13 January 2016
Al Jazeera's big mistake
The news that Al Jazeera, the cable news operation based in Qatar, was shutting down its American news channel this spring disappointed me. I've watched the channel quite a bit -- on my cable service it's right next door to BBC News -- and found it occasionally left of center but not in a partisan way. It was in no way religious propaganda, but Al Jazeera America failed to do the simplest thing possible to dispel any suspicion. The fatal flaw in their plan -- unless you attribute the channel's sudden demise to the likelihood of professional athletes winning defamation lawsuits over recent allegations of PED use -- was that Al Jazeera was too infatuated with its own brand. What we know now as Al Jazeera America was once Current TV, the alternative news and documentary channel created by Al Gore. Since Current had been a ratings failure, it was understandable that Al Jazeera didn't want to stick with the original name. But the Qatari network obviously assumed that U.S. news junkies would be impressed by the reputation the original Arabic Al Jazeera -- the name only means "the peninsula" -- had earned for objective and often critical coverage of Middle East politics. The emir of Qatar envisioned a BBC-like operation with considerable independence, though criticism of his majesty is forbidden, and that freed Al Jazeera to go after Arab politicians in an unprecedented way, given the channel's unprecedented reach. So the thinking in America obviously was that people would identify the Al Jazeera brand with "objective world news reporting." Instead, Americans heard the name and assumed that Al Jazeera America was simply an Arab or Muslim propaganda channel. In my area, the big cable carrier wouldn't pick the channel up at first for that very reason. Time Warner finally added it only after dumping RT, the Russian English-language news channel, which was more blatantly anti-American than Al Jazeera ever was. Few other cable providers ever added it, even though at any given moment Al Jazeera America looks "more like America" than BBC News does. It would be simplistic to blame the channel's failure on American prejudice, but from a business standpoint Al Jazeera was simply stupid not to anticipate prejudice and create a new brand for its American operation. RT doesn't call itself Novosti Amerikanski or anything that marks it as foreign, and while that hasn't helped the Russian channel much Al Jazeera America may well have had much more success. Meanwhile, we still get an English language news channel from the People's Republic of China, but that channel is so boring that nobody takes offense or gives a damn. It wouldn't be missed, but for some, Al Jazeera America will be, but it only has itself to blame.