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Are Al Jazeera America Executives Underestimating Americans?

Al Jazeera America employees in the network's offices in New York, May 24, 2013. To counter skepticism about its Al Jazeera America cable channel, the Qatar-based network is building a sizable news organization to cover the U.S. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)
Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times/Redux

Last week, New York reporter Joe Pompeo toured the shiny new midtown offices of Al Jazeera America, the soon-to-launch news channel built from the ashes of Current TV, which Qatar-based broadcast giant Al Jazeera purchased for $500 million at the beginning of this year. As Pompeo described it, the station’s strategy for standing out among cable competitors like Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN is to “eschew punditry and partisanship on the one hand, and tabloid-style infotainment on the other, while focusing instead on hard-hitting national and international news that matters to Americans.” The hope among many news junkies is that Al Jazeera America’s coverage will reflect the style of its parent network and fellow offshoot Al Jazeera English, both of which are known for airing stories and perspectives that existing American broadcasters often shy away from (especially when it comes to the actions of the United States government and military.) However, an intra-company e-mail obtained by the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald suggests that, as other observers have suspected, Al Jazeera America executives are watering down the brand (which, thanks to accusations made by American officials during the Bush years, is still believed by some in the United States to be “pro-terrorist.”)

In a 1,800-word missive to several Al Jazeera executives, Al Jazeera senior political analyst Marwan Bishara accused network officials of sacrificing the company’s mission and “[insulting] the intelligence of the American people” over fears of being perceived as “anti-American.” He took particular issue with the abandonment of plans to run Al Jazeera English programming on Al Jazeera America, which will now only feature American-made content. “How have we moved from the main idea that the strength of [the Al Jazeera network] lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists to a channel where only Americans work, when clearly that’s not what American viewership wants, even according to the polls?” he wrote.

He also criticized the nature of the aforementioned polls, which were apparently commissioned by network executives “to find out from Americans whether ‘we’ are ‘anti-American’ … By merely posing the question we’ve sent the wrong message.” He added, “What does ‘Anti-Americanism’ even mean here? How did you define anti-Americanism to those polled! Do you estimate that criticizing the American government or its policies ‘anti-American’ [or] a fundamental ‘American’ trait and essential element of its democracy and freedom of speech, not to speak of the role of global media.”

Bishara specifically called out Al Jazeera’s executive director for international operations, Ehab Al Shihabi, who is overseeing the launch of Al Jazeera America. According to Greenwald, Al Shihabi, whose background is in business, has irritated some Al Jazeera employees by “proclaiming that the network ‘will be the voice of Main Street’ and proudly touting a meeting with the Chicago Mayor, former Obama White House chief of staff and vehement ‘pro-Israel’ advocate Rahm Emanuel.” Bishara urged Al Shihabi to stop appearing in public with “political characters” and to “stay clear of our content. Journalism is not your thing; do whatever you know how to do.” He concluded, “If we fail America around the launch time, it will be ever more difficult to salvage a tarnished image and compromised credibility.”

Greenwald followed up on all this with an anonymous Al Jazeera insider, who said the network was relying too heavily on the advice of American consultants and lobbying firms, “all of whom don’t understand the Jazeera brand or the industry.” The employee said Al Jazeera America is suffering from “an identity issue, and we’ll likely end up being somewhere between MSNBC and CNN, which nobody will watch.” (He also said higher-ups were “very concerned about the Israel Lobby.”)

Greenwald also spoke to Paul Eedle — an Al Jazeera English alum who is currently acting as Al Jazeera America’s deputy news and editorial director for programming — about Bishara’s statements. Eedle said he was familiar with the complaints (and that others had voiced similar concerns), though he denied that Al Jazeera America’s approach would differ from the rest of the network. (He also said Al Shihabi had no role in editorial decisions.) Eedle maintained that his team is “building a newsroom culture to embody the Jazeera spirit” by training employees recruited from other news operations to be “free of inhibitions they might have had and feel liberated and go for the story,” adding that “there’s no point in being a pale imitation of what others are doing.” However, he did point out that, in order for Al Jazeera America to succeed, its managers must “build an American channel for an American audience” (a statement he made several times when interviewed by New York.) If nothing else, the station’s scheduled August 20 debut will provide some insight into what, exactly, the rest of the world thinks an American audience is.

Al Jazeera Worried About Seeming ‘Anti-American’