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Al Jazeera America Just Launched. Fox and MSNBC Should Worry.

Al Jazeera America’s first day of television programming began with an hour of self-promotion so urgent that it played like an episode of “The Newsroom,” a passionate condemnation of every other media outlet and a paean to its own righteousness. “We will connect the world to Americans and Americans to the world,” one voiceover declared. Interviews with everyday Americans in Nashville about deficiencies in the mainstream media (“I’m always amazed at how American-centric the news is here”) were coupled with big-name endorsements. “Al Jazeera is real news,” said Hillary Clinton. “It achieves something that I think all of us want to achieve, and that is to make a contribution,” said John McCain. Clips scrolled by of Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly ranting mutely in the background. Anchors declared their aims as no less than “documenting history” and “telling the human story from the ground up.” The word “integrity” asserted itself again and again and again.

Of course, Al Jazeera had for months been pitching itself as an antidote to the media landscape at large. The channel’s chief executive, Ehab Al Shihabi, described his goal as “fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news,” with “less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings.” The network made a show of luring anchors away from other networks—some even out of TV news retirement—with promises of a new frontier in balanced, thorough reporting. And as the station kicked off its first day of broadcasts, it mostly delivered on these promises. The evening’s programming featured hours of Egypt coverage that included a report on church burnings and another about how the protests are morphing from massive town-square demonstrations to small, spontaneous ones. The push to contextualize was apparent in every segment: one anchor offered a breakdown of the history of the Muslim Brotherhood that was unprecedented in its straightforwardness and clarity. The coverage is calm, comprehensive, and far-reaching. But somehow, the overall effect is not quite as different from the rest of cable news as Al Jazeera imagines it.

The network launched its first news report with dispatches from former CNN anchor Tony Harris about a shooting at an elementary school near Atlanta and the unrest in Egypt.   “Inside Story" at 5 p.m. explored the threat of climate change in a segment that was mercifully lacking in climate change deniers. Overall, most reports—for instance, one on child labor in Bangladesh and another on cholera in Haiti—feel immersive and leisurely. The lack of ads may not be intentional, but it makes every segment feel denser and documentary-like, lingering on subjects attentively. And one of Al Jazeera’s particular skills is finding no-name commentators who are more articulate, insightful, and prepared than most credentialed talking heads on cable news. 

Without the rat-a-tat of talking points, though, it is hard not to note that every interview feels slacker and less intense. A show called “The Stream” is like Huffington Post Live awkwardly transposed to the big screen, Skyping guests in from their bedrooms and basements—Wael Eskandar, a blogger and journalist, appeared in a Trainspotting t-shirt and iPod earbuds—who often talk over each other and jostle for screen time. Guests are beamed in from their offices surrounded by stacks of books, as if stumbling upon academics in their natural habitats. On all shows the hosts are committed to letting people talk instead of interrupting them, which sometimes has the unintended effect of being boring. One scientist rambled for so long about Fukushima and radioactive isotopes and bluefin tuna that the anchor had to cut him off with “I think your answer is that it’s complicated.”

The overall message is clear: that this is an open and democratic forum, a place for guests to freely express complicated and wide-ranging views rather than have them crammed into ideological categories. Of course, in its own sly way, Al Jazeera pushes its politics with the same insistence as Fox or MSNBC, if not with nearly the same theatrics; an undercurrent of Bush-era exasperation with American blinkeredness still runs through every report from the Middle East. And it's strange to see #pray4Egypt flashing on the bottom of the screen, a subtle bit of community-building that makes audience participation seem more ideological than ever. But Al Jazeera’s coverage is fueled by a placid faith in the reasonableness of its position rather than a knee-jerk ideological defensiveness.

Yet there is a different kind of defensiveness at play: the nagging sense of its own responsibility to return the news to its role as a public trust. If Al Jazeera English’s angle is a cool-headed internationalism, Al Jazeera America’s is a harsher iconoclasm, the strain of trying to distinguish itself amid the cable news fray that was never apparent when the programming was merely streaming into American homes online. Its developing-world populism and new-media scrappiness sit strangely with its new stiff-backed fourth estatism—all these familiar old-school anchors at their glossy desks, fumbling through Skype chats and proclaiming their commitment to a bygone journalistic model of impartiality. When anchor Joie Chen asks a guest in a segment about Egypt, "With pressure on the media, are we getting the full picture?" it seems less like a pointed question than another rebuke of the TV news landscape. It may be a different angle than is typical on cable news, but it is an angle nonetheless: the insistent rejection of precedent becomes its own kind of spin. 

Follow @lbennett.