Al Jazeera purchase of Current could improve U.S. TV coverage of climate and global environmental politics

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New York Times Media Decoder blog: Al Jazeera Seeks a U.S. Voice Where Gore Failed

Al Jazeera on Wednesday announced a deal to take over Current TV, the low-rated cable channel that was founded by Al Gore, a former vice president, and his business partners seven years ago. Al Jazeera plans to shut Current and start an English-language channel, which will be available in more than 40 million homes, with newscasts emanating from both New York and Doha, Qatar. ...

Rather than simply use Current to distribute its existing English-language channel, Al Jazeera said it plans to create a channel based in New York. Tentatively titled Al Jazeera America, roughly 60 percent of the programming will be produced in the United States, while the remaining 40 percent will come from Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera, which has bureaus in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, intends to open several more in other American cities.

“There’s a major hole right now that Al Jazeera can fill. And that is providing an alternative viewpoint to domestic news, which is very parochial,” said Cathy Rasenberger, a cable consultant who has worked with Al Jazeera on distribution issues in the past. However, she warned, “there is a limited amount of interest in international news in the United States.”

Al Jazeera English is an international 24-hour English-language news and current affairs channel that can be viewed in Washington, DC, New York, and a few other U.S. cities, in every major European market, and in 130 million homes in more than 100 countries via cable and satellite, as well as on the Internet. It has studios in Doha (Qatar), London, and Washington, DC.

From their Wikipedia entry: "The channel aims to provide both a regional voice and a global perspective to a potential world audience of over one billion English speakers who don't have an Anglo-American worldview. ... [T]his focus can be seen, in the eyes of Western viewers, as casting Al Jazeera English as a global 'alternative' news network, though the entire Al Jazeera brand has been heavily mainstreamed in many parts of the world."

Al Jazeera English's international coverage, international perspective, and emphasis on on-the-ground reporting offers a striking journalistic contrast with the parochialism of most of the U.S. news media’s coverage and range of viewpoints (when you can find some news reporting between the endless commercials and punditry).

Check it out: Al Jazeera English home page; Live stream.

Since 2009 I have appeared on Al Jazeera English from time to time--six times in 2012--as a commentator on climate change policy, in their Washington, DC, studio.  A few examples, from airings of their 25-minute program "Inside Story: US 2012":

"Climate dialogue runs aground" (Al Jazeera, "Inside Story: US 2012")

Have multinationals hijacked Rio+20?

Questions from Al Jazeera on US climate and environmental policy in an election year

“Inside Story: US 2012” – Are environmental concerns being sacrificed?

On climate change issues, I first noted in September 2009 that there was a significant difference between how the U.S. news media and Al Jazeera English covered the one-day UN Climate Summit in New York City, at which President Obama and numerous other governmental leaders spoke. I posted on it (“Most US media coverage of UN Climate Summit underplayed message of why the need for action is urgent”). Some of the mainstream U.S. media coverage was fairly decent; in particular the Washington Post carried relevant stories. But what was most notable to me was that Al Jazeera paid serious attention to the event during the day, while U.S. media ignored it for the most part.

In his speech at the Climate Summit, Obama said more than we’re used to hearing him say about the threat posed by global climate disruption. The speech, which was perhaps Obama’s clearest public statement on the urgency of the problem, was hardly noted in the U.S. news media. Although Obama’s speech included a broad and unequivocal warning about the far-reaching impacts of climate change, much of the U.S. news coverage of the Summit bypassed this message, giving scant attention to the scientific reality behind the call for deep emissions cuts and aid to developing countries.

With the typical U.S.-centric preoccupation of U.S. media, CNN cut to the Summit live for less than 10 minutes, just long enough to cover Obama’s speech, then quickly came back and moved on to another (and, as I recall, relatively superficial) story, without analysis or even comment on the speech or the Summit. No other network showed the speech at all. Al Jazeera English, in contrast with CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and C-Span, covered the addresses to the Summit by President Hu Jintao of China, Prime Minister Hatoyama of Japan, President Sarkozy of France, and other government leaders, and by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chairman Pachauri.  Needless to say, the plaintive rebuke of the other leaders by President Nasheed of the Maldive Islands—one of the world’s lowest-lying countries, with about 300,000 people living mainly on land less than two meters above sea level, threatened with being engulfed by rising sea level—passed unremarked. The event, and the words of Obama and other world leaders, went largely unattended-to by Americans.

