Ishaan Tharoor writes: Let’s get the cynicism out of the way first. Yes, the takeover of Al Gore’s Current TV by Al Jazeera, a pan-Arab broadcaster headquartered in and funded by the Qatari state, is unlikely to send tremors through the current American media landscape. The revamped “Al Jazeera America” channel—and, yes, it will actually be called that—will have a hard time winning its way into the American mainstream. Current TV, after all, is a fringe player with a small viewership. And some U.S. conservatives, like Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, remain convinced Al Jazeera is anti-American propaganda, a cipher for terrorist-sympathizers and anti-war peaceniks. Others simply doubt the ability of an international news channel to spark interest in the U.S. Writing in the Guardian, American media critic Michael Wolff dismissed Al Jazeera English—the broadcaster’s international challenge to the BBC and CNN—as “so boring that there is no real reason to be hostile to it.”
But there are real reasons to welcome Al Jazeera’s $500 million entry into tens of millions of American households. The main one is that, contrary to what Wolff and O’Reilly think, Al Jazeera English (I’m in less of a position to judge its more controversial Arabic counterpart) is a very good news network. It’s sober, thoughtful and, flush with Qatar’s petro-wealth, capable of devoting resources to stories other major news channels now eschew; few international networks cover Latin America and Africa, let alone the Middle East, with more authority and depth than Al Jazeera. Its journalists hail from some 50 countries, making it one of the most cosmopolitan enterprises in the news business. What Wolff deems “boring” has been praised by other prominent Americans as “real news.” Colin Powell apparently told Al Gore that it’s the only channel he watches. And here’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011:
You may not agree with [Al Jazeera English], but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads, and the kind of stuff that we do on our news. Which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.
Yes, critics are right to point to the network’s paymaster—a government whose political agenda has, at times, directly influenced its coverage. The channel, for example, has been one of the most avid watchers of the Syrian conflict (Qatar is known to be arming and funding factions of the Syrian rebellion), but was relatively quiet about Arab Spring unrest in the nearby Kingdom of Bahrain, a close Gulf state ally of Doha. But mainstream American networks are also susceptible to external political pressures. And while Al Jazeera presents the news sometimes with a discernible bias, it lacks the partisan shrillness of channels glued to the Beltway like MSNBC and Fox News.
In an editorial, the New York Times says: In the Middle East, where good, independent journalism is hard to find, Al Jazeera has distinguished itself by its thorough and smart coverage of many important stories, particularly the Arab Spring. In the early days of the revolution in Egypt, many people in America and around the world turned to it because it did a much better job on the ground than many of its international peers.
Al Jazeera often brings a nuance to international stories that can be lacking on American networks, because it has more foreign correspondents and overseas bureaus than many established Western networks. Its coverage of the Arab Spring won a George Foster Peabody Award and its English-language service is broadcast to more than 250 million homes in 130 countries, including Britain, South Africa and India.
Doubts about the independence of Al Jazeera do not justify removing it from cable and satellite systems. With the exception of a few places, like Washington and New York City, Al Jazeera English is not available to most American viewers. Why not let them make up their own minds about the network and its journalism?