The acquiring of the US cable channel Current TV by Al-Jazeera will give the Arab television network greater access to the US market, with all the problems and advantages that will accrue from the move. What initially made Al-Jazeera so popular and unique in the Arab world, the airing of videos of Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks, is the exact same reason why it is viewed with extreme suspicion by Americans. Al-Jazeera will have to overcome a significant image problem in the US where many viewers oppose its anti-war reporting of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and basically label the network as anti-American propaganda.
Al-Jazeera is seen in more than 260 million homes in 130 countries, making it globally successful and well-regarded. But it has long tried to convince Americans that it is a legitimate news organization; now its chance has come. After acquiring Current TV, which was started by Al Gore, the former US vice-president, it now has a solid foothold in the US. The deal will boost its reach in the US nearly ninefold, to about 40 million homes. That will put it ahead of its nearest foreign rival, BBC World News, which reaches 25 million American TV sets.
Al-Jazeera’s American foray will be a struggle. A decade ago, it was blasted by American politicians and public alike for showing videotapes of Al-Qaeda members and sympathizers. In 2010, Al-Jazeera blamed a “very aggressive hostility” from the Bush administration for reluctance among cable and satellite companies to show the network. Perhaps times have changed and healed some wounds. The television sets of White House and Congressional officials were tuned to the channel when the Arab Spring erupted. Another voice of support has come from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who in 2011 praised the network as “real news”.
Al-Jazeera has convinced Gore and the other owners of Current TV that it can compete head-to-head with the likes of American news giants CNN, MSNBC and Fox. The big question now is what Al-Jazeera plans to do with its new reach into America. It has to convince Americans to tune in. The problem is that people in America associate Al-Jazeera with the Muslim and Arab world and do not view the link as favorable. There’s a fair amount of paranoia when it comes to Arabs and Al-Jazeera. The challenge will be persuading Americans to watch — a daunting proposition given the crowded television marketplace and the stereotypes about the channel that persist to this day.
Al-Jazeera has to override that and persuade people to watch it by providing quality news and analysis and maybe toeing the American line more often. In trying to attract Americans, Al-Jazeera will at times look more American than Arab which will cloud its identity and purpose. But it might also air a more moderate and compassionate Arab view of the West which will hurt neither side.
However, although it will be called Al-Jazeera America, the name alone will not be enough to sway American public opinion.