Al-Jazeera America Will Have To Work Hard To Win Viewers

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At the beginning of the year, Al-Jazeera purchased Al Gore's Current TV. It's plan was to transform Current into a new Al-Jazeera channel aimed at American viewers. The new 24-hour cable news network, Al-Jazeera America, launches next week.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Back in January, the al-Jazeera media network bought Current TV for a reported half-billion dollars. Current was previously owned by Al Gore. Al-Jazeera is owned by the emir of Qatar. Eight months later, the result of the buyout is about to launch. Current is being replaced with a new 24-hour news channel called Al-Jazeera America. From On the Media, at member station WNYC, here is Sarah Abdurrahman.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN, BYLINE: In the same art deco building that houses the New Yorker Hotel in midtown Manhattan, a new network is coming to life.

PAUL EEDLE: The studio used to be one of New York's most famous nightclubs in the '40s and '50s, and upstairs here used to be a derelict banking hall, and we connected the two spaces and built a newsroom.

ABDURRAHMAN: Paul Eedle is the program director of the international Al-Jazeera English channel, based in Doha. But for the past eight months, he's been working on the new American channel slated to launch on Tuesday.

EEDLE: The launch of a new news channel has been exciting for the whole media industry, I think, in America. It's the first new news channel launched since the mid-'90s, with Fox.

ABDURRAHMAN: The new channel will be competing with Fox and with CNN and MSNBC, despite being available in significantly fewer homes. And limited cable carriage won't be the only challenge to attracting viewers. Another major obstacle is that many Americans equate the Al-Jazeera name with anti-Americanism, extremist Islam and serving as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden.

EHAB AL SHIHABI: I would acknowledge there is the perceptions, but I will tell you it's a perception, not a reality.

ABDURRAHMAN: Al-Jazeera America CEO Ehab Al Shihabi is convinced those perceptions will vanish once people try it out. He told me about an experiment Al-Jazeera English conducted, playing the channel without its logo for a focus group.

SHIHABI: And the focus group came very positive.

ABDURRAHMAN: You took off the brand and they liked it. Why not change the logo or do something that might differentiate it a little bit for people who might have that negative perception?

SHIHABI: We thrive on our name. In 2010, it's been rated number five strongest brand in the world. So we are sticking with that brand.

ALI VELSHI: I don't think you can ever distance yourself from someone who shares the same corporate parentage or name.

ABDURRAHMAN: Ali Velshi is one of many CNN transplants to the new network and will host a nightly finance show called "Real Money." He says he expects viewers will grow to accept the Al-Jazeera name but that right now, Americans just aren't accustomed to Arabic products. Velshi likens it to American attitudes towards Japanese cars in the '60s and '70s.

VELSHI: You would get in a lot of trouble from your neighbors if you pulled up in a Toyota or a Honda. We were not that far removed from a very bitter war with Japan. These people were considered enemies. So it was culturally a problem. So when you look at Al-Jazeera today, it's a lack of familiarity, and a lot of Americans who think that we are culturally in a different place than a media organization based in the Middle East.

ABDURRAHMAN: That base is Qatar, which bankrolls Al-Jazeera, opening up the network to criticisms that its editorial policy is too much aligned with Qatar's own interests. But CEO Ehab Al Shihabi insists there is no interference.

SHIHABI: There is a strong firewall between the government of Qatar and Al-Jazeera.

BLAKE HOUNSHELL: I think you have to ask, well, what does the firewall consist of?

ABDURRAHMAN: Politico's Blake Hounshell, former managing editor for foreign policy, has been told by Al-Jazeera Arabic staffers that there is editorial direction from Qatar, but it comes at a very high level.

HOUNSHELL: It's not going to be, you know, people walking down to the newsroom and saying OK, the emir wants you to do this and not that. It works, I think, a lot more subtly than that.

ABDURRAHMAN: During Egypt's first uprising in 2011, Al-Jazeera was praised for its coverage. But this summer, the network was roundly criticized for its handling of President Mohammed Morsi's ouster, prompting 22 of its staffers to quit.

HOUNSHELL: They were barely covering this huge event, millions of people on the streets, and a lot of people said this was because they've got this pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias.

KATE O'BRIAN: I frankly wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that this is an editorially independent media company and channel.

ABDURRAHMAN: Kate O'Brian, formerly of ABC News, is Al-Jazeera America's new president.

O'BRIAN: I don't think the director general and the board would have asked me to join had they not respected editorial independence.

ABDURRAHMAN: What happens a year from now when you have to report a story that's not positive about the emir of Qatar? What do you do?

O'BRIAN: We report the story as a news story.

ABDURRAHMAN: For O'Brian, Qatar's backing means access to resources that the rest of the news industry is steadily losing.

O'BRIAN: We will be able to tell stories from places that our competitors will not be able to. We have the resources to tap into stories that are happening all over the world and all over the United States.

ABDURRAHMAN: They'll do that by utilizing Al-Jazeera's 70 international bureaus and establishing 12 new bureaus in traditionally under-covered places around the U.S., like Nashville or Detroit.

VELSHI: People who are disaffected by what they are accustomed to seeing on cable news will detect the difference immediately.

ABDURRAHMAN: Al-Jazeera America host Ali Velshi.

VELSHI: They will detect that we are not focusing on those things that they don't think are news. They'll detect that we do not necessarily look for guests who take the most extreme views. They'll detect that we allow more time, we don't have rules that say that story is longer than two minutes, it can't go on TV. You will know that is not the same as Fox and MSNBC and CNN from day one.

ABDURRAHMAN: But some critics worry it will actually look exactly like CNN.

GLENN GREENWALD: They seem to have this philosophy that in order to host a show, you have to be a current or former CNN employee, which suggests that what they're really trying to do is replicate the CNN model of being this kind of uncontroversial, offend-nobody approach to the news.

ABDURRAHMAN: Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who has been a contributor to Al-Jazeera's English channel, says the new network appears to be diluting its brand to curry favor with advertisers and cable carriers like Time-Warner, which dropped Current TV as soon as Al-Jazeera bought it.

GREENWALD: I've heard from lots of people who work at Al-Jazeera that they seem very eager to avoid any kind of perception that they are anti-American or anti-Israel by watering down or outright avoiding the kind of journalism that rings strange to American ears.

VELSHI: There's a real question about what does Al-Jazeera America have to do to survive.

ABDURRAHMAN: Ali Velshi.

VELSHI: None of us want to give up the reputation that Al-Jazeera English has earned. But at the same time, we do need to have cable carriage. We do need people to understand that this is a station that will cater to their consuming habits.

GREENWALD: I just don't think it's going to work because some segment of the population is always going to regard them as some sort of an enemy force. Anybody who has those kind of biases is never going to watch Al-Jazeera, no matter what they do.

ABDURRAHMAN: Channel president Kate O'Brian doesn't see the Americanization of Al-Jazeera as a bad thing. After all, she says, it is a channel for Americans.

O'BRIAN: So the formats, the talent, the producers will be American. That's why Al-Jazeera America is different from Al-Jazeera English. That's an international channel; this is an American channel.

ABDURRAHMAN: Many people at the network told me that they're hoping for a "Field of Dreams" moment here, that if they build that channel, Americans will come. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Abdurrahman.

SIEGEL: You can hear a longer version of that story on this week's On the Media, produced by member station WNYC.

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