Al Jazeera English made its United States television debut this week, continuing the network’s transformation in the eyes of the American public and government from dangerous machine to respectable news outlet. The English-language branch of the Arabic news organization has proven itself to be a major voice in world news, and with its American premiere comes the opportunity for increased diversity in the U.S. cable news landscape.
The cable network launched at 12:00 a.m. on Monday in New York City. The managing director of Al Jazeera English has said the New York market provides more traffic to the AJE website than any other city in the world, making it a natural place for AJE to begin its operations in the U.S. Whether it will spread to households across the country is yet to be seen, but the simple possibility has media activists and academics hopeful for broader representation in American news.
“We actively encourage and support more voices in the media and more diverse voices in the media,” said Dave Saldana, communications director of Free Press. “Al Jazeera certainly fits both of those bills.”
When Al Jazeera English was formed in 2006, an American television channel might have seemed impossible. Made famous in the United States for airing Osama bin Laden’s video-recorded statements in the days, months and years following the September 11 attacks, the network was vilified by the American government. Al Jazeera was treated as an anti-American propaganda wing for Islamic extremists, and was slandered, monitored, and even bombed by the U.S.
More recently, however, Al Jazeera English has been received more as a highly reputable news source than a pseudo-terrorist operation. “They’ve got some very serious, well-regarded journalists on their payroll doing work in parts of the world where very few Western journalists go,” said Saldana. Part of that shift is undoubtedly owed to AJE’s coverage of this year’s freedom movements in North Africa and the Middle East, now colloquially known as the Arab Spring. “The important people in the State Department weren’t looking at CNN or MSNBC or Fox News to find out what was happening in the streets of Tripoli or Cairo,” Saldana said. “They were watching Al Jazeera English.”
“It’s very helpful that [the Arab Spring] captured so much of the American imagination,” continued Saldana. “But it’s a shame that it took that for Americans, generally, to get over their xenophobia and, perhaps, even Islamophobia.”
By providing a typically unacknowledged point of view, Al Jazeera has many hoping that the network will provide a voice to the voiceless in the mainstream press. News media’s role in shaping our understandings and discussions of race and politics cannot be overstated. As Dori J. Maynard, President of the Maynard Institute, explained: “We still tend to live in segregated communities … and really the way we get to know each other is through the media. And if the media continues not to provide a fair and accurate portrayal of all segments of our society we are going to continue to find ourselves polarized.”
Dave Saldana agreed. “It’s very easy for people to get lulled into a false sense of ‘us vs. them’ when … it’s you and me talking about them and not you and me talking with them.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the simple existence of Al Jazeera English on American televisions will enlighten the masses. “Will people who need to be exposed to points of view watch Al Jazeera? That I’m not as hopeful of, but the fact that it’s there means that there’s a possibility that they might,” said Maynard.
Whether Al Jazeera’s presence in the United States is a smashing success or an utter failure, at least there’s a new point of view in the American press. Saldana put it bluntly: “When every news outlet is singing from the same hymnal and there is no healthy skepticism, when the official line is bought without question, well, that’s a very dangerous thing for democracy.”