THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Journalism From The Margins

Requiem for Al Jazeera America

by Madeleine Matsui

Illustration by Yuko Okabe

published March 18, 2016


Al Jazeera America has bitten the dust. On February 26, 2016, with all operations slated to close by April 30, 2016, the news outlet issued a final farewell. Entitled “Goodnight and Good Luck,” the first line of the letter read: “The core principle driving the journalism that distinguished Al Jazeera America online as a unique voice in a cluttered news landscape was the simple—yet radical—proposition that no single human life is worth less than any other.” 

Al Jazeera America (AJAM) was an American cable and satellite news television channel owned by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network, the parent company of Al Jazeera and other related networks. The Al Jazeera Media Network has 80 bureaus globally, the second-largest number of bureaus in the world. The Al Jazeera Media Network does not play a role in managing its channels—each is run independently. The Media Network funds its subsidiary channels and services that include several other channels as well as a website, mobile applications, a research center and AJ+, an online-only news channel. AJAM aimed to distinguish itself by offering an alternative news channel and news source that would bring serious, in-depth reporting to sound-bite-filled U.S. cable news. The end of the short-lived enterprise demonstrates the difficulties of breaking into a saturated and polarized cable news market. AJAM’s demise also embodies the struggle to create a sustainable business in the context of the 24-hour news cycle that has come to define contemporary journalism. Furthermore, AJAM’s closure provokes questions about the state of contemporary American politics, partisanship and bias that contributed to the channel’s termination. It also evokes questions about the evolving ways in which younger generations are receiving news—which is increasingly through mobile applications and online content. Did AJAM fail because it couldn’t keep up with these changes?

In August 2013, AJAM debuted in the U.S. after Al Jazeera bought Al Gore’s Current TV for $500 million. Initially, Al Jazeera considered expanding Al Jazeera English—its English-language international channel—but later decided to create an independent U.S. channel. Funded primarily by the Qatari government, AJAM lacked a viable business model beyond generous support from the oil-rich country. But even beyond this problem, AJAM struggled to get off the ground. The organization was plagued by consistently low ratings, operational and management problems, and a lack of advertisers. AJAM also lost a number of top executives and journalists after a period of internal turmoil. In May 2015, Mary McGinnis, a senior AJAM executive, resigned from the company, citing a “culture of fear” in which “people are afraid to lose their jobs if they cross [Al Jazeera America chief executive] Ehab [Al Shihabi].” 

In May 2015, following a New York Times story that chronicled “deep dysfunction” in the organization, AJAM CEO Ehab Al Shihabi was fired and replaced with Al Jazeera English veteran Al Anstey. Previously, Anstey had served as the international channel’s managing director. In addition to the problems he inherited from Al Shihabi, Anstey had to manage Al Jazeera America digital staffers’ efforts to obtain collective bargaining rights. In October 2015, amid opposition from AJAM management, fifty journalists voted to unionize. On top of all of this, AJAM is currently being sued by several former employees who allege that they were victims of sexism and anti-Semitism in the workplace.

In three years, AJAM recruited seasoned journalist and produced award-winning journalism. With ample funding, AJAM built out a massive newsroom in Midtown Manhattan and bureaus in eleven other American cities. It also hired multiple well-known journalists including Ali Velshi, Joie Chen, Mike Viqueira and former ABC News executive Kate O’Brian, who was named Al Jazeera America president. With a staff of 800 led by prominent journalists, AJAM produced award-winning investigative journalism while in operation. As recently as November 2015, AJAM won the Gold Award from the United Nations Correspondents Association for its coverage of peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic in a three-part series by Benedict Moran. Within the same month, it also won best documentary at the International Emmy Awards for Miners Shot Down, a film about the investigation of the killing of 24 miners by police during a six day strike in South Africa. AJAM also produced consistent coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. In its farewell note, AJAM explicitly mentions the importance Black Lives Matter as a reminder of the “intolerable epidemic of police shootings of young people of color” that “tapped into that tradition of active citizenship.” In addition, AJAM closely followed developments surrounding the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act and the broader campaign to reform immigration laws. Unfortunately, AJAM’s mission to produce in-depth stories highlighting traditionally under-represented voices did not seem to strike a chord with the American public. Taken together, was AJAM’s demise an implicit admonishment for its distinctly liberal reporting style?

 

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In 2015, AJAM produced a documentary that linked Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to human growth hormone. In The Dark Side: The Secret World of Sports Doping, Manning and other top athletes from Major League Baseball and the National Football League were accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, which they have since denied. In response to the documentary, Manning released an angry statement declaring the allegations to be “complete garbage” and “totally made up.” Baseball players Ryan Howard and Ryan Zimmerman, who were both implicated in the documentary, have filed defamation suits against AJAM and Manning has publically stated that he is contemplating doing the same, potentially adding to AJAM’s long list of headaches. In response to reports that Al Jazeera America was closing down, Manning said: “I’m sure it’s going to be just devastating to all their viewers.” Personal gripes with the network aside, Manning is not too upset about Al Jazeera America’s closing—much like the many Americans who never bothered to tune in.

