The Al Jazeera Charm Offensive

It launches in 45M U.S. homes in July. But it needs a star—and a clean slate, says David Freedlander.

Al Jazeera is coming to America. And when you have the backing of the Qatari royal family, there is little reason to do anything small.

Since launching its American outpost in January, the deep-pocketed network says it’s received 18,000 résumés for 170 open positions. By the time Al Jazeera America, as the new cable network will be called, launches in July, it will have 600 to 700 staffers on the editorial and technical side.

But in order to make a dent in the saturated American airwaves, it will take more than eager anchors filling those chairs.

The network needs a star.

“It would be very helpful for us to have a couple of names that have been recognized and people say, ‘Oh, they have gone over to them. I should give it a look,’” said Bob Wheelock, executive producer for the Americas for Al Jazeera English. “Americans like to know who is on at what time. We need to find people who are known, but we want them to be known for their journalism, not for their celebrity, not for their past failure, not for their messy divorce.”

Al Jazeera paid an estimated $500 million to Al Gore’s old cable network, Current TV, in order to launch Al Jazeera America. The new network will have nearly a dozen domestic bureaus and will rely on content from more than 70 overseas bureaus. The company is reported to be looking at prime New York real estate—in no less a bastion of American journalism than the former New York Times building—for its new headquarters. Executives at Al Jazeera say they are planning to compete with CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News on the belief that Americans crave substantive, deeply reported cable news, including foreign coverage.

Whether Al Jazeera will be able to attract top-level talent, the kind that will draw in American viewers and lead other broadcasters to follow suit, remains very much up in the air. Part of the problem is the lingering suspicion that the network has an anti-American bias. In 2006, it launched an English-language version of the network with a splash and announced the hiring of former Nightline correspondent Dave Marash in what was considered a coup for the nascent organization. Two years later Marash quit, citing a lack of editorial independence.

And there is the matter of whether anyone with a long résumé wants to work for a network that, although it will be in 45 million homes one day, has, at the moment, exactly zero viewers.

“The big question will be who do they hire,” says Bob Papper, a professor of journalism at Hofstra University. “Can they hire lots of beginners who are looking for a job? Sure. If you’re paying money and offering benefits, hiring warm bodies is not going to be hard. The question is are you going to be able to hire some serious players who are going to bring real credibility?”

Papper said that among his contacts in the industry, “I am not hearing any concern. I haven’t heard anyone tell me, ‘Jesus, I am concerned about losing all of these people.’ It is massive indifference.”

He added that although Al Jazeera America has pledged to invest heavily into news-gathering and to keep Qatari politics out of the editorial process, “that is what they said last time.”

Wheelock begs to differ. Among the résumés he’s seen, he said, “There are some first year out of [journalism] school or college and they just want a job.” But he added, “We have an awful lot who are 10 or 15 or 20 years in the business and are just fed up with where they work, or they left where they work, or where they work told them you aren’t needed here anymore because we closed down our Chicago bureau or we closed down our Rome bureau.”

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That Wheelock’s inbox is full should surprise no one, given the sunken state of the news media.

“My students would have no qualms working anywhere that would give them a job,” said Phillip Seib, a professor of journalism at University of Southern California and the author of The Al Jazeera Effect. “Or maybe some of them would, but some of them would have a problem working with MSNBC, some would have a problem working with Russia Today. But I think in general my students would say, ‘Three hundred more jobs, yes!’”

That is good news for Wheelock, who says he is looking for a mix of “veteran, experienced journalists and news gatherers, and bright young kids who can multi-task like there is no tomorrow.”

Those veterans could be attracted to a network that is committed to doing substantive work of the type not seen on most of the cable stations. “We are probably never going to the most-watched network in America,” Wheelock conceded, but said Al Jazeera America believes there are big stories in the country that don’t get airtime on even the cable news networks, and that there is a domestic appetite for long-form, deeply reported TV journalism. What the network lacks in audience size it hopes to gain by influencing the influences. Think more The Economist than Time, more Bill Moyers than Bill O’Reilly.

Already, speculation in the industry is rampant about who will be the first big names, if any, to take the plunge with the new network. The current thinking is that they will be people who are either at the tail end of their careers and are looking for a new challenge or those who find themselves bumping up against a glass ceiling at their present station. One industry insider said, “I know personally of a handful of familiar names who have submitted résumés.” Another pointed to the recent moves of Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo, who both left ABC for CNN, as an example of the kind of broadcaster who trades a higher-profile perch for the chance to do the kind of journalism they want. Both are models for the type of newsperson Al Jazeera is trying to poach.

And of course, it will take a lot of money, something that Al Jazeera has no shortage of, just as the rest of the media world seems to be retrenching.

“There are three [cable news networks] that do a lot of the same type of show, which is prime time, full of a lot of talking heads,” Wheelock said. “You won’t see a lot of that on our channel. That is done because it is inexpensive and it is often provocative and it fills up the channel. We are more dependent on storytelling. It costs more, but we also don’t have the same constraints about trying to turn a profit. That is an incredibly editorially liberating thing.”