Al-Jazeera’s mask keeps slipping. USA Today media columnist Rem Rieder notices, sort of.
Rieder for many years edited the American Journalism Review, affiliated with the University of Maryland’s journalism college. He had and still retains high hopes for Al-Jazeera America. But an e-mail from the editor and executive producer of sister channel Al-Jazeera English to staff “provided nine, count ’em, nine helpful bullet items that are essentially a road map for how to diminish the significance of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.”
That complicates life for Al-Jazeera America, Rieder acknowledges (“Al-Jazeera’s lame attempt to minimize ‘Charlie’ attack; E-mail outlining 9 bullet items to diminish massacre raises questions about leadership of Al Jazeera English,” USA Today, Jan. 13, 2015). From its start in 2013, Rieder explains, “one of Al Jazeera America’s big problems was branding. For years, to most Americans, Al Jazeera brought to mind one thing; the Arabic channel best know for Osama bin Laden’s Death to America video.”
London-based Al-Jazeera English, which airs mostly outside the United States, and New York City-headquartered Al-Jazeera America, carried by some U.S. cable and satellite television providers, derive from Al-Jazeera (Arabic). The ruling family of natural gas-rich Qatar owns and operates all three channels. Qatar is a small country on a peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia, and al-jazeera means “the peninsula” in Arabic.
The money trail
Though Rieder doesn’t say so, Qatar has funded Sunni Muslim extremists including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, jihadists seeking to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria, Islamist militia in Libya and Hamas, the terrorist Islamic Resistance Movement in the Gaza Strip. Qatar has denied backing terrorist organizations (“How Qatar is funding the rise of Islamist extremists,” The Telegraph [U.K.], Sept. 20, 2014).
Al-Jazeera Arabic was founded in 1996. One of its most popular personalities has been Sheik Youssef Qaradawi, a “spiritual guide” to the Brotherhood. Qaradawi’s theology includes calls for the conversion of Europe to Islam and a Muslim genocide of Israel and the Jews.
Rieder doesn’t ask why Qatar’s rulers launched Al-Jazeera America, if not as an instrument of influence. He notes instead that “the latest entry in the cable news wars was promising something different: serious coverage of serious news.” Rieder claims that the channel “has focused on no-frills, meat-and-potatoes coverage of real news.”
A look at Al-Jazeera America’s Arab-Israeli reporting shows not real news coverage but one-sided anti-Israel set-ups. See CAMERA’s “Al-Jazeera America Watch” for numerous examples of such bias.
For Rieder, the Al-Jazeera English memo downplaying the murders of 12 people by Muslim terrorists on January 7 at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo “reinforce[s] an image that is completely unhelpful to Al Jazeera America.” Charlie Hebdo is a stridently secular, often off-color weekly lampooning public and religious figures—including the Islamic prophet, Mohammed.
Stalking horse for Al-Jazeera English?
The memo’s lack of forthright free press, free expression advocacy hurts Al-Jazeera America by extension, Rieder believes. That’s bad because “to a great extent, the cable operation [Al-Jazeera America] … has delivered on its threat” to provide “not the obsessive focus on the buzzy story of the moment, which was becoming a CNN staple. Not the partisan slant that characterizes Fox and MSNBC. But the real deal.”
Yet, “hardly anybody is watching. Its ratings have lagged behind those of its predecessor, Al Gore’s Current TV, which was hardly a juggernaut.” In fact, Al-Jazeera America’s ratings are barely measurable, reportedly 18,000 daily prime time viewers (“Al Jazeera America Viewers Down Nearly 50 Percent From Current TV’s Numbers,” The Wrap, Oct. 29, 2014).
According to Rieder, the Al-Jazeera English memo “comes at the same time as more retrenchment at Al Jazeera America, which has been cutting costs. The New York Post reports that the channel has eliminated a number of programs, including its morning news report and its 4 p.m. news broadcast.” Rieder doesn’t say that The Post asserts content from Al-Jazeera English fills some of Al-Jazeera America’s scheduling holes (“Al Jazeera guts daily schedule and cuts staff,” January 12).
So Al-Jazeera America’s problem with Al-Jazeera English may run deeper than a memo written by the head of the latter.
Rieder says he’s hoped “Al Jazeera America would flourish as an oasis of real news in the cable desert. But even given the deep pockets of its owners, at this juncture the long-term outlook doesn’t seem encouraging.”
Set aside whether continued contraction at or even disappearance of Al-Jazeera America would be a loss for journalism in the United States. What doesn’t seem encouraging at this juncture is the continued failure of prominent media commentators to look at the channel, and—seeing who overpaid hundreds of millions of dollars for it and then lavished hundreds of millions more on its make-over—to ask why.