THE BLOG

Consider the Source

01/04/2013 08:27 pm ET | Updated Mar 06, 2013
  • David Westin Author, 'Exit Interview'; Former President, ABC News

Peter Jennings would have loved it. A former vice president is going into business with the Emir of Qatar to bring us a cable news channel focused on the Arab world. In one bold stroke we have lots of money going into news, disruption of the old order, and the complicated, rich, exotic stories of the Middle East -- all things that Peter thrived on.

Not everyone has the perspective of a Peter Jennings. The sale of cable news network Current TV to Al Jazeera has raised more than a few eyebrows. There's the fact that Al Jazeera is largely financed by the Qatari monarch, which makes some people question whether the new channel will enjoy true editorial independence. There's the reported price tag of $500 million, which seems pretty high and will richly benefit Mr. Gore and others. And, some have even found irony in the environmental champion Gore going into business with the petro-chemical industry (although, in fairness, the vast wealth of Qatar at this point comes, not from oil, but from the more environmentally-friendly natural gas).

Whatever comes of it all, the creation of this alternative to CNN and Fox News and MSNBC shows just how much has changed in the news media since Peter Jennings left us just seven years ago.

First, the way we've traditionally paid for news coverage just isn't enough anymore. We've had NPR, funded by private donations and large foundations, for many years, but what we've seen lately is a dramatic increase in its audience (while almost all other news audiences were declining). The BBC, supported in large part by license fees paid by British citizens, has established a foothold in this country, with its World News in 25 million homes and its programming featured prominently on both PBS and NPR. One of the strongest additions to journalism in the United States in recent years has been the privately funded Pro Publica, which has broken stories on subjects ranging from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the intricacies of the financial markets, winning Pulitzer prizes in each of the last two years. And toward the end of my time at ABC News, we partnered with the Gates Foundation to do a year of coverage on global health issues that wouldn't have gotten done but for the Gates support.

The simple truth is that good journalism costs money -- real money. When audiences for the traditional news outlets of newspapers and television were growing and the money was rolling in, there were plenty of resources to invest in reporting. But as audiences have splintered, it's gotten harder and harder to find the money to invest in great reporting. And so, alternatives such as NPR and the BBC and Pro Publica and Gates and, yes, Al Jazeera have started stepping into the breech.

The second thing Al Jazeera's buying Current TV highlights is just how little international news is covered in most of our media today. This is not new. This was something Peter Jennings and I talked about often when we worked together at ABC News. Peter was always a powerful advocate for more resources and more coverage from overseas, and I have no doubt that we did more because of him.

There's strong reporting being done from around the world to this day in the mainstream media. We see it front and center when there's a big story -- such as the Arab Spring or the fighting in Syria. But overall, much of the news media have retrenched in their overseas coverage, not only because of the resources required, but also because they've concluded that it's not what the audience wants right now. And this leaves an opportunity for the BBC's and the Al Jazeera's of this world to step into the void.

So, we now have rich Emirs and British subjects and charitable foundations giving us some of the journalism we can't afford and the international coverage not enough of us seem to want. We're good, right? Well, maybe yes and maybe no. And that's the third thing -- the biggest thing, the most important thing -- that the Al Jazeera/Current TV deal points out.

Every time someone steps up to invest in news content, there's a reason. Going back to the early days of television, the networks invested in news divisions in large part to justify their broadcast licenses to the government. With de-regulation in the 1980s, the regulatory reason for investing in TV news took a back seat and earning a reasonable operating income became more important. When audiences were growing, this wasn't too difficult; in recent years, it's become more of a challenge, which necessarily affects the news we see.

But the alternative business models also have their own reasons for investing in the news. Years ago, I was exploring the possibility of expanding on the partnership that we at ABC News had formed with the BBC. I remember having dinner with my counterpart to talk through the possibilities. At the end of a long dinner, after I'd laid out the ways we could improve our financial results by integrating our operations more, he looked at me and said, "Why, there's the problem. Our mission isn't really about making money." When I asked him what their mission was, he told me it was to "promote British values around the world."

This may or may not be how the BBC sees its mission today, but it shows how important it is to consider the source of your news. As much faith as I have in BBC reporting on news stories (its present unpleasantness to the contrary notwithstanding), I always know that a BBC report comes from a particular institution with a particular set of goals and priorities that could influence what they're telling me.

The same can be said of Al Jazeera. It was created by the Emir of Qatar as a news outlet based in Doha to concentrate on events on the Arabian peninsula and throughout the Arab world. It has always had more of an Arab viewpoint on world events than we get elsewhere. Those in the Bush administration and others criticized it for being too closely aligned with al Qaeda. On the other hand, more recently it has received a Polk award for its coverage of the Arab Spring and has been praised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for covering more "real news" than some of what she'd seen on American television. (Full disclosure: I made a deal with Al Jazeera in the build-up to the Iraq War in early 2003 for us to share video, which benefited ABC News in our war coverage.) As a U.S. executive from Al Jazeera has said, we'll need to judge the new channel by what they do. But we'd be foolish simply to ignore what we know about the parent company.

All of us will have to consider the source when we watch the new Al Jazeera America channel -- but that doesn't make it different from any other source of our news today. The new digital world has given us more sources for news and information than we could have imagined in the days when Peter Jennings ruled the evening newscast. With that choice comes great opportunity to be more and better informed. It also carries with it much greater responsibility: the responsibility for each of us to be our own editor, to judge for ourselves the truth of what we're being told.

This Blogger's Books and Other Items from...