Despite their efforts and money, AJAM was fundamentally unable to draw viewers away from powerful cable networks such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, failing to exceed 30,000 primetime viewers, according to its Nielsen ranking. In comparison, in 2015 Fox News had an average primetime audience of 349,000 viewers, while CNN had 243,000 and MSNBC had 143,000. Its inability to attract a significant viewership during its run illustrates the difficulty of changing viewers’ entrenched loyalties to well-established cable networks. Each major network has cornered a section of the cable news market, with little overlap between them, especially on news about politics and government. 

A Pew Research Center study released in 2014 found that American liberals and conservatives have completely different information streams “distinct from those of individuals with more mixed political views—and very distinct from each other.” The study found that 47% of self-identified conservatives obtained their news about government and politics from Fox News and 88% reported trusting Fox News. By comparison, self-identifying liberals were “less unified in their media loyalty” but 12% cited MSNBC as a cable TV news source, while those closer to the middle of the ideological spectrum declared CNN and local TV as their main news sources. The same study found that only consumers who identified as “consistently liberal” trusted AJAM as a news source. These results demonstrate that ideological differences in media source preferences have evolved according to specific audience profiles and has contributed to the country-wide increase in political polarization. 

What does this signify for AJAM? The results suggest that no matter the depth of its fiscal resources, the network would have had a lot of trouble breaking into the cable news market in the U.S. In a saturated cable television news market, any new network would have had a difficult time sustaining momentum. Moreover, its well-intentioned quest to produce fact-based cable news was mismatched with the current political and news environment in the United States. Al Jazeera America presented a British style of cable news, more serious and dry than many American networks and ultimately incompatible with mainstream American audiences; a former reporter said in an interview with the Chicago Reader that the channel needed more “‘Holy Shit!’ stories”. Furthermore, given its late entry to the cable news market and the fact that its viewership consists of liberal viewers, AJAM would have been better off investing its millions into its online news platform AJ+ that launched in September 2014. Since its inception, AJ+ has been extremely successful, reaching one billion viewers in October 2015. Their issues were aggravated by AJAM’s very name, which made a patent connection to the Arab world that did not sit as well with viewers in the United States as in Europe. Media writer Jack Shafer wrote in a column in Reuters that in a post 9/11 world, Al Jazeera sounds too much, perhaps, like al Qaeda “at least to some American ears,” and that maybe “our subliminal perceptions” play a role in AJAM’s unpopularity. 

In addition, in spite of its potential to specialize in international and Middle Eastern news, AJAM decided to focus on domestic news instead. Today, quality international news, especially reporting from the Middle East, has become increasingly rare due to rising costs and safety concerns. In 2009, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article called “The Reconstruction of American Journalism” describing the vast changes occurring in domestic reporting due to the “collapsing” economic foundations of American newspapers and commercial television news. The article reports that as a result of declining profits and “repeated rounds of deep cost-cutting,” there has been a decline in the percentage of international news. “Retreating from the World,” an article published in the American Journalism Review in 2011, explains that mainstream news organizations have “turned their backs on foreign news,” with many news outlets closing down their overseas bureaus.  

The Al Jazeera Media Network has more bureaus worldwide than any network except for the BBC. Though benefitting from a global presence, AJAM’s homegrown team and US-based bureaus might have provided a chance for it to establish credibility as an impartial news provider, separate from other arms of Al Jazeera that have less than solid reputations among some Americans. Al Jazeera Arabic, for example, has been accused of broadcasting propaganda on behalf of the Qatari royal family and government. On the other hand, perhaps no action short of changing its name could have saved AJAM from being associated with the larger company’s perceived anti-American, pro-Islamic slant. 

In its brief tenure, AJAM was an instructive experiment in cable news journalism. Within an increasingly politically polarized environment, American television news has become more and more about playing out ideological battles instead of in-depth coverage of important issues. Beginning in the early 1980s, programs such as CNN’s Crossfire have institutionalized this combative approach to television news. Increasingly, panelists have been rewarded for their pugnacity and theatrics, with more viewers tuning in to watch verbal brawls over more rational debate. As a result, these confrontations have resulted in higher ratings for television networks. By eschewing complexity and a breadth of perspectives, television news networks and their viewers consent to promoting shallowness and shock-value. 

AJAM may not have resolved these deeply ingrained issues, but it offered hope that a new network could intervene and perhaps break these perturbing patterns. Its focus on minority voices and stories offered a refreshing, albeit unmistakably liberal take on news. It is possible that AJAM was penalized for straying from orthodox cable television news presentation, including its choice and style of coverage. The network set out with the explicit mission of encouraging nuanced, engaged reporting. As the last lines of Al Jazeera America’s farewell note read: “[AJAM’s legacy] is a journalism of value and of values not tied to any ideology or political entity but morally committed when confronted by racism and bigotry, violence against the innocent, injustice and inequality, sexism and homophobia.” Afflicted with problems throughout its three years, Al Jazeera America was not successful. In its wake, perhaps its idealism can inspire someone or something to realize its failed but valiant mission to produce journalism that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” 

MADELEINE MATSUI B’17 is overwhelmed by the news.