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.