Al Jazeera America: Media Friend or Foe?

Today (Aug. 20) marks the beginning of a bold experiment in American journalism and American cultural tolerance. The experiment in journalism is actually more like a return to the not-so-distant past while the experiment in cultural tolerance is the nation’s reaction to something it may not easily welcome.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m speaking of the launch of the Al Jazeera America news network. Well-financed and vowing to offer viewers national news without slant, Al Jazeera America is the most controversial network to hit the airways since . . . well, there’s really no comparison.

Parent company Al Jazeera, which has operated in the Arab world since 1996, is best known on our shores as the news organization that brought us messages allegedly from Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the months and years after the 9/11 bombings. What are we to think of a news organization with the dangerous-sounding name that somehow gained a foothold for news in the camp of the enemy, bringing the voice and venom of a jihadist organization into our collective living rooms?

Now, it is setting up shop in New York City saying it will raise the caliber of national news coverage. Its leadership, both foreign-born and domestic, claims it will provide balanced and unbiased national news coverage in the tradition of Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. In other words, it is trying to set itself apart from the partisan coverage provided by the likes of FOX and MSNBC or the increasingly celebrity-centric CNN.

Al Jazeera America, which will be beamed into 48 million American homes, gained a foothold on American airways by buying the Current TV network (think Al Gore) in January for $500 million. Financed in part by the oil-rich government of Qatar, Al Jazeera America has hired a team of nearly 900 journalists and staff and plans to open a dozen news bureaus in cities such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Denver.

Some of the journalists on the Al Jazeera team are familiar faces. They include former NBC news anchor John Seigenthaler, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, CBS’ Joie Chen and Good Morning America’s Antonio Mora.

The American news landscape will provide a fascinating laboratory to run the Al Jazeera America experiment over the coming months and years. Can a wary American public be lured in by a straight, no-spin news product — assuming that Al Jazeera America successfully delivers it? Or will natural fear and distrust of a foreign-run news agency operating in our heartland be too much to overcome?

Only time will tell.

Robert Perez is vice president at CBR.

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