera America, Al Jazeera English, as well as its original Arabic channels, is owned by the Emirate of Qatar. AJA claims to be funded through loans and grants rather than direct government subsidies. According to Ehab Al Shihabi, AJA’s head of international operations, there is “no question that there is a firewall… there is independence between the editorial team and the funding.”
However, Qatar, an absolute monarchy in the Arabian Peninsula, has been known to use the media to promote and assert its foreign policy and global influence. Backed by the oil-rich Qatar government, Al Jazeera’s resources seem limitless.
In its early exposure in the U.S., Al Jazeera was demonized for its broadcasts of Osama bin Laden and other material seen as anti-American after the September 11 attacks of 2001. However, Al Jazeera gained recognition with its first-hand and widely acclaimed reporting on Egyptian unrest during the 2011 “Arab Spring” and other events in the region.
“Al Jazeera can cover the Arab world better than any U.S. network by far,” said Chris Harper, professor at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication and a former foreign correspondent for ABC News.
The advent of Al Jazeera America was enabled through its purchase of Current TV — previously owned by Al Gore — in 2013, providing AJA with expanded access to the U.S. market. According to its website, besides its New York City headquarters, AJA maintains a large network of 12 U.S. news bureaus, 3 broadcast centers, and a staff close to 800, making it one of the largest American media organizations. AJA has brought in respected veteran U.S. journalists Soledad O’Brien, Ray Suarez, Antonio Mora, Joie Chen, and Trevor Aaronson.
Major U.S. news media initially praised the AJA launch. The New York Times described the new station as “the most ambitious American television news venture since Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes started the Fox News Channel in 1996.” Regarding any potential bias, media critic Howard Kurtz, speaking on Fox News, claimed AJA coverage was: “not much different, at least so far, than what you might see on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC.”
There is, however, a separation between the broadcasts of AJA and its overseas channels Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English. A clear distinction even exists between its Arabic and English versions. Al Jazeera English is not purely a translation of its Arabic-language content; it maintains a very different point of view and editorial bias.
As a result of the Current TV deal, for which AJA allegedly paid close to $500 million, AJA currently reaches 55 million U.S. homes. However, since its 2013 debut, Al Jazeera America has struggled to attract US viewers. Its ratings, averaging just 13,000 viewers per day, according to the New York Post, are far lower than the mainstream U.S. media.
AJA has also been challenged to find advertising sponsors in the U.S. While the impact of this may be offset by its Qatari backing, it clearly is not motivated by profits alone. Some of its early advertising sponsors included Hershey, Gillette, and the phone service provider Vonage; all have since pulled their sponsorships. Many other companies, which had advertised on Current TV, dropped these relationships after the acquisition by AJA.
Only six minutes of advertising is shown during its news programming, compared with fifteen on major networks. A noticeable majority of this time is devoted to promotion of its own programming, along with some public service announcements.NPR for running the AJA promos which, they claimed, violated NPR’s own ethical standards, its patriotism, and its reputation as an unbiased news source. NPR defended its actions on the grounds of free speech and irrelevance regarding whether it should accept sponsorships from an organization so long as it adheres to standards of free speech and decency.
Indeed, whether AJA maintains non-biased coverage may be irrelevant. While some U.S. media organizations lean to the left and others to the right, they coexist and are widely viewed in the U.S. Often it is difficult to clearly discern where these slants exist. Most major media have been attacked for partisanship — some more often than others.
An international-based news organization is apt to be criticized for maintaining a more anti-American slant than its U.S. counterparts. This, at least in part, reflects the lens in which America is seen inside versus outside the country. However, there is a distinction between an organization which calls itself unbiased and one which truly adheres to this. AJA, to be credible in its own impartiality claims, needs to practice this on a higher level than others.
Does AJA favor an Arab-slanted view of the world? This is a difficult question to answer, compounded by the fact that no single Arab standard of opinion exists in the world. Recent AJA reporting covered the delicate balance of Syria’s leaders, its military, rebel factions, and al-Qaeda interests based in Iraq and other countries. No single group seemed to be blatantly favored in AJA’s coverage.
The reporting reflected the existence of multiple lenses and diverse interests. Coverage of the civil war in Syria, however, does focus largely on the plight of the rebels and the humanitarian aspects of the war. Qatar has openly supported and funded rebel groups in Syria. Qatar has also supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, another arena where Al Jazeera has been criticized for playing favorites.
On Israel, the Arab points of view seem to converge. The question of whether AJA deserves the claims that it is anti-Israel and possibly anti-Semitic is an important one in the American market. The Israel topical page on the AJA website lists several recent articles, none very favorable to Israeli interests.
In a recent column by Samuel Hantverk for the Jewish Chronicle, the author takes a firsthand look at AJA coverage:
“What I discovered in my curiosity of this extension is that Al Jazeera America has spectacular journalism—with the exclusion of select topics, such as Israel.”
However, even in his discussion of events and issues close to the heart of Israel, he praises AJA for humanizing its reporting and suggests that Israeli media can learn from AJA in its own coverage. In the Israeli media, Hantverk claims, “rarely do I read an article that captivates me or makes the person of interest relatable.”
Recent AJA coverage of international events and personalities included Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, storms and flooding in the UK, Vladimir Putin, and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, political unrest during Bangladesh elections, a building collapse in India, volcano in Indonesia, and violence towards striking Cambodian garment workers.
If not for the AJA logo on the screen, viewers might think they were watching any other news network. Other, longer segments on Syrian rebels battling al-Qaeda groups from Iraq provided the signature video footage and exclusive interviews for which Al Jazeera is known, and clearly sets its coverage apart from other networks.
Recent U.S. domestic coverage included reports on the Boeing union conflict in Washington state, airboats in the Florida everglades, a blizzard in the Northeast, the ban of plastic grocery bags in Los Angeles, and a U.S. Coast Guard rescue operation in Antarctica. Sports coverage included reports on the NFL, the Orange Bowl, and an in-depth segment on Life After College Sports.
As comprehensive as they were in all AJA reports, a subtle difference was perceptible — it was not a U.S.-centric view of events. There was a notable lack of subjectivity and emotion which we are accustomed to seeing when watching U.S. media coverage. Opinion pieces, in particular, seem to reflect a global view of issues affecting the Arab world, as opposed to the U.S.-slanted view we typically see. These differences might be viewed as positives for AJA.
How successful has Al Jazeera America been in branding itself as a competitive source of news in the U.S.? The ratings clearly tell the tale. But, the content it offers — with some exceptions — appears to provide an objective look at events within the U.S. and around the globe, as well as in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether AJA can remain viable through its government funding alone. Or, will the Qatari government eventually pull the plug and refocus on its international media presence? If AJA is not able to extend its influence as Qatar had surely hoped, there must be a limit to what it can spend on vanity alone.