Al Jazeera America (AJAM) is set to debut on Tuesday. In January Al Gore sold his struggling liberal news network, Current TV, to the Qatari news company for $70 million, paving the way for Al Jazeera to expand to U.S. airwaves.
Al Jazeera has been growing in popularity among American audiences since its coverage of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, even as major networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC suffered from a decline in viewers. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the network’s coverage of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, acknowledging that it has satiated a largely unfulfilled American demand for extensive, in-depth international coverage.
Even though conditions seem perfect for Al Jazeera America to enter the world of 24-hour cable news with a bang, many cable distributors still refuse to carry the network due to an irrational, uninformed, and Islamophobic stigma attached to the network. When a mere four cable systems broadcasted Al Jazeera English, certain vocal segments of the American public were already campaigning against it. Jeffrey Kaufman, a retired Vermont physicist, issued a public referendum in Burlington to have it removed, insisting that its true agenda was to establish sharia law in the U.S. Far-right activist Pamela Geller, the executive director of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America, similarly asserted that Al Jazeera’s attempted expansion to U.S. audiences is a stealth campaign to air propaganda attacks against the United States. Geller went so far as to organize a conference against Al Jazeera’s alleged “Islamization” of America and compared it to the expansion of Goebbels’ media empire in the U.S. during World War II.
Former President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed Al Jazeera’s coverage of civilian casualties during the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan as Taliban propaganda, aggressively persecuting the network for its journalism. Bush and Rumsfeld continued to refer to the network as a mouthpiece for hateful terrorist propaganda. When the U.S. destroyed Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul, an office well known by American military forces, the Department of Defense stated that “the building we struck was a known Al-Qaeda facility in central Kabul.” Similarly, after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. also bombed Al Jazeera’s offices in Baghdad, killing and wounding its journalists, although in the latter attack the U.S. claimed that the bombing was collateral damage.
The Bush administration used every aspect of the national-security state apparatus to silence, intimidate, and suppress the network. They held Sami Al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera journalist from Sudan, for six years in Guantanamo Bay. Although the U.S. claimed that Al-Hajj had ties to Al-Qaeda, Al-Hajj said that his interrogations revolved almost entirely around Al Jazeera’s operations as the Bush administration grasped at straws to find nonexistent links between the company and Al-Qaeda.
For its part, Fox News repeated spurious myths about Al Jazeera serving as an Al-Qaeda mouthpiece on the eve of AJAM’s impending arrival on U.S. airwaves. One Fox analyst, Jim Pinkerton, went so far as to claim that Al Jazeera’s status as an Arab network is suspect because “many, if not most, Arabs probably support what bin Laden was trying to do in terms of killing Americans,” citing unnamed Pew research polls. In fact, the Pew polls actually indicate the exact opposite: A minority of the Arab public and Muslim world supports Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, with support for bin Laden himself at an all-time low
Despite Fox’s rehashing of a decade worth of myths and misinformation about Al Jazeera, Islam, and the Arab world, even Pinkerton backhandedly praised the network with regards to how it spends money to put reporters in “hot zones” in places like Egypt and Syria. This is particularly pertinent and vital in a cable news industry in which most of the major players have disbanded their investigative journalism units.
Despite the protests of right-wing pundits, it's fairly clear what Al Jazeera America won't be. But what will it include? The network promises first-rate investigative journalism, such as its exposé on gang violence in Chicago, but many are worried that this work won’t extend overseas. Al Jazeera English’s wide array of international coverage is exactly how it built its brand for English-speaking audiences and yet Al Jazeera America intends to focus mostly on domestic affairs, just like its major competitors. Although renowned reporter Soledad O’Brien is producing a documentary in Haiti for the network, it seems unlikely that Americans will be able to rely on AJAM for the same hard-hitting international coverage that they have come to expect from Al Jazeera English. This is particularly disheartening as Al Jazeera English’s live stream is no longer available in the U.S.
As the pundits at Fox point out, another benefit that may compensate for AJAM’s reduced international coverage is the fact that extensive funding from the Qatari government will give the network more flexibility to cover important stories, without a concern for pulling in high ratings. However, this also raises questions on how much control the Qatari government will exert over AJAM and whether the American network will tacitly reflect the Qatari state’s biases, just as its corporately controlled competitors must abide by their owners’ unwritten guidelines.
Qatar is an unabashed supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Jazeera’s pro-Brotherhood bias was particularly evident in regards to the recent coup in Egypt, prompting several of its employees to resign over questions of journalistic integrity. In the domestic field, the agency's Qatari funders could affect the extent and accuracy with which it covers major environmental issues such as fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline, and global warming, maintaining the corporate-driven status quo in environmental journalism.
Regardless of AJAM’s potential biases, it is unjustified to write the network off as a terrorist propaganda outfit, as the neoconservative establishment was so desperate to do during the Bush administration. That doesn’t mean that AJAM won’t harbor its own biases but the network’s emphasis on investigative reporting and its decreased emphasis on ratings are already promising portents.