When on 2nd March 2011 the present US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew attention to the success of the international news channel Al Jazeera English (‘AJE’), this was no small tribute given that she is a public figure in a country where AJE is all but unavailable to most television viewers, possibly for political reasons.Via the Internet, however, millions of Americans have tuned in to AJE, with viewership spiking during the recent upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East.
But what explains the success of Al Jazeera English? The Doha-based station’s possible comparative advantage in covering the revolutionary events in its own backyard is an insufficient explanation, with at least five other factors being critical to its rise:
1. The decline of the US news networks. Channels such as MSNBC, Fox and even CNN have become bedevilled by corporatism and obviously subjective coverage. This trend reached a stunning apex during the Iraq War, and its effects could clearly be seen on American public opinion: according to an October 2003 University of Maryland study, 69% of US mainstream media viewers believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 11th September, 2001 attacks. Given this reality, it is difficult to dismiss Noam Chomsky’s allegations about much of the US media fulfilling a mere propaganda function when it comes to certain issues; ultimately, this lack of credibility has made easy the passage of new entrants into what should be a difficult market.
2. Representativeness. Al Jazeera English gives prominent coverage to events in far-flung territories which would almost never normally grace Western television screens except briefly and through a ‘national interest’ prism. AJE’s coverage of the 2010 Colombian presidential election – a contest in a fascinating, large and unfashionable country – is typical in this regard. The result is that watching Al Jazeera English is the closest approximation to watching the world’s local channel.
3. Alternative voices. The usual suspects of former politicians and representatives of the military-industrial complex are noticeably thin on the ground as guests on AJE, which gives a stage to many gifted people who lack either the connections or the ideological ‘rectitude’ to garner appearances on most Western outlets. The fact that the luminously hyperbolic and incisive financial analyst Max Keiser is given significant airtime on the channel is indicative of its willingness to give space to those outside of the mainstream; in doing so, it is redefining that same ‘normality’.
4. Correspondent mix. Al Jazeera English presently possesses an excellent range of correspondents. Ayman Mohyeldin, whose coverage of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution will live long in the memory, is arguably the Cristiano Ronaldo of broadcast journalism; at the other end of the spectrum, the transmogrification of Anita McNaught from her unremarkable BBC persona into a correspondent of sublime allure and poise is something to behold. AJE journalists often evince considerable local knowledge, charm and sensitivity; a potent mix.
5. The Qatari paradox. Like any news channel, Al Jazeera English is subject to commercial and editorial pressures, but being formed and based in Qatar – a miniscule desert emirate of around 1.7m people – means that it is almost certainly never going to be utilised for projecting influence in the same way as, say, networks located in a waning hyperpower such as the United States. Indeed, both AJE and its sister Arabic-language channel have been arguably the key catalysts for democratisation in the Middle East and North Africa, despite being headquartered in an absolute monarchy; this alone shows a certain independence of spirit which characterises what is fast becoming one of the most respected and admired news outlets in world.
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