Why I’m Optimistic About Al Jazeera America

The network owned by Qatar’s royals isn’t beyond reproach, but U.S. news can use some spice.

It’s been more than a week since Al Jazeera America joined the U.S. cable lineup, and in case you haven’t noticed, the enemy is not at the gates. In fact, early ratings data shows the inaugural broadcasts of the Qatari-owned news outfit landed with something closer to a thud than the threatening bang anticipated by some conservative critics — who have been busy stoking fears that the channel will give Islamist propagandists a backdoor into the living rooms of unsuspecting Americans.

The day before AJA’s August 20th debut, Fox News political analyst Jim Pinkerton tempered his muted admiration for Al Jazeera’s unparalleled news reach by pandering to the worst jingoistic stereotypes:

“[T]hey’re an Arab news channel and let’s face it, many if not most Arabs probably support what bin Laden was trying to do in terms of killing Americans and so on.” he said, in response to a question from Fox host Jon Scott.

Ouch.

It hardly matters that the opposite is actually true. Polls show that Al Qaeda has been largely discredited throughout the Muslim world. Even in Pakistan — a haven for terrorist activity — only 13 percent of Muslims hold a favorable view of the group, according to Pew Research. And the same holds true in Arab nations such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

But it is probably worth noting that the network doing the criticism is owned by News Corp., whose second-largest voting shareholder is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia — reportedly home to all but four of the 9/11 hijackers. Like those of most Arabs, the Prince’s political leanings are decidedly pro-Palestinian (and, like Qatar’s emir, he has donated millions to their cause), but his primary ambition is expanding his enormous fortune, and, when called for, flexing his power to shape public opinion.

In 2005, Prince Alwaleed bragged about using his clout to influence Fox’s reporting of rioting in France following the deaths of two teenage Muslim boys: “I picked up the phone and called Murdoch and said that I was speaking not as a shareholder, but as a viewer of Fox. I said that these are not Muslim riots, they are riots,” the Guardian newspaper reported, adding that within 30 minutes Fox changed its characterization of the unrest.

I point this out not to question Fox’s integrity (they don’t need my help), but to show that no profit-driven media outlet is free of all potentially prejudicial baggage. It’s the nature of the business, and it has been since before William Randolph Hearst used his New York Journal to help launch the Spanish American War. Instead, I think AJA’s critics are missing the point, and revealing their extremely low confidence in the average American’s intellect not to mention the professionalism AJA’s team of award-winning American journalists.

The popularity of Fox News aside, I think most Americans know when they’re being fed bunk; and if anything, given its Islamic patina, Al Jazeera America will have even a higher bar of credibility to navigate than its “fair & balanced” rival. It is still early in the game, but if it sticks to the plan, AJA shouldn’t have any trouble doing that. The network has promised “a broader and deeper perspective on America’s stories.” And so far it seems to be delivering. In the past week the station’s flagship prime-time program, “America Tonight,” has promoted hour-long investigative stories on Native American health care, wage inequality, New York City’s Save Our Streets campaign, and new research into heat stroke in athletes. Tonight, correspondent Adam May will be reporting from New Orleans for the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Not exactly Goebbels material.

Does the fact that Al Jazeera is bankrolled by the royal family of Qatar — a country that ranked 110th on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index — give me pause? Maybe a little. But I don’t live in Qatar; and given that the United States — a country where a free press is enshrined in the Constitution — didn’t exactly fare that well itself (we ranked 32nd, between Suriname and Lithuania), I’m not sure that’s the proper metric to determine the value of a news source.

Since coming on the scene nearly two decades ago, Al Jazeera has struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds to pioneer a culture of a free press in regions of the world where such a concept has never existed. It’s little surprise that over the years the network has managed to piss of just about everyone at some point — from Saudi Arabia and Algeria (which once cut power to an entire city to keep the station from broadcasting) to Britain and the U.S. Most recently the station has been accused of skewing content in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood — a charge that led to the resignation of dozens of reporters in Egypt.

This is a justifiable criticism, and something to keep in mind when you tune in. But, as anyone who has ever spent any time watching its English broadcasts knows, Al Jazeera has established a tradition of presenting hard-hitting, fact-based reporting on stories that often get overlooked by the American mainstream media. Call me overconfident, but I’m betting that this is the aspect of the network that will shine through as it advances its U.S. presence.

Given the stark partisan divide in America, it’s easy to overlook the fact that our news coverage tends to be predictable and homogeneous (if you need proof, try channel surfing through the three networks’ Sunday morning news programs some time). A new voice to the mix, particularly one that challenges some of our assumptions about the world, will add some much needed spice to our bland media pie. As both a journalist and a news consumer, I’m looking forward to getting a taste.