Al Jazeera America should aspire higher than cable competitors

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2013 - 9:35 AM

The new news network should set its sights on globally focused, leading media brands.

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A set for news broadcasts at the Al Jazeera America headquarters in New York: The network is the culmination of a long-held dream among the leaders of Qatar.

Photo: Suzanne DeChillo • New York Times,

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The news about the news business has been mostly about digital disruptions causing seismic shifts in the media landscape. “Stop the presses!” took on new meaning at some newspapers, while others paused them by printing less frequently. Graying and fragmented audiences threaten TV and radio, too.

Beyond the bottom line, partisan lines that are so sharp in society are reflected in, and partly caused by, media leaning left or right.

So any new news start-up — especially when it pledges higher aspirations and hires nearly 1,000 people — is a good news story. But of course Al Jazeera America — whose premise, if not promise, is more serious journalism, fewer commercials, longer stories and shorter patience for punditry — isn’t just any start-up. Rather it’s an acceleration of a comprehensive — and controversial — news organization that’s already a major media and political presence worldwide.

Al Jazeera has 70 news bureaus around the globe, and it has added 12 more in America. Here at home, however, controversy mostly defines, and dogs, Al Jazeera. Many remember it for airing Osama bin Laden’s video screeds, and for being characterized as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

This PR problem didn’t stop Al Jazeera from purchasing Current TV for $500 million and replacing it not with the established Al Jazeera English but a brand-new U.S. version.

Despite the U.S.-centric approach, the new network shouldn’t subsume its regional roots. In fact, it’s precisely because of its original orientation that Al Jazeera America is uniquely positioned to report on the Arab Spring-turned-winter that’s jarring geopolitics.

For instance, on Tuesday — debut day for Al Jazeera America — the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Mohammed Badie and the impending release of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak showed how the coup could soon completely restore Mubarak’s repressive regime (if not Mubarak himself). And chilling images of an alleged chemical weapons attack refocused international attention on Syria’s vicious civil war.

On its flagship prime-time program, Al Jazeera America did focus on foreign news. It led with the chaos in Cairo, including a post­report interview with Washington and Cairo correspondents. Later it returned to the story in Egypt with a profile of military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. The one outside contributor was notably not a pundit, but an expert: Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. (In between, the new network went worldwide and domestic with in-depth stories, and the next morning it led with the searing Syrian video.)

Coleman, as well as other serious sources, are sometimes seen on TV. But not nearly enough on the cable cabal of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that Al Jazeera America is comparing itself to. Sure, those established networks occasionally book bookish academics who explain the shades of gray that color most issues. But all too often it’s black-and-white certitudes from talking (and often shouting) heads. To wit, CNN inked Newt Gingrich and three other hosts for its relaunch of “Crossfire” — a program designed for arguing. And MSNBC’s rumored recruit is also known to be combative. But he’s not an analyst, academic or even a politician or pundit, but actor Alec Baldwin.

So Al Jazeera America should be able to be “fact-based and unbiased, with less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings,” as Al Jazeera America CEO Ehab Al Shihabi told reporters.

But why set the bar so low?

There’s already a journalistically objective option that gathers guests with the most experience and expertise to explain an increasingly interconnected, complex world. Indeed, PBS’s “NewsHour,” should be what Al Jazeera America sets its sights on, instead of defining what it is not by comparing itself to cable news networks that have left so many unsatisfied with the genre.

The “NewsHour” is timeless because it follows a durable model of straight reporting combined with the reasoned, seasoned analysis of experts and officials who interpret, or make, public policy. While it doesn’t obsess about Beltway scorekeeping, it’s still highly influential in Washington, and beyond — PBS data indicates an audience average of about 1.3 million per night. That’s fewer viewers than Fox, but more than CNN and MSNBC.

Al Jazeera America should not limit its competition to just cable news networks, which are locked into an increasingly irrelevant skirmish that misses the millions who turn to other news sources (including, previously, Al Jazeera English) to try to decipher the news from all corners of the globe.

Rather, Al Jazeera America can recast its image by emulating media organizations like PBS, NPR, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and others that still reflect the importance of international news despite the aftershocks still shaking the media landscape.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM.

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