There is no question that mainstream U.S. corporate media have set up barriers to entry of Al Jazeera English into U.S. markets since its inception in 2006, especially after it was vilified by Bush Administration officials for its coverage of the Iraq war. Even today:

Huffington Post: Time Warner Cable Drops Current TV Upon Sale To Al Jazeera

NEW YORK –- Time Warner Cable pulled the plug on Current TV just hours after news of the cable channel's sale to Al Jazeera became official.

"This channel is no longer available on Time Warner Cable," read an on-screen message where Current TV used to be found.

Al Jazeera took a major step into the U.S. cable market Wednesday by acquiring beleaguered Current TV and announcing plans for a U.S.-based news network to be called Al Jazeera America. But while the new channel will soon be available in 40 million households, Al Jazeera faced a setback when Time Warner Cable -- which reaches 12 million homes -- announced it was dropping the low-rated Current, which occupied a spot that could have been switched to Al Jazeera America.

Joel Hyatt, who co-founded Current TV with former Vice President Al Gore, told staff in a Wednesday night memo that Time Warner Cable "did not consent to the sale to Al Jazeera." ...

Some media observers interpreted the move as motivated by politics.

"Time-Warner cable shows abject political and journalistic cowardice by dropping Current because of Al Jazeera deal," tweeted Dan Gilmor, a technology writer and founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. ...

Al Jazeera will acquire Current's carriage deals with other cable providers, including DirecTV, Comcast, Dish, Verizon and AT&T.

Al Jazeera English received awards and acclaim for its comprehensive coverage of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, yet it has still faced an uphill battle in gaining cable distribution in the U.S., likely due to lingering fears of anti-American programming raised in the George W. Bush years.

"U.S. viewers have clearly demonstrated that they like the way Al Jazeera provides compelling, in-depth news to audiences across the world," said Al Jazeera's director general, Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, in a statement. "Everyone at Al Jazeera takes great pride in the independence, impartiality, professionalism and courage of our journalism. I look forward to bringing these standards to our new American audiences and working with our new colleagues at Current."

Its coverage of developments in the Arab Spring uprisings and ferment in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and throughout the Middle East was (and is) exceptionally valuable for reportage and, to me, something of a model of engaged journalism. I don't speak Arabic, have never watched the Arabic-language Al Jazeera, and can't comment on it directly. But I don't perceive Al Jazeera English as 'anti-U.S.' -- it's just that, for most U.S. TV viewers, relatively straight news coverage from a non-U.S.-centric viewpoint, without an inward-looking and invariably 'pro-U.S.' bias in content and viewpoint such as those we see on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, is something they aren't used to. You can say it's left of center, but not as far as Fox is to the right, and with less argumentative rhetoric than some of MSNBC.

As this new channel morphs into 'Al Jazeera America' during 2013 and begins to create a substantial quantity of U.S.-based programming, will they keep the qualities that I see as strengths in Al Jazeera English? That is:

Will they avoid getting loaded up with the corporate commercials that seem to burn up nearly 20 minutes out of every hour on U.S. TV?

Will they continue to feature long-form uninterrupted stories that rely on viewers having some attention span?

Will they stay focused on news reporting and serious commentary, limit the 'infotainment' quotient, and avoid going to the news anchor 'star' system of promoting media personalities?

Will they continue to focus on using analysts and commentators who have subject-matter expertise, instead of endlessly recycling the same narrow bands of pundits going on about the perturbations of the moment?

Will they continue their practice of having many boots on the ground, providing hard-core street-level reportage from far-flung places?

Will they continue to have a multicultural, international staff and a multicultural, international attitude?

Will they continue to bring to the fore stories of the disadvantaged and dispossessed -- people and stories we need to be connecting with and to which most Americans remain oblivious.

Will they cover climate change and global environmental issues in some detail, straightforwardly and without fake 'balance'?

If so, this will be a welcome addition to the 24/7 news and commentary line-up and will offer some serious competition to the current channels, at least as far as journalism is concerned. With any luck it will be an interesting development.

Check out the award-winning documentary on Al Jazeera's coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq: Control Room (2004). The Bush Administration didn't like it.

Earlier posts, with additional appearances on Al Jazeera news program segments:

Talking with Al Jazeera about the Doha climate conference

US Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s evasiveness on climate change and drought

Assessing the risks of climate extremes in an already-stressed world

Al Jazeera interview on Muller Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study

And this: Hillary Clinton: Al Jazeera offers “real news” – U.S. media not keeping up

UPDATE January 4:

And this: Sale of Current TV may be a win-win

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