Was Al Jazeera America Doomed From the Start?

You may have heard that today Al Jazeera announced it is shuttering Al Jazeera America, the US-based and US-focused version of the wildly successful global news network. Let me start by saying I know a number of people did and in many cases still do work there. So I wish them all the best and admire all the work they did there individually and collectively. But on hearing this news I was reminded of a partnership-type conversation a colleague of mine and I had with an AJA executive I guess maybe two years ago.

It was eye-opening and jarring.

This was around the time of AJA’s launch and the conversation was with an American national – someone with plenty of experience in the US media world. But this person had clearly been in a deep mind meld with the executives in Qatar and deep into the planning and strategy. With all that, and for reasons which will soon become evident, it was still clear that this person had maybe half of three-quarters bought into the concept but also had another part of their head thinking: does this make any sense? O, are we understanding the US market?

I think this person part bought into this and part thought the execs in Qatar would just need to learn the hard way that it might not be that simple.

What we were told were very, very optimistic predictions for the networks roll out. I think I remember hearing about matching CNN’s viewership in something like 6 months or a year. But here was the key. It wasn’t the optimism but the basis of the optimism. For all the money involved, for all the research of the American market and all the Americans hired to run the operation, I was astounded by how much the business strategy seemed to totally fail to understand the American media market.

The idea was basically that AJA – much as the AJ parent company had been in the states of the Arab Middle East – would be a real-talking, looking at the dark underbelly source of news that would rapidly disrupt the state-aligned/corporate media that currently dominated the US news market. In other words, just as Al Jazeera had revolutionized the media world in say Iraq or Egypt or the Gulf States by rapidly displacing what amounted to stolid and tightly-controlled state news services, the AJ execs seemed to think the dynamic in the US would be at least broadly similar.

Now, of course, there is a corporate media. And CBS and ABC and Fox and all the others are owned by generally risk-averse multinational corporations that are reluctant to move dramatically against the government in power or majority opinions. And this general take on ‘corporate media’ may be arguably true in some very deep and subtle Gramscian sense. But if you think it’s true in the way the AJ execs seemed to think it was true you truly have zero understanding of the US media market, US politics, really US anything.

Are Americans who watch a lot of cable news hungering for more hard-hitting news about poverty in America? Is that the ticket to audience growth? I think we should have more coverage of poverty in America. But no, if you are looking for audience numbers, no, that’s not the ticket. Fox News has the ticket. And if you’re not hunting for a conservative audience, there are liberal variants to get you to the same place.

I want to emphasize that I don’t think the people who I saw on the air recently or the ones writing for the AJA website thought anything like this. There are lots of good reasons tied to good journalism which totally justified what AJA was trying to do. But the idea that this approach was a turnkey way to disrupt and become a dominant force in the US news market is simply insane. Indeed, the folks back in Qatar must have been disabused of this nonsense pretty quickly. But all of this makes me think that the whole effort may have been almost destined to failure from the start. This whole effort, on which so much money was spent and from which many hoped for such great things, may have been based on a cartoonishly caricatured understanding of the American media landscape.

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