Al Jazeera, the once-purloined Arab news station that fundamentally altered the Arab mediascape, has finagled its way into the American market by purchasing the progressive but less-than-successful Current TV. After the station launched its English-language channel in 2006, it found itself largely shut out of the American market and was unwilling to pay the price for a spot on cable and satellite TV, according to a manager who worked in the Washington bureau at the time.
Al Jazeera's refusal to pay-to-play left it with limited access to only a few markets (such as the D.C. area and Vermont). But with the reported $500 million purchase of former Vice President's Al Gore's Current TV station, Al Jazeera's new Americentric station will have at least a limited opportunity to compete with the big boys. Limited because apparently the existing satellite and cable providers that currently carry the channel have the option to renegotiate their contracts and at least one has decided to cut its losses now. Time Warner's decision to immediately drop the updated channel (a decision it said it would keep an "open mind" about) is a blow to media pluralism and although it may have been made for financial reasons, the timing immediately following the deal's announcement is dubious. Nonetheless, Current TV reportedly only has about 42,000 prime-time viewers, meaning it is not exactly a money maker for the networks. And Time Warner's decision is reminiscent of Comcast's decision in 2006 to back out of carrying Al Jazeera English when it launched.
Nor does this measly amount of viewers, in a country where FOX news has topped the ratings race for more than a decade with about two million prime-time viewers, bode well for helping Al Jazeera gain access to the American market. Watching Bill O'Reilly fume against Gore's sellout to what he called the "anti-American network" was certainly a throwback to the mid-2000s, when such accusations were thrown around with abandon by commentators who had probably never even watched the station!
The station's emphasis -- in its first decade of existence -- on giving voice to the voiceless and speaking truth to power was anti-establishment and often not in the interests of the entrenched leaders of the Arab world or the U.S. military industrial complex. But it was only anti-American according to a particular status-quo conservative reading of what being 'American' meant. As one public intellectual wrote, Al Jazeera was chosen by Saddam Hussein for an interview in 1999 "because of its credibility... wide audience [and] reputation for independence." Like American news, Arab news reflects the values and perspectives of its audience. Al Jazeera, much like Fox News, reflects the ideological commitments and discourse of its audience in its depiction of certain issues. Al Jazeera gained an avid following by adopting a sympathetic view of the Palestinian cause, opposing the Iraq war, and giving voice to young people and other typically disenfranchised voices without access to the state-owned mainstream media in the Arab world. Most of America, however, sympathizes with Israel and supported the Iraq war. So what is the station's plan for the U.S. market?
I think it is unlikely that people who were not already inclined to watch foreign broadcasts, such as BBC or Al Jazeera English, or stream Al Jazeera online, are going to rush to check out Al Jazeera America. France 24, CCTV, Russia Today and a host of other English-language news stations barely make a blip on the radar and it is unclear what Al Jazeera's editorial plan is.
Is AJ America going to recycle content or is it going to forge a different news agenda the way it did in the first several years of its existence in the Middle East? (I found it odd that Al Jazeera English used Reuters wire copy in its reporting on the Current TV deal). If AJ focuses on the plight of the disenfranchised in America, and gives voice to the voiceless here at home, it would certainly be doing a service but would undoubtedly lead to further charges of anti-Americanism. I think it is the rising number of children living in poverty, the proportion of homeless families and veterans, the citizens unable to afford healthcare and education, that is truly anti-American, not the coverage of such issues. But it remains to be seen what the plan for coverage in the U.S. will be and what, precisely, Al Jazeera's goals for the U.S. are. Stay tuned.