Floor manager Ron Ferry hands notes to Al Jazeera network anchor Shihab Rattansi at the Al Jazeera English language channel studio in Washington in March.(Photo: MCT via Getty Images file)
Expect to see a lot more of Al Jazeera on your TV in the coming
months -- and perhaps an equal amount of chatter about whether it should
The TV news network, which is backed by the government
of Qatar, plans to expand in the U.S. later this year with a new cable
channel dedicated to mostly covering domestic news. But the move is
already triggering a hailstorm of criticism from pundits -- mostly
conservative -- and Twitter users who are not convinced about Al
Jazeera's ambitions and editorial stance.
Al Jazeera, which has
faced criticism in the past that some of its programming was
anti-American, said Wednesday that it bought Current TV, a cable news
network co-founded by Al Gore, for an undisclosed sum. The deal,
effective immediately, gives Al Jazeera access to about 40 million cable
subscribers in the U.S.
The total doesn't include about 12
million customers of Time Warner Cable, which immediately dropped
Current TV after the deal's announcement, raising the specter that
lawmakers or other cable operators may resist a channel owned by an
The Federal Communications Commission, which doesn't typically get
involved in the politics of deals, has no plans to review the Al Jazeera
acquisition because it "doesn't have regulatory oversight of
transactions relating to ownership of cable networks," says FCC
spokesman Justin Cole.
In the next three months, Al Jazeera plans
to wind down Current TV, which never was able to gain traction with
viewers and struggled with poor ratings. The programming will
temporarily be replaced by Al Jazeera English, which broadcasts news in
English in the U.S. and other countries. Later this year, Al Jazeera
will launch a new operation -- tentatively named Al Jazeera America --
that will take the place of Current TV.
Al Jazeera America plans
to add five to 10 additional bureaus -- on top of five U.S. bureaus Al
Jazeera now runs here -- and hire a "substantial" number of journalists,
says Stan Collender, a spokesman for Al Jazeera.
The new channel
"will offer straightforward, in-depth journalism," Collender says.
"It's not celebrity-driven or big-name journalists who are bigger than
Paul Maxwell, a media analyst, says Al Jazeera bought
Current TV to address its biggest operational problem in the U.S. -- a
lack of distribution. With only about 4.7 million households getting
access to its channel, Al Jazeera never gained traction with cable
operators. Meanwhile, "Current TV had very good distribution but didn't
have programming to get anybody to watch them," Maxwell says.
Jazeera will likely improve the channel's content and presentation, he
says. "They'll turn it into a news operation. They have a bunch of pros
in newsgathering. They're the Arabic CNN."
But the launch of Al
Jazeera English in 2006 was met with howls of protest from critics who
recalled the network's airing of videotapes delivered by terrorist
groups. The network's sustained operation in the U.S. has quieted many
critics, says Catherine Rasenberger, a media consultant who worked to
get the network on cable companies' lineup. "A lot has happened since
then," she says.
The Arab Spring movement and the Egypt uprising
at Tahrir Square led more Americans to demand Al Jazeera's extensive
coverage, she says. "There was a groundswell of support."
Rasenberger concedes its expansion in the U.S. could face some
resistance from cable operators who may drop the station for political
or financial reasons. "It's possible," she says. "There is enormous
misperception as to what Al Jazeera is."
Time Warner Cable didn't
elaborate on why it dropped Current TV. But Joel Hyatt, Current's CEO,
told staffers that Time Warner Cable "did not consent to the sale to Al
But Time Warner Cable had hinted at dropping Current TV
even before the Al Jazeera deal because of the network's poor ratings,
Still, Al Jazeera's skeptics were quick to air their doubts.
Conservative critics, including Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Erick
Erickson, issued statements questioning Al Jazeera's objectivity.
a non-mainstream organization like Al Jazeera can get a platform to the
public," says James Gattuso, a senior fellow at conservative think-tank
Heritage Foundation. "It doesn't mean the public has to listen. It's an
organization that represents views far out of the mainstream in
Collender says Al Jazeera has spoken with other cable
companies and doesn't expect any more disruptions. But he concedes
convincing American viewers that it is an objective news organization
will be challenging. "We expect some myths will melt away as more people
In the end, whether Al Jazeera America will gain
viewers and maintain relationships with cable operators will depend on
ratings and financial performance, Rasenberger says.
are (saying) 'How am I going to make money on an international news
network?' It's still a discussion," she says. "I'm thrilled that they're
getting their day in the sun with full distribution."