A-Jam Enters the Mix

PUBLISHED: August 23, 2013

The launch of Al Jazeera America is arguably the best thing to happen in electronic journalism since the June evening 33 years ago when Ted Turner flipped a switch to inaugurate the nation’s first all-news television service, CNN.

The preceding sentence is hard for some Americans to swallow. After all, the new channel is owned and operated by the leaders of Qatar, the oil-rich Middle Eastern emirate. Al Jazeera’s global feeds, in Arabic and English, have been criticized on occasion for disseminating speeches by leaders of Al Qaeda. Some Americans — among them, hosts at Fox News — are openly critical of giving Al Jazeera a powerful voice on America’s cable and satellite dials.

Here are three reasons why Al Jazeera America is important:

--Viewers able and willing to sample it (the service will initially reach roughly 48 million U.S. homes) will get a view of world affairs quite different from what is available on existing American TV. At a time when U.S. news organizations are closing foreign bureaus and cutting back on international coverage, this will be eye-opening and mind-expanding.

--Existing cable channels, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, will be forced to step up their games in response. All three have lost viewers since the height of their respective popularity and are studying the new service closely. They should pay particular attention when its executive director, Ehab Al Shihabi, says he plans “less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings.”

--Finally, Al Jazeera America — A-Jam, as it’s already known — will help drive the conversation on international affairs. Its influence, at least at the start, is likely to be greater among editors and producers at competing outlets, and even in Washington's political circles, than with the general public.

The U.S. channel is the crowning achievement for Qatar, a place about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, with a total population no larger than that of San Jose, Calif. The first few days since Tuesday's launch have showcased both the promise and the challenge.

As anticipated, the stories ran longer than what is the norm on most other news programs. A multipart report on the "America Tonight" program dealt with violence in Chicago, especially among the city's black youth. Another in-depth story covered overcrowded prisons in California.

If such reports were on, say, "60 Minutes," they would be widely praised. Yet, coming from a service headquartered in the Mideast the coverage was quickly challenged by conservative critics. One, writing in the National Review, saw "anti-American undercurrents" in the prison and racial violence reporting, likening it to "Soviet television coverage of the United States."

The new service's biggest hurdle will be finding a way to probe deeply and critically when necessary, without seeming to bash the U.S. and its citizens.

A-Jam has hired as its president Kate O’Brian, an ABC-TV veteran of 30 years. She is responsible for a staff that initially numbers more than 900, but few of them household names.

When CNN began in 1980 its biggest on-camera star was Bernie Shaw, a veteran reporter previously at CBS. Most of the newsreaders were hired from local stations and a few from broadcast network operations. There were two little-known husband-and-wife anchor teams, Don Farmer and Chris Curle, and Dave Walker and Lois Hart.

Ted Turner, the visionary business tycoon who gambled on all-news TV, wanted the news to be the star. That was convenient, perhaps, since he couldn’t afford the inflated network salaries, but it was also a blessing that set CNN on the right course. Viewers can expect the same from A-Jam.

The point here is not to glorify the people behind Al Jazeera America, especially when their service has barely started. But Americans should at least be willing to sample the new channel, and do so with open minds. As a nation, we are more isolated from international news and views than most other democracies.

At launch, Kate O’Brian might well have described her mission as being, “To provide information to people when it wasn’t available before; to offer those who want it a choice.” She could have dedicated the channel to, “the American people, whose thirst for understanding…has made this venture possible.”

She could have said all those things about A-Jam simply by quoting Ted Turner, when he launched CNN.

(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate. This version was updated to reflect Al Jazeera America's first days of operation.

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