THE BLOG
08/22/2013 08:17 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

Al Jazeera Goes Ahead -- But in Reverse

Cable TV news got its biggest enlivening jolt since the invention of CNN, enthusiasts are arguing, when the new channel Al Jazeera America (AJAM) was finally launched this week.

This newest service to emerge from the deep pockets of the Qatari royal family was also supposed to deliver a strong, hard news-based corrective to the partisan rhetoric that typifies Fox News and MSNBC.

In the end AJAM looked altogether serviceable enough. Interesting stories clearly told, and at a pace that didn't seem rushed or overawed by its own importance.

But ... And there has to be a "but."

A crucial contradiction lies at the heart of Al Jazeera's chosen path toward securing a place in the United States news landscape... a central flaw that (barring a miracle) is bound to result in failure.

Al Jazeera has many virtues. That is indisputable. (None of those virtues, by the way, are diluted one jot by the idiotic but abiding notion that Al Jazeera is a terrorist mouthpiece.) And perhaps its biggest virtue is quite simply that it is NOT American.

The existing Al Jazeera English (AJE) channel that was spun off in 2006 from the original Arabic network gained discerning and gratified followers all around the world, but also, very significantly, in the U.S. That was thanks mainly to its website, and to the handful of US cable-providers who could see their way past that idiotic 'terrorist' demonization and offer AJE to their subscribers.

AJE's reputation grew in the U.S. as a welcome antidote to the pervasive mood and tone of so many of this country's media. That is -- to put it bluntly -- U.S.-centric... insular and provincial... sometimes barely a notch above being outright xenophobic.

AJE the antidote-provider earned praise in high places, from for instance Hillary Clinton and John McCain, whose appreciative words from those days were inevitably re-quoted this week in Al Jazeera advertisements. "Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," Clinton had said in March 2011. "What Al Jazeera has done... is to make a contribution that will last," said McCain, with studiously less specificity, three months later.

So when word came from Doha some 18 months ago that the network wanted to make its workman-like approach to global news (delivered in English) available to a mass U.S. television audience, many high hopes were raised.

But the company itself changed course, some time after its $500 million purchase in January 2013 of Al Gore's floundering Current TV channel, which it thought could provide a helpful short-cut into US living-rooms.

A lot of corporate thought went into just how to employ this newly acquired cable-space, and there was much zigging and zagging over the right editorial direction to take. The path finally chosen is now very clear. And it represents a 180-degree turn away from how the journey began. It consists of jettisoning Al Jazeera's journalistically sound news-values -- and, to use marketing parlance, jettisoning its most distinguished (literally) brand-identity.

It showed through all too clearly on the new channel's first day. Yes there was international coverage (Egypt of course, and Syria) but in terms of priorities -- always the best test of any newsroom's judgment -- domestic U.S. stories of arguably much lesser import (like the Atlanta school-shooting scare and Mid-west wildfires) gained lead positions.

A boardroom decision taken months ago prepared the way toward this turn-about. The very title adopted for the new channel was a signal of it -- embodying some cowardly compromise. Just tagging the word "America" after the name "Al Jazeera" might well have appeared unexceptionable in many an office across the United States. But in offices in Doha, and in London (where the company has corporate centers) and even more resonantly in the network's bureaus in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Buenos Aries, and Toronto too (all "American" cities of course) there was never any doubt how deeply the "America" label could convey the arrogance and myopia of United States journalism at its worst. What, after all, could be so bad about naming the new service "Al Jazeera United States" or the shorter "Al Jazeera U.S."?

Once the decision was taken to be "American," the next step was to recruit people who could put flesh on this volte-face in policy. Pulling in familiar faces from among the on-screen reporters at established U.S. networks was an obvious and simple thing to do, and a remarkable hiring spree of about 800 American journalists took place over six months.

Harder and longer to find, though, was an overall editorial commander. Eventually Kate O'Brian, a 30-year veteran from the Disney-owned ABC network, was appointed only last month.

O'Brian immediately got down to laying down the refashioned company line. She announced: "Everything that we're going to be producing is for the American viewing audience," and went on to say that this meant providing "just what the American audience expects." To ram home the 'American' theme, she insisted that "every decision we make ... will be based on what we, as American journalists, have learned and have come to expect."

Once AJAM's wares were actually unveiled to the public this Tuesday, O'Brian could be more precise than during her advance sales-pitches. She was indeed painfully accurate when she summed up the all-too-obvious, and now clearly inglorious, AJAM team approach. "We will tell stories in ways that Americans are familiar with."

If we wistfully recall Ted Turner boldly starting CNN in 1980, we don't have to wish nostalgically for the clock to be turned back. The context is of course very, very different now. But one simple precept that which Turner championed could certainly be repeated now. Success through offering the new and unfamiliar, not the familiar.

But not Al Jazeera, not now. It caught something infectious while working in the U.S. environment, among its U.S. peers and rivals. It got scared.