No Fireworks on Al Jazeera America’s Plodding Debut

Al Jazeera America made its U.S. TV debut in a relentlessly responsible fashion. Lloyd Grove reports.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

There was a moment Tuesday afternoon during the much-ballyhooed debut of Al Jazeera America that crystallized the challenge confronting the brand-new cable news network.

Anchor Tony Harris—like a few of AJAM’s on-air faces, a refugee from CNN—was discussing the turmoil in Egypt with Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt.

“People in my hometown of Baltimore are wondering: how important is Egypt really to America and America’s interests?” Harris asked. The professor’s answer: not very. “What happens there,” Walt said, “is not likely to affect America’s strategic interests in any fundamental way.”

So why did a news outlet that bills itself as a “truly American network”—notwithstanding that it is bankrolled by oil-rich Qatar, which paid Al Gore and his business partners $500 million to buy and remake Current TV—expend so many of its precious introductory minutes, including the lead story of its first on-air news program, on a conflict thousands of miles away that, in the words of its own expert, is “not vital” to the target audience?

First there was a leisurely report on the Egyptian military’s arrest of a bearded old man named Mohamed Badie, identified as “the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood,” and then several minutes of talking-head amplification from Cairo and Washington (where ex-NBC journeyman Mike Viqueira stood in front of his accustomed White House tableau), and of course Professor Walt up in Cambridge. AJAM’s U.S.-based competitors, such as ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC’s Nightly News, led with gripping footage of the elementary school shooting drama in Decatur, Georgia, the second story on AJAM’s menu and nowhere near as vividly presented.

Then came a perfectly competent, if tame, report on the wildfires in Idaho, with anchor Harris meticulously debriefing correspondent Paul Beban on the scene, a straitlaced weather segment, and stories about the State Department reinstating suspended Benghazi employees, the detention of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow, a federal judge’s order to force-feed hunger-striking prison inmates in California, and, of course, more Egypt (this time in the form of a standup lecture from a slimmed-down David Shuster). There followed, during a half-hour program called Inside Story, a ponderous conversation about climate change between the host, a former C-SPAN anchor, and a group of relentlessly responsible experts. Heaping mounds of spinach, no chocolate cake. No fireworks.

To be sure, AJAM’s launch boasted at least one strong offering, the powerful debut of its half-hour investigative program Faultlines, a look at Walmart’s indirect exploitation of often-underage sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, who risk death by fire and building collapse to earn $30 a month. It was the kind of excellent—and expensive—international long-form reporting for which AJAM’s sister network, Al Jazeera English, has distinguished itself. But one need not succumb to narrow-minded provincialism to wonder how the new channel plans to be different from AJE, which has become a respected and often invaluable source of foreign and especially Middle East coverage—often with a posh Brit accent—since its birth in 2006. In other words, how will AJAM become “truly American”?

An hourlong pretaped curtain-raiser trying to define the fledgling network, the lead-in to the live debut at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, set the bar pretty high. Anchors Antonio Mora, late of ABC, and Richelle Carey, formerly of HLN, functioning as emcees, called their latest employer “a new channel from one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing media networks creating original American programming.” It will be “America’s most trusted news channel” boasting “12 news bureaus between Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.”

Much is made of the fact that one of those bureaus is in Nashville, Tennessee. “There’s people in Nashville who matter,” Carey insists. “Of course we have a bureau there! Why wouldn’t we have a bureau there?” Two of those people who matter are Tom and Vickie; she’s a stay-at-home mom with processed blond curls; he’s a generously tattooed bearded dude, a surgical assistant at a local hospital who wears his black baseball cap backward. “The news is slanting in different directions,” Tom complains as he and Vickie hunker down in a bar. Can you get any more American?

According to former CNN personality Ali Velshi, host of AJAM’s primetime show Real Money, the network will offer “compelling storytelling on real issues.” In short, none of those shouting heads, like on Fox and MSNBC; no brain-dead Kardashians. “Not for celebrity, not for stardom, not for left-right and political things,” admonished CNN veteran Joie Chen, anchor of AJAM’s tent-pole 9 p.m. broadcast, America Tonight. (Never mind that American viewers, even the ones to whom commercials for walk-in tubs and polished catheters are pitched, seem to enjoy many of those cable TV staples.) A yarmulke-wearing codger is produced to say of AJAM, “I may not like it. I may not agree with it,” but “it’s a business. They’re as entitled to set up a business as anyone else.” So even that particular demographic is covered. Then there’s video of former secretary of State and current presidential prospect Hillary Clinton testifying to Congress that “viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news.”

While AJAM’s debut was competent and relatively glitch-free, the pace was slow, the production values were plodding and predictable, and the presentation relied heavily on yakking, and more yakking, straight to camera (with the notable exception of the Faultlines takedown of Walmart and Gap). Yet in an age of media belt tightening, when once-imposing journalistic institutions are being shuttered or sold for a fraction of their historic value, it is heartening that a Gulf-state emir, of all people, is willing to spend hundreds of millions, and probably billions, of dollars to field a serious news organization in the United States. For that reason alone, I am rooting for Al Jazeera America and its 850-odd staffers led by veteran ABC News executive Kate O'Brian, and hope they find a way to reach an audience, attract advertisers, and land on a growing number of cable systems.

It’s no doubt unreasonable to expect the bright promise of AJAM’s promos to be fulfilled in a single day—and it wasn’t—let alone during the three and a half hours I sat watching in the ballroom of the Hotel New Yorker, where the network staged a viewing party next door to its 20,000-square-foot Manhattan newsroom and studio complex. Like millions of subscribers to Time Warner Cable, I’m unable to get AJAM at home. The network, which claims to be available in more than 40 million households nationwide, is apparently still trying to make a deal with TWC. It’s supposed to be watchable on DirecTV, Comcast/XFinity, Dish, and Verizon FiOS, but after AT&T’s U-verse cable service abruptly dropped the channel from its lineup minutes before airtime, AJAM filed a lawsuit.

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And what could be more American than that?