Al Jazeera News Expands in U.S., Could Become the Answer to America's PR Problem

The recent acquisition of Current TV by Al Jazeera network in a $500 million deal has sparked a fresh controversy around the Qatar-based media network’s growing clout in the U.S.

While the U.S struggles to win “hearts and minds” in the Middle East, I think letting Al Jazeera operate freely and with little interference will boost American credibility more than setting up failed propaganda machines such as Alhurra TV. I believe Al Jazeera’s recent expansion is a positive move and will do America a lot of good, both politically and in terms of increasing the diversity of perspectives. It would also perhaps help many Americans learn the value of questioning authority – something that seems to be absent in the media landscape here.

While there are no laws restricting foreign ownership of a cable channel, this expansion of Al Jazeera and the resulting push back can be seen as a negative consequence of globalization in reverse – something that American businessmen and politicians are not appreciating very much. While American firms are present around the world and CNN and Alhurra TV (the propaganda network set by the American administration in the Middle East) post-Iraq War continue to operate with relative little interference, the same freedom has not been given to Al Jazeera. This is rather unfortunate.

Since its entry into the U.S in 2005, Al Jazeera has had a tough time – battling accusations of being sympathetic to “terrorists,” for showing Al-Qaeda member’s videos in the past. It is also controversial in the Middle East, as it challenges the existing status quo on several issues and also gives air time to Israeli commentators, something considered not Kosher in the Arab world. Despite this, the network has carved out a niche for itself globally, with its superior reporting – especially of the Arab Spring and also its spectacular reportage of Africa. While Time Warner Cable dropped carrying Current TV, citing the cable provider had far too few viewers, the move is seen as more of a political one, rather than a business decision.

Given that there is uncertainty in the Arab world and the perception of America remains low ( though slowly improving, under President Obama), the challenge of getting the Arab citizens to see American points of view remains. Though soft power, i.e., diplomacy in sports, culture, and other means is being used to bridge this barrier, there is no denying that there is a huge gap between what needs to be achieved and what is before us.

Al Jazeera has definitely come a long way from being seen as a “ terrorist network,” by the Bush administration, to being the go-to network for any credible news. The war room in the State Department reportedly has people glued to Al Jazeera for the latest updates on the Middle East and North Africa.

It also is creating more jobs in the U.S., with a recent announcement of hiring 100 journalists in New York, NY and Washington, D.C.

Additionally, the dichotomy between propaganda and actual news is becoming blurred by the day and those in power realize this. Given this, I believe Al Jazeera offers a more credible "framing" narrative, which is seen as more sincere and credit-worthy, at least by those who follow media critically. While the playing field for businesses is (arguably) almost equal, in the U.S. and Middle East, it is about time this is made the same for media outlets too.

Perhaps Al Jazeera is the answer to America’s public relations problem in the Arab world. It is by promoting it, and not through blocking the network, that the U.S. will be able to win more hearts and minds. 

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Sabith Khan

Sabith Khan is a social entrepreneur, researcher and founder of MENASA, a think-tank and policy shop engaged in issues related to MENA and South Asia. Sabith has worked for several years in the field of strategic communications, public affairs and nonprofit management, trying to understand and communicate issues pertaining to civil society, development and youth in the US and MENA region. Sabith has worked with several large global public affairs firms, on award-winning campaigns in healthcare, entertainment and government relations. During his stint at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, he ideated and executed a global award-winning campaign for Apollo Hospitals (Abby and Clio Awards). He has also worked in the Middle East managing accounts as diverse as Dubai Film Festival, Mohammed bin Rashid Foundation, Dubai International Film Festival, Dubai School of Government. Most recently, he served as the Executive Director of Muslim Public Service Network in Washington D.C, an NGO that engages and inspires young American Muslims to do public service. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Planning Governance and Globalization at Virginia Tech. He has been involved as a team member and leader in several international development projects including consulting for the Near East Foundation, in helping set up their Monitoring and Evaluation system for their offices across the MENA region. Sabith has a Master of Public administration and a Master of Arts in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. In Summer 2013, he conducted research on American Muslim philanthropy at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, Indianapolis, in an attempt to map giving behavior among Muslims over the last ten years i.e., 2002- 2012. Sabith’s research interests include Religion and Philanthropy, Youth issues in USA, Middle East North Africa and South Asia, Governance and Civil Society. Sabith is also the co-editor of Millennials Speak: Essays on the 21st century, a snapshot of the ideas and opinions of the global Millennial Generation. Twenty writers from five continents, a diverse mix of young academics, policy professionals, and future thought and creative leaders, cover topics from the legacy of the Arab Spring, the global food system, the U.S. student loan crisis, youth unemployment, to popular culture. Currently working: Founder and Executive Director, MENASA Publications: 1. Humanitarian Aid and Faith-Based Giving: The Potential of Muslim Charity - Unrest Magazine, George Mason University. May 2013. Accessible at http://www.unrestmag.com/about-unrest/past-issues/#sthash.GEqNfv0U.dpuf 2. Arab American Diaspora and American Muslim Philanthropy: impact of crisis situations on mobilization and formation of a “community.” American University in Cairo Press. Cairo. (NP). Expected Fall 2013. 3. Middle-East Peace Talks 2010: Investigating the Role of Lobbying and Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C. as Spoilers. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Spring 2011. Accessible at : http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/parcc/Research/intrastate/Spoilers_of_Peace_Project/ Blog: www.sabithkhan.wordpress.com

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