The news that Al Gore is suing Al Jazeera America for millions of dollars owed him from the purchase of his Current TV network rocked the media world last week. After all, who knew Al Jazeera America still existed?
But AJA is still there (probably), snug in the old Current TV channel slot on your cable guide. It’s just that you’re not watching. Neither is anyone else.
Al Jazeera America went live exactly one year ago, on Aug. 20, 2013, powered by an initial $500 million in oil money from the emir of Qatar, plus millions spent hiring topflight broadcast journalism talent (including NBC veterans Randall Pinkston and John Seigenthaler, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and Al Velshi, ABC’s Antonio Mora and CBS veteran Joie Chen and more) and establishing 12 news bureaus across the U.S. The network hoped to succeed in the U.S. market where Al Jazeera English had failed.
It seemed like a good idea at The New York Times, where Brian Stelter rhapsodized that “Al Jazeera is coming to America to supply old-fashioned, boots-on-the-ground news coverage to a country that doesn’t have enough of it.” Elites like Stelter couldn’t be bothered with AJA’s provenance – a parent bankrolled by the same people as Hamas, that acted as Al Qaeda’s PR arm during the Iraq War, completely ignored the public sexual assault on CBS’s Lara Logan and actually held a birthday/prisoner exchange party for a murdering Lebanese terrorist.
Whether the American public knows or cares about any of that isn’t certain, but it certainly hasn’t shared Stelter’s enthusiasm for yet another left-of-center news organization in the U.S. market.
On Aug. 11, AP cited Neilson ratings, noting, “So far this year, Al-Jazeera America has averaged 17,000 viewers in prime time, ticking up to 23,000 during the first week of fighting in Gaza.”
And you thought MSNBC had definitively answered that old hypothetical question, “What if we built a network and nobody watched?”
In April, AJA laid off dozens of journalists, and another round of lay-offs is in the works. The network is putting up a brave face. According to the Aug. 8 New York Daily News, AJA chief Ehab Al Shihabi told employees in an anniversary memo, “I know there has been a lot of talk about ratings. Let’s put things in perspective. Other cable news networks have been on television for decades — we’re a year old. We’re still growing our brand awareness as well as our distribution, which is a little more than half of all U.S. cable homes.” But that equates to about 60 million homes. You do the math.
Of course, AJA is backed by nearly unlimited petro-dollars, and you can be sure the emir et al are taking the long view about influencing American opinion. But that raises another problem.
While AJA has won awards for its reporting, it’s hard to think of any story or issue on which the network has made a real impact in the last year. Except maybe for getting sued by Al Gore.