The New York offices are quiet, with barely a sign of the new owners and the revolution they are promising. But Al Jazeera America’s Tuesday launch into over 40 million homes is potentially the greatest triumph yet for Qatar, and one that could transform the media landscape.
“I can’t tell you how much enthusiasm there is for what we’re doing”, Joie Chen, former CNN and CBS news anchor, told Metro from New York. Chen is just one of an all-star team assembled by AJA – backed by the endless wealth of owners the Qatari royal family - and in many cases poached from rivals.
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“We have all been waiting for an opportunity like this”, says Chen, explaining why she joined the broadcaster. “US news is driven by a different mandate – to reach the widest audience with the shallowest coverage. It’s very different here, we are doing in-depth investigations that treat journalism with idealism, and we are telling stories that have been ignored.”
The channel will occupy a more serious niche, according to acting CEO Ehab Al Shihabi, who has promised “less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings. Bureaus are to be established in unglamorous locations such as Tennessee, and there will be less than half the advertising shown by rivals.
The launch is the culmination of a multi-year campaign from the leading Arab broadcaster to get on American airwaves. A decade ago it would have been unthinkable, when Al Jazeera was best known in the US for screening messages from 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
The memory remains and the launch has been fiercely opposed. Congressman Tim Murphy has led calls for an investigation, while civil society group Accuracy in Media (AIM) attacked “an unacceptable danger to American citizens by adding to the potential for home-grown Jihadists inspired by Al Jazeera’s inflammatory programming”. An AJA source in New York revealed protests are planned and security is tight.
But Philip Seib, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, believes the majority will be won over. “People here don’t know where Qatar is but this will demystify the ‘other’. It’s an Arabic logo but Americans on screen, so there’s a bridge that will be constructive”.
Seib added that AJA’s success will also belong to its owners – the Qatari royal family. “They have made a huge investment, and they want to be influential and respected as the dominant voice of the Middle East. Al Jazeera put them on the map, and now they have taken another big step.