Americans prejudiced against Al Jazeera?

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The new cable news channel Al Jazeera America is drawing a lot of major media attention.

USA Today asks in a relatively meaty story:

Al Jazeera America: Will U.S. viewers buy it?

A chunk of that report:

While journalists may be eager to join a news outlet that promises to air in-depth coverage, media analysts wonder how excited American viewers will be about a Middle Eastern-owned news operation with a controversial past and a programming approach that avoids shrill partisan voices. The fact that it’s backed by owners who seem to have put profit on the back-burner gives the network’s experiment a better shot, company watchers say.

“Al Jazeera enjoys the best economic model you can possibly have,” says Philip Seib, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, who has written books on Al Jazeera. “They have a lot of money. They want to be a global player. They want Qatar to be a global player. And to be a true global journalistic force, you have to reach the U.S.”

Al Jazeera’s executives aren’t running from “the perception issue” or the fact that its unflinching airing of Osama bin Laden’s tapes is just a few clicks away on YouTube.

Al Shihabi says lingering audience hostility toward the channel will fade as viewers become familiar with its format and focus. “Do we have competitors or those who want to attack us from different angles? Of course,” he says. But, he adds, pointing to its American management and staff, “It is an American channel for the American audience.”

The headline at the New York Times:

Al Jazeera America Promises a More Sober Look at the News

From that story:

The Al Jazeera name still arouses deep suspicion in some Americans, mostly because of the period immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Al Jazeera broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden and was demonized by Bush administration officials as anti-American.

Al Jazeera America officials rebut questions about whether its brand name will hurt its chances on cable by invoking other foreign brands, like Honda, that are now viewed favorably in the United States.

For now, some big sponsors appear to be skittish; Al Jazeera declined to name any major advertisers.

To read both those reports, you get the idea that perhaps there’s a reason why Americans would be suspicious — at least initially — about that network.

But over at Religion News Service, in a story that reads more like an editorial, the reason for the steep climb faced in the U.S. market is clear: “deep-seated prejudices.”

The top of the RNS report:

(RNS) Al-Jazeera and America, two name brands often at odds since 9/11, were wed as one on Tuesday (Aug. 20) when the Qatar-based media network began broadcasting its U.S. news channel Al-Jazeera America from New York.

This is not the first time Al-Jazeera has tried to find a home on American TV. Al-Jazeera English debuted with an international focus in 2006 but was never picked up in major media markets outside the Northeast.

From CNN to MSNBC to Fox, the leading cable and satellite news channels all struggled to gain and hold viewers, credibility and profit for years after their launch. But for Al-Jazeera America, deep-seated prejudices among some U.S. audiences are likely to make this uphill slog even steeper.

Some media commentators and Islam experts say Al-Jazeera’s first failure was fueled by fears that audiences and advertisers would not tune in to a news channel with an Arabic name based in the Middle East and backed by a foreign government.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said those fears were boosted by a “cottage industry of Muslim bashers in the U.S. that think any mention of Arabs or Muslims in a positive context is bad. They didn’t see what they were objecting to, but rather objected to something they didn’t like the idea of.”

This time around, Hooper is optimistic that more viewers will judge Al-Jazeera America on the content of its coverage rather than what he calls manufactured perceptions.

“I think Americans have become a bit more sophisticated in how we view things,” he said. “After the Boston bombings, we didn’t see the same knee-jerk anti-Islam reactions we’d seen previously.”

The story goes on to quote three sources who explain the alleged American bias while making this statement in passing:

The Tampa-based Florida Family Association, which opposes what it perceives to be the “Islamization” of America, recently launched a campaign demanding major companies stop advertising on the channel.

No one from the Florida Family Association is quoted (outside of the scare quotes), so it’s obvious that RNS has decided who’s right and who’s wrong in this scenario. That’s not news reporting. That’s an editorial.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Darren Blair

    “For now, some big sponsors appear to be skittish; Al Jazeera declined to name any major advertisers.”

    *wonders if they even have any major advertisers*

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Good question.

      • Darren Blair

        My minor was in marketing, and so I guess I tend to be a bit sensitive to things like this.

        In this case?

        While I can see the prospect of advertisers fearing a backlash due to their association with the network, I can also see how a company could make inroads with Arab-Americans and others within Al Jazeera America’s target audiences by being open about an advertising partnership.

        In that sense, the seeming refusal to mention any advertising partners is leading me to ask questions.

        In contrast, when Hasbro, American Greetings, and Discovery Networks announced that they were joining forces to create family-friendly network The Hub, it hit the media pretty quickly that the network was going to solicit rival toymaker Mattel (among other rival groups) for advertising; Mattel eventually took them up on their offer and ran a number of ads during the first six months or so of the network’s existence.

        The other thing that comes to mind is the ill-fated Air America Radio. When the parent company of AAR purchased the first radio stations of the network, they reportedly failed to notify the various companies who advertised on these networks that the format was going to be changing from whatever it was previous to “liberal talk radio”. Cue several confused advertisers – like Greyhound – wondering why all of the sudden people were threatening boycotts due to the downright shocking actions of people who they didn’t even know existed.* When these advertisers found out why they were getting all of this hate mail, they promptly yanked their advertising, helping to create a financial hole that AAR apparently never quite dug itself out of.

        Perhaps maybe – like AAR – AJA hasn’t actually negotiated any major advertising contracts and so is flailing?

        *Many of AAR’s first wave of talk show hosts were, in essence, shock jocks. As a result, even some people who might have gone along with their “liberal talk radio” format became offended.

        • Brian Sullivan

          Al Jazeera supports NPR, just like Al Gore did….(the bought his cable channel, so–funny…?

  • boinkie

    The real problem is that their editorial board on their english webpage seems to be full of extreme lefties. So there is a real danger of anti Americanism.
    However, their news reports in the region are sometimes quite good: a lot better than CNN International.

  • Parableman

    It actually says, “deep-seated prejudices,” which is the right idiom.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Correction made.

      Thank you for pointing it out.

  • FW Ken

    The question is whether Al-Jazeera will say the same things in English that they say in Arabic. Will they tailor their reports to what they think Americans want to hear, or will they give us a truly Middle Eastern point of view? The latter would be helpful. Will they be more, or less, reliable than the American news channels or alphabet network news? Will they be interesting? Thought-provoking? Or will they be more of the same?

    • JoFro

      Unlikely! Their English language news sounds no different to other left wing mainstream media outlets. The only thing worth watching on al Jazeera are their documentaries, when those docos have nothing connected to religion or politics!


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