Pondering Al Jazeera America: Another Angle

The Toronto Star has an Op-Ed from Tony Burman, the former head of Al Jazeera English, regarding the Al Jazeera/Current deal… (via DC Internationalist)

This sale is a huge gamble for Al Jazeera. Companies that refused to carry Al Jazeera for political reasons will be forced to distribute Al Jazeera America when it replaces Current TV. Time Warner Cable in New York City has already dropped Current TV and says it won’t broadcast Al Jazeera. One wonders what will happen to Al Jazeera America over the next few years when other cable and satellite contracts expire. There have also been suggestions it may have to end its popular online streaming in the U.S. to accommodate these contracts.

Al Jazeera’s hope, presumably, is that broad numbers of Americans will gradually be won over by the range and diversity of its news and programming. A large part of my role with Al Jazeera English, particularly in the U.S. and Canada, was to urge people to get past the post-Sept. 11 fear-mongering and appreciate the channel’s editorial accomplishments and numerous prestigious awards.

It was striking that, in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Qatar and asked to meet senior Al Jazeera officials. I was part of that meeting and her message was that the Obama administration regarded Al Jazeera as part of the “solution,” not the “problem” in the Middle East.

Al Jazeera’s challenge won’t be an easy one. My sense of Al Jazeera today is that it is becoming a more “top-down,” centrally driven news operation than ever before. All news programs and most editorial decisions now come out of Qatar.

Al Jazeera America will force it to change if it wants to succeed. For news channels to thrive in the U.S., America’s story must be “made in America.” Al Jazeera has time to turn it around before “the lights go on” in these 40 million homes, but not much time. The American TV marketplace waits for no one, and rarely grants a second chance.

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