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What Did Al Jazeera Do?

Amid diplomatic tensions, a great, troubled experiment in news faces pressure to close.

Stan Honda / Getty Images

Last month, Saudi leaders took the dramatic step of leading a coalition of Gulf states to cut ties with Qatar, accusing the tiny emirate of supporting regional terrorist groups. Qatar has long had antagonistic relations with Saudi Arabia, but this marks the most severe confrontation in over three decades. Given that Qatar is critical to stability in the Gulf—and is home to a major U.S. airbase—it is of international interest to find a speedy solution to this brewing regional crisis. Among the concessions being considered, according to the Washington Post, is to shut down Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state-funded news outlet.

Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $29.95

If people outside the Gulf are familiar with Qatar, it’s likely because of Al Jazeera, which has been the emirate’s most visible export for more than two decades. Positioned between Iran and Saudi Arabia—“like a mouse sharing a cage with two rattlesnakes,” as journalist Hugh Miles put it in his excellent 2005 book on the network—Qatar was little more than an isolated desert outpost until the late 1930s, when it discovered troves of natural gas second in size only to Russia’s. Now one of the richest countries in the world, its population has more than tripled in the past fifteen years, though just under twelve percent of its 2.3 million residents are Qataris, the rest being migrant laborers. Since 1995, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani seized control of the country from his father, Qatar has sought to assert its independence from pushy neighbors through Western-style educational initiatives, and human rights and business reforms, all touched in some way by the Emir’s combative style. The goal, according to Miles, was to become “an Arab version of Switzerland: rich, neutral, and secure.”

Launching a credible, Arab-language news network that was neither foreign-run nor a government mouthpiece was central to this plan, though critics are always quick to note that editorial independence is suspect when the Emir is signing the checks. Al Jazeera was formed in 1996 from the remnants of a failed BBC-Saudi endeavor to start an Arabic-language news channel. When Saudi censorship proved unacceptable to the Brits, the Qataris swooped in, hiring 120 laid off BBC journalists and broadcasters, staffing up with locals, and giving the network what was intended to be a one-time loan of $137 million to get things going. Within two years, it was watched all across the Arab world, distinguished by its taste for controversy and its willingness to give airtime to figures who had historically been censored, including Israelis, members of Hamas, and—in a move that enraged both the Saudis and Americans—Osama bin Laden. It introduced panel-style shows to the region: one of the most popular programs featured a well-known Islamic cleric who