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Al Jazeera Offers Americans An Alternative For News


Among the news organizations following every development in Egypt is Al Jazeera. And now they are making a bit of news of their own. Al Jazeera America went on air yesterday afternoon, entering the crowded and competitive world of cable TV news in the United States. The new network is available in about 45 million households.

But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, there are many people inside the industry skeptical that its promise of thoughtful and serious news coverage will woo American audiences.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The idea is that Americans are hungry for news, an argument repeated during Al Jazeera America's promotional first hour yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You have a right to know more about what's happening in your hometown, in America and across the globe.

FOLKENFLIK: New Al Jazeera America evening anchor John Seigenthaler is a former anchor for NBC and MSNBC. He said the pitch to join was pretty appealing.

JOHN SEIGENTHALER: Really, their mission is to do news, is to do in-depth, balanced news.

FOLKENFLIK: And his new bosses told Seigenthaler something else too.

SEIGENTHALER: They have told me that they're not interested in the ratings, that they're interested in doing news and they believe there's an audience out there that will follow. I've never worked at an organization with that sort of commitment.

FOLKENFLIK: Al Jazeera America promises news without ideological tilt and is an anomaly in almost every regard. It has hired hundreds of journalists at a time most of the established news organizations are sloughing them off. It has limited ads to just six minutes of commercials an hour. Many rival channels run closer to 20. Kate O'Brian is president of Al Jazeera America.

KATE O'BRIAN: I frankly don't consider the existing cable operations as our direct competitors. Each one that exists in the U.S. is different from us in very obvious ways. Nobody that I can see, nobody in the media landscape, is doing the kinds of stories that we are looking to do at Al Jazeera.

FOLKENFLIK: The network will be able to draw upon the parent company's 70 bureaus around the world and 12 around the U.S. It is able to do so thanks to the largess of the ruling family of Qatar, who want to project the country's financial strength and sophistication. The original Al Jazeera Arabic became controversial in the U.S. during the aftermath of the September 2001 terror attacks and during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some conservatives in particular mistrust Al Jazeera for the often contentious stances its Arabic commentators have taken toward the U.S. and Israel. But it has also won praise for much its coverage of the Arab Spring. Almost seven years ago, the company's first major foray in the U.S. relied on Al Jazeera English, but its anchors and executives were largely not American and the weight of its Middle Eastern identity hobbled the channel in the U.S.

But you can't get Al Jazeera English on TV or online anymore in this country. That's because Al Jazeera switched course, paying $500 million to get the struggling liberal channel Current for its cable distribution and then spent a lot more to hire a new staff of American journalists. Again, Kate O'Brian.

O'BRIAN: We live here. We exist here. We are based here. We will tell stories in ways that Americans are familiar with.

FOLKENFLIK: Montclair State University journalism dean Merrill Brown questions whether Al Jazeera America can succeed where other news organizations have failed.

MERRILL BROWN: There is no evidence to support the assertion that serious-minded straight-forward breaking news coverage on television will either produce good television or numbers.

FOLKENFLIK: Brown helped to create Court TV and was a top executive at MSNBC's start.

BROWN: All of these folks have tried breaking news and unless there's a plane going down, an election coming, or a celebrity trial, you don't see mass numbers of people coming to cable news.

FOLKENFLIK: Brown predicts even well-financed corporate chiefs in Doha will want competitive ratings and will ultimately cut a huge check to hire a big-name anchor such as Diane Sawyer. But anchor Joie Chen, formerly of CBS and CNN, says that's not in the DNA of this new organization.

JOIE CHEN: We are a platform for stories and storytellers and storytelling. We are not a platform for stars and celebrities.

FOLKENFLIK: When CNN founder Ted Turner essentially invented cable news, he said the news was the star. More than three decades later, Al Jazeera America is betting a lot of money he was right. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.