Qatar-based broadcast news network Al-Jazeera has long tried, unsuccessfully, to find its footing in post-Sept. 11 America. Now, with a recently announced deal to take over Current TV, its best chance to forge a path on American television appears to have come.
Fledgling cable channel Current TV, co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, has been plagued by low ratings since its founding seven years ago. Per the deal, Al-Jazeera plans to shut Current TV down and start an English-language channel co-headquartered in New York and Qatar that will reach over 40 million American homes. However, Al-Jazeera’s path to success in America is proving to be a rocky one. Hours after the deal was announced, Time Warner Cable announced it was dropping Current TV, saying, “our agreement with Current has been terminated and we will no longer be carrying the service.”
The decision was almost immediately scrutinized, with many taking to Twitter and Facebook to express their disapproval and to speculate on the reasons for Time Warner’s decision. Many assumed, given the timing of the announcement, that Time Warner was expressing politically fueled corporate opposition to Arabic-named, Middle Eastern-based Al-Jazeera’s introduction to American television.
“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 Arizona State’s Knight Centre for Digital Media Entrepreneurship.
However, Time Warner executives said that business, not politics, motivated the company’s decision. According to a New York Times article, the drop had “more to do … with Current TV’s low ratings and its contract, which had a ‘change of ownership clause’ that allowed it to be terminated.”
Indeed, Joel Hyatt, co-founder of Current TV, told staff in a memo that Time Warner Cable “did not consent to the sale of Al-Jazeera, and that … consequently, Current will no longer be carried on Time Warner Cable.
Whether Time Warner’s statement was merely a poorly timed announcement of a business decision long in the making or an anxiety-driven political statement is still disputed, but the muddled mess of acquisitions, deals and drops has reignited both the debate over Al-Jazeera’s legitimacy and whether Time Warner had made the wrong decision in dropping Current.
First, it is important to note that completely different management than Al-Jazeera Arabic will run the new English-language Al-Jazeera channel. This means that complaints about bias from Al-Jazeera Arabic do not necessarily point to bias from the American Al-Jazeera channel. Most of the criticism pertains to Al-Jazeera Arabic, although many, if not most, Americans don’t recognize a difference between the two at all.
That being said, some commentators on Fox News, some members of the Bush administration, and other political pundits and bloggers have criticized Al-Jazeera in general as being a venue of pro-fundamentalism, anti-Israel propaganda. Much of this criticism stems from the Bush administration’s condemnation of Al-Jazeera Arabic’s coverage of the Iraq War and the network’s noted broadcasting of al-Qaida tapes, while the lingering post-9/11 fear of all things Arabic and Middle Eastern has clouded the network’s perception in America, even as high-profile American political leaders such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain have commended the network for its coverage of Arab issues, such as the Arab Spring.
“Viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news…instead of …arguments between talking heads…which is not particularly informative to us [Americans], let alone foreigners.”
With this kind of endorsement, it is difficult to dispute the fact that Al-Jazeera is a widely watched, reputable, and, yes, legitimate source of news to millions around the world.
Al-Jazeera, like all networks, is not a completely guiltless, unbiased source of news, however. According to Arab media expert Marwan Kraidy, Al-Jazeera is not immune to bias, particularly in news pertaining to the Arab world.
“In Egypt, it [Al-Jazeera Arabic] was very hostile to Mubarak: it allowed all the dissidents on the air, intellectuals, poets, politicians, journalists criticizing Mubarak,” Kraidy wrote. “As soon as it shifted to Bahrain it nearly turned into a propagandist for the regime.” Finally, as Kraidy notes, Al-Jazeera Arabic allowed Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian cleric, to issue a fatwa, a legal pronouncement in Islam issued by a religious law specialist on a specific issue, stating that it was tolerable and even desirable to kill Gadhafi, the now-fallen Libyan leader. As Kraidy says, “Giving a death sentence to a leader is not exactly impartial news coverage,” but then neither is Fox nor MSNBC’s coverage of Obama’s administration. Whether the two are comparable is another story, but it is important to note that Kraidy stated that Al-Jazeera English, the network in question in the Time Warner case, has “remained consistent in its coverage.”
Furthermore, Al-Jazeera is not a “terrorist network,” as many knee-jerk Americans believe. During 2011’s Arab Spring, the network, broadcasting online, was a go-to source for information not available in the United States and even received awards for their unparalleled, comprehensive coverage of the protests. Though a Fox News report on the Time Warner debacle noted that one of Al-Jazeera’s Kabul Bureau Chiefs was arrested in Israel on 2011 on suspicion of being an agent of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, the journalist was later released when the suspicions proved groundless–something that Fox didn’t report. What was mentioned in Fox’s report was Dave Marash, a former Al-Jazeera employee in Washington who supposedly left the network in 2008 due to anti-American bias. However, Danny Schechter, editor of Mediachannel1.org and an Al-Jazeera English columnist, notes that when he interviewed Marash about why he left, Marash denied leaving the network for political reasons and quipped,
“The product is too good, too significant, to not have a market in the US, given the complete abdication of American networks and cable channels from actually covering international news.”
Admittedly, Al-Jazeera’s attempt at forging its own path on American television is an uphill battle. Its reputation as a fundamentalist propaganda organ, however undeserved, makes it controversial–according to James Joyner for Outside the Beltway, perhaps too controversial for major cable companies, such as Time Warner, to carry it. Americans, suspicious of the foreign news network with a name too close, for some, to al-Qaida, might not give Al-Jazeera a chance. Yet, it is vital that Al-Jazeera and its unequalled coverage and access to events in the Arab world and beyond are available in America.
“The Middle Eastern region has access to CNN, BBC, and Fox News,” writes Samrad Khan, a Harvard student originally from Kuwait. “It is imperative the West also have access to Al-Jazeera…we need to accept it as a conduit for at least a facet of the Arab mindset.”
Keeping this in mind, it must be concluded that Time Warner is in the wrong to stop carrying the channel. It is futile to debate Time Warner’s motives behind their decision; what is more productive is calling to attention the reasons Americans deserve to have Al-Jazeera readily available and then working to make that a reality. Clearly, Time Warner is well aware of America’s perception issues regarding Al-Jazeera and has chosen, for now, to avert carrying the controversial channel. However, giving Americans the choice to contemplate world events from different perspectives is admirable and even necessary to further productive discussion, and, all else aside, we would be wise to choose choice over censorship.
Emily Merlino is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.