The launch of Al Jazeera America is arguably the best thing to happen in electronic journalism since the June evening 33 years ago when Ted Turner flipped a switch to inaugurate the nation’s first all-news television service, CNN.
The preceding sentence is hard for some Americans to swallow. After all, the new channel is owned and operated by the leaders of Qatar, the oil-rich Middle Eastern emirate. Al Jazeera’s global feeds, in Arabic and English, have been criticized on occasion for disseminating speeches by leaders of Al Qaeda. Some Americans — among them, hosts at Fox News — are openly critical of giving Al Jazeera a powerful voice on America’s cable and satellite dials.
Here are three reasons why Al Jazeera America is important:
Viewers able and willing to sample it (the service will initially reach roughly 48 million U.S. homes) will get a view of world affairs quite different from what is available on existing American TV. At a time when U.S. news organizations are closing foreign bureaus and cutting back on international coverage, this will be eye-opening and minding-expanding.
Existing cable channels, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, will be forced to step up their games in response. All three, which have lost viewers since the height of their respective popularity, will be studying the new service closely. They should pay particular attention when its executive director, Ehab Al Shihabi, says he plans “less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings.”
Finally, Al Jazeera America — A-Jam, as it’s already known — will help drive the conversation on international affairs. It’s influence, at least at the start, is likely to be greater among editors and producers at competing outlets, and even among Washington politicians, than among the general public.
The American channel is the crowning achievement for Qatar, a place about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, with a total population no larger than that of San Jose, Calif. Its English language feed has long been available to Americans via the Internet, but that is now blocked so as not to compete with the new TV service.