As Al Jazeera America tries redefining cable TV news, will Tampa Bay audiences miss the experiment?
Out of the network TV news business for years, onetime CNN and CBS News correspondent/anchor Joie Chen wasn’t necessarily hot on the idea of returning to the land of the 30-second sound bite and endless debates over the future of Obamacare.
Until she got an offer from a cable news channel promising to do things a different way: Al Jazeera America.
“I had turned down a few jobs in television; I didn’t want to do some of the things I had already done,” said Chen, who had worked everywhere from CNN International to CBS Sunday Morning. “But our mandate (at Al Jazeera America) has been to look for the underreported story; look for the story we can go deep into. Stories that don’t typically (surface) in broadcast news…What we’re doing with our reporting, is actual reporting.”
If you're unfamiliar with the current, disappointing state of cable TV news, it might seem like a joke -- a news channel aiming for success by addressing a niche viewer they see has been underserved by America's cable landscape:
People who want actual news reporting on their cable news channels.
But even as Al Jazeera America officially takes over the Current TV channel Tuesday, promising to attract viewers with hard news reporting that avoids celebrities, pundits and sensationalism, most Tampa Bay area viewers may not have a chance to participate in this bold experiment.
That's because Time Warner Cable, which also negotiates programming from Bright House Networks here and in Orlando, decided to drop Current TV not long after its sale to Al Jazeera was announced. (Verizon FiOS will carry the channel.)
A spokesman for Al Jazeera said Time Warner's decision came after months of dissatisfaction with Current's ratings and that negotiations for carriage are ongoing. But local Bright House viewers may not see this effort to attract viewers without the fluffy staples of cable news.
Which is too bad. Because Chen and other Al Jazeera staffers insist they plan to succeed by returning to journalism’s old school, delivering a wide range of reporting developed in a dozens bureaus across the U.S. and more than 70 bureaus worldwide.
Chen cites stories from Indian Country, a correspondent embedded with gangs in Chicago, a look at how the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) is working and a look at medical malpractice as example of pieces they’ll be chasing in weeks to come.
As anchor of America Tonight, Al Jazeera America's flagship newscast, Chen will helm a program aired from Washington D.C.’s museum of news and journalism, The Newseum. She joins a long, ethnically and culturally diverse list of expatriates who once worked at rival news channels: Soledad O'Brien, Ali Velshi and Sarah Hoye from CNN; John Seigenthaler and David Shuster from MSNBC; and ABC News alum Antonio Mora. The channel's new president, Kate O'Brian, was a 30-year veteran of ABC News.
"Every person I talk to in the general public has the same complaint. TV news has become right and left, this back-and-forth, Crossfire kind of thing," Chen said. "Audiences will tell you: ‘We’re frustrated with that. We don’t watch TV news anymore, because it’s a bunch of people yelling at each other.’ Does that mean the next day we’re going to have a (blockbuster) audience? No. But I do think there is an audience for in-depth storytelling.”
Ironically, though the channel bears Al Jazeera's name, not many of the American channel's anchors are from cultures or ethnicities descended from the Middle East. That's likely by design, said Mohammed el-Nawawy, co-author of a 2002 book on the rise of Al Jazeera, which began in the mid '90s as an independent, all-Arab television news network funded by the government of Qatar.
“They want to make sure they are not too foreign,” said el-Nawawy, a professor at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. “They are totally aware that American viewers are already alienated from Al Jazeera and the logo. That’s the challenge; Al Jazeera wants to provide something new, but they don’t want to stand out as foreign. They want to emphasize both the America and the Al Jazeera in the channel.”
Founded in 1996 with funding from the emir of Qatar, the Arabic-language version of Al Jazeera drew criticism in 2001 for airing unedited statements from Osama bin Laden and Taliban officials; a New York Times story also said it featured a glamorous photo of bin Laden in the background of the channel's main set; call-in shows featuring anti-American and anti-Zionist rhetoric; and a focus on anti-American and anti-Western public protests.
Here’s a story I did back in 2001, watching the Arabic-language channel with a local college professor who translated the reports for me, back when a traumatized, post 9/11 America wasn’t quite sure what to make of the ambitious news outlet with a relentless reporting vision.
The channel also offered a perspective on war and conflict in the Middle East from a different perspective. Al Jazeera’s English channel has since earned journalism awards in America and respect for substantive reporting, though el-Nawawy noted AJE still had problems getting carriage on American cable systems.
“Al Jazeera English was resisted here,” he said. “That’s why I think the first few days are going to be very decisive. If you’re not successful in the first few weeks of your launch in attracting a sizable American audience and making sure they are hooked to you, I don’t think that’s a possibility later on.”
But that’s where the professor and I disagree. In many ways, cable TV news is a long-term game masquerading as a short-term proposition. It takes a while to enter people’s news consumption habits, and Al Jazeera America will have to own a few big stories before the 48 million households who can access the channel likely turn to it regularly.
But will Al Jazeera America leave behind what has most distinguished its reporting worldwide – a grounding in and knowledge of Middle Eastern cultures – in order to reach an American audience?
Chen just hopes to win the day with good journalism. "If we take the resources given us and recreated the same thing you could see anywhere on cable news, we would have failed our mission," she said, noting there has been no talk of ratings targets or viewership expectation. "I've been around newsrooms a long time, and I can tell you: I've never seen this much excitement."