Arab news network Al Jazeera to make its U.S. debut this week

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 18, 2013 - 9:43 PM

The Arab news network hopes to make a stateside splash beginning Tuesday with a roster of U.S. broadcast veterans.

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A set for news broadcasts at the Al Jazeera America headquarters in New York.

Photo: Suzanne DeChillo, New York Times

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The Al Jazeera TV network is best known in the United States for providing an outlet for Osama bin Laden’s videotaped diatribes. Now it wants to radically alter its image by giving a voice to underrepresented Americans.

Al Jazeera America, a 24-hour news channel, premieres Tuesday in roughly 48 million homes with 12 stateside bureaus, a team of respected American broadcast journalists, including former NBC anchor John Seigenthaler and CNN’s Soledad O’Brien — and a promise to put substance ahead of style.

“It’s going to be fact-based and unbiased, with less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings” than the likes of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, said Al Jazeera America’s CEO Ehab Al Shihabi.

Competition aside, that issue of bias may be Al Jazeera America’s biggest challenge. It’s mainly funded by the Arab emirate of Qatar and has the reputation — right or wrong — of promoting an anti-American, pro-Palestinian platform.

“The question will be: How much editorial independence does it have?” said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “It will bear scrutiny.”

That image problem is why the channel will initially be available to only half of the nation’s 103 million pay-TV subscribers, with Time Warner, the nation’s second-largest cable operator, among the holdouts. Al Shihabi and his team are busy selling the network to skeptics in Congress, college campuses and ad agencies.

“There was a perception, but it wasn’t a reality,” Al Shihabi said. Before launch, researchers tested the Al Jazeera name on some average Americans. Among those who’d never viewed its programs, 75 percent were negative. But 90 percent who have caught broadcasts online or elsewhere have a positive feeling.

Joie Chen, the CBS and CNN veteran who will anchor the network’s flagship program, “America Tonight,” believes the anti-American label has been overblown.

“The only people who have asked me about it are reporters,” she said. “Not even members of my family have asked about it, and they question everything.”

The fledgling network has hired nearly 1,000 employees, including CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Ali Velshi, ABC’s Antonio Mora and NBC’s Michael Viqueira.

Perhaps most impressive is the recruitment of Kate O’Brian, a longtime ABC News executive, as president.

O’Brian stresses that the channel will get out of Washington and New York as much as possible, taking advantage of reporters in such cities as Chicago, Nashville and Seattle, as well as from the parent network’s 70 international bureaus.

“Our programming will be what Americans want to know and what we think they need to know,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to stay away from pundits, crazy celebrity news and the more traditional cable fare of sitting in on trials for days on end.”

Fewer ads, longer stories

Al Jazeera’s deep pockets are one reason the network doesn’t feel it needs to chase ratings.

It spent $500 million in January to buy Al Gore’s Current TV channel. Because it is subsidized by one of the world’s wealthiest countries, it can afford to air fewer commercials. A typical hour will feature six minutes of ads, compared with 15 to 17 minutes on other cable news outlets. That will also allow longer stories with fewer interruptions. Chen said pilot episodes of her show have featured 12-minute pieces, including one on a breakthrough in cancer research.

While its initial audience may not rival “The O’Reilly Factor” or even “Piers Morgan Tonight,” it is likely to start with a small but loyal following among those who followed Al Jazeera English, an earlier effort that has been largely relegated to the Web.

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