"Seven years after it arrived in the U.S., Al Jazeera is putting up its sign," Martha Moore began her February 20 USA Today story, "Al Jazeera makes major U.S. expansion," a 20-paragraph item lacking any critics of the Qatari-government backed network which has a history of anti-Americanism.
"With the $500 million purchase of Current TV from former vice president Al Gore and other investors last year, Al Jazeera bought a place on cable boxes in 41 million homes. Now the network plans to grow from a news operation of 13 people to 200 people working in cities across the country," Moore noted, quoting a "psyched" Bob Wheelock "a former ABC executive now in charge of setting up Al Jazeera America" in the preceding paragraph.
Not only was no critic of the network quoted in her piece, the way the story unfolded makes very clear how Moore intended to paint Al Jazeera America as a fair, balanced, objective-news-minded network that, despite its deep pockets, is an underdog in the cable news business:
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Al Jazeera Arabic-language network aired videos from Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials accused it of promoting terrorism.
Time has mellowed the hostility somewhat, and Al Jazeera English's coverage of Arab Spring political upheavals brought it an appreciative audience in Washington — including then-secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Confusion with Al Jazeera Arabic remains — as do suggestions that the network goes easy on Saudi Arabia and hard on Israel.
"They're straight shooters as much as any major news outlet today. There is no unbiased news today,'' says Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The bias is in the selection of what stories you cover and how you cover them. Al Jazeera will bring its own bias, but it's no more or no less than what we're used to already in this country.''
Coleman says she watches Al Jazeera simply because it offers so much international news. "It has a lot more foreign correspondents in the field. If you want to know what's going on in Mali, it's going to be Al Jazeera that's covering it. We just don't have any more foreign correspondents on the ground in (U.S.) television the way Al Jazeera does.''
"The stigma that a previous administration painted the channel with is dissipating greatly. If you ... watch us, you'll like us,'' Wheelock says.
Launching any new cable network is difficult: It requires getting cable systems such as Time Warner or Comcast to carry the network, then attracting both audiences and advertisers. "You can fail at any one of those, and you have to succeed at all three,'' says Larry Gerbrandt of the consulting firm Media Valuation Partners. When a channel changes hands, as in the case of Current to Al Jazeera, pre-existing agreements give the cable operator an out to drop the channel. That's the case with Al Jazeera America — Time Warner, a large cable system, says it may drop the network.
It will have to compete not only with CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC but also with BBC World News, which expanded in December into 25 million U.S. households. What's working in Al Jazeera's favor, says Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is that the Middle East continues to be a big story. "You can see that being part of their marketing strategy,'' he says.
"We will never be the most-watched news channel in America, but we think there's an audience that's interested, is not afraid of information, is seeking more,'' Wheelock says.