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First Look At New Al-Jazeera America Network


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the images of the Civil Rights Movement have been captured in photographs, and in a moment - minutes, we'll hear from artist Faith Ringgold about telling that history through paintings. But first, we turn to a new phase in broadcast television. The cable TV channel Al-Jazeera America launches tomorrow.

Al-Jazeera is based in Doha, Qatar, but the American branch is snapping up high-profile journalists from other cable news networks to populate its American stream. Critics say Al-Jazeera will have trouble shaking its image in the U.S. at least, as a news source with terrorist ties. To look at some of the challenges facing Al-Jazeera America, we're joined by Brian Stelter, the media reporter for The New York Times. Nice to speak with you again, Brian.

BRIAN STELTER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: First of all, let's talk about what Al-Jazeera America is, for those who are unfamiliar with, say, the international version. Is it comparable as a news network to something like CNN or BBC?

STELTER: It seems like it's going to be more like CNN, but with less of the sensationalism that some people say CNN, Fox News, MSNBC all have. This is going to be a straightforward, down the middle, just-the-facts-ma'am style of television news.

That's the kind of news that you don't see on television very often anymore. And it'll have some international coverage, like the BBC does, but it'll be heavily focused on domestic news - like CNN, Fox News, MSNBC all are. But it's trying to be something nobody else is, and that is that very sober look at the world and at the country.

HEADLEE: What's their strategy for making money, Brian? I mean, how do they distinguish themselves? I mean, it looks like even CNN is picking up pointers from Fox News and MSNBC, in terms of making themselves profitable. Al-Jazeera is going entirely the other way.

STELTER: You know, they don't talk about making a profit. That's one of the real wrinkles about all of this. Al-Jazeera does make some money around the world, and with its English language and Arabic language news channels. They do have some advertising, but they don't have a lot of it. What they really subsist on is money from the government of Qatar, the oil- and gas-rich Middle Eastern emirate. The country is - it subsidizes the channel in much the way that, you know, France 24 or Russia Today or Chinese state television is subsidized.

And that may be its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. It has virtually unlimited funds, it seems like. It's hired about 900 staffers here in the United States, to get this channel up and running. And we haven't seen television news investment like that since Fox News and MSNBC were launched back in the 1990s. But it may also be its greatest weakness because of people's skepticism about a Middle Eastern country subsidizing a news channel. And I guess that remains to be seen.

HEADLEE: Well, since you mentioned it, let me quote for you a comment. You wrote about this in The New York Times today, and here's a comment on your piece. This person wrote: unbelievable. I'm outraged that our country is becoming unrecognizable. I am so very fed up with the wimpy submission to the usurping of America. Does anyone think for a moment we would be welcome in the West-hating Arab nations? Of course not, yet we continue to fling the door open. Why not go ahead and surrender the White House?

What's your response to this comment?

STELTER: Let's start by pointing out that CNN International is available, for example, in the Middle East. I remember that when I visited Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar, on the satellite systems there was CNN and the BBC and - not Fox News, although Fox is trying as well to get carriage overseas the same way that CNN is. So these - we increasingly live in an international news climate where there are many channel options from many corners of the world.

And I mentioned Chinese state television earlier. They are making an effort to get on cable systems here in the United States, just like the BBC and Al-Jazeera. But that comment does bring up the fact that there is widespread skepticism about Al-Jazeera in the U.S. The broadcaster has been trying for years to come onto cable and satellite systems here, and it was roundly rejected until it decided to buy Al Gore's Current TV channel in January, for an estimated $500 million.

You know, it's that classic case where if you can't get on yourself, you have to buy your way in, and that's what Al-Jazeera's done. That was a big statement about how badly they'd like to have access to American viewers and to American policymakers. And so that, I think, has aroused some suspicion about what its intentions are. Is it geopolitical, or is it purely journalistic? And maybe it's all of those. Maybe it's all of those as well a profit motive, eventually.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about another thing, which could possibly - we don't know for sure, but could possibly be a strategy, and that is that it looks like Al-Jazeera America is intentionally trying to be much more diverse than its counterparts at MSNBC and CNN. What do we know about that? Is that an intentional strategy, do you think?

STELTER: It is. One of the prime-time anchors, Joie Chen, said to me when I interviewed her last week, I would challenge you to find any television news operation that's more diverse than we are. It has hired - and just like Al-Jazeera English, its existing international English channel, has - it's hired a vast array of people with lots of - from many different backgrounds, of many different ages, races, ethnicities, etc. And that's intentional, they say, because they'd like to present a very diverse view of the United States and of the world.

They've also set up bureaus, offices in parts of the country you oftentimes don't see television news coverage. For example, Detroit, Nashville, you know, those sorts of cities that are sometimes overlooked by the major broadcasters in the United States. You know, it was noticeable when Detroit filed for bankruptcy and took that action. You actually didn't see a lot of networks go live to Detroit that night...

HEADLEE: No, they went to Chicago.

STELTER: ....because they didn't have a bureau there. That's right. They went to Chicago. I think one of the networks even had a reporter just out of New York. They didn't have anybody in Detroit. Well, Al-Jazeera cites that as an example of how they'll be different. They'll be in Detroit. They'll have the reporting muscle on the ground. Whether viewers are going to be able to find Al-Jazeera on their cable system is a whole other matter, but they have really spread out across the country to cover the news.

HEADLEE: And they're not streaming live on the Internet?

STELTER: They're not. That's one of the most frustrating pieces of this, for Web savvy viewers who already know and like Al-Jazeera. For years, Al-Jazeera English has been available on the Internet for free. Its coverage of Egypt was widely praised two years ago, and I found myself even last week seeking it out online because the United States cable news channels were paying less attention to the violence in Egypt. As of today, that online stream has been shut down because Al-Jazeera had to, in order to get on cable here, turn off the online stream.

Cable companies don't want that competition on the Internet, and Al-Jazeera had to concede that point. They say in the future, hopefully, they'll be back. But for now, what they really want is to be on your cable or satellite lineup right next to CNN and Fox News, and they're about halfway there. They're going to be in about half of the homes that CNN and Fox News are on. So they've got an uphill battle.

HEADLEE: Nearly 50 million households, I think you reported in your column. But what are the chances that Al-Jazeera could succeed? I mean, we - even in recent years; Current TV is one example - there's many networks that rise and fall and there are certainly...


HEADLEE: ...Many places to get your news, and some of the trends we've seen recently is that people are not watching terrestrial TV in the way they used to before. What are the chances Al-Jazeera America could succeed?

STELTER: Fox News, when it launched, was so low-rated that for years, no one really knew that anybody was watching at all.

HEADLEE: That's in the 1990s.

STELTER: The same was true for MSNBC...


STELTER: ...In the 1990s, that's right. And it took five years for Fox News to gain in the ratings. It took MSNBC about 10 years to really make a difference in the ratings. And that was in an even less-congested media climate. Al-Jazeera's argument, and their reason for optimism, is that they're coming in and doing something that's a much more straightforward, sober view of the world. And they think because that's not available anywhere else - although I would argue, it's available on NPR and PBS and elsewhere - they argue that it'll become really refreshing to people, and it'll be sought out as an alternative.

In fact, they think other people will follow their lead and come out and do their own more straightforward, objective, serious takes on the news. That's maybe wishful thinking, or it could be the start of something really different and interesting. And that's why I think a lot of journalists are paying attention to Al-Jazeera America - because this is the kind of channel that a journalism professor would dream up. I'm not sure if viewers would dream it up, but certainly other journalists are excited to see a lot of people get hired and get jobs doing reporting, and have a version of the news that doesn't seem tilted by entertainment or opinion.

HEADLEE: Well, a lot of people have said, among viewers and listeners, that they want more people of color in their news organizations, and that they want more serious news. We'll see if they actually mean it.

STELTER: That's right. That's what they say; we'll see if they actually want it.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Brian Stelter, New York Times media reporter. He joined me from The Times. Thanks so much, Brian.

STELTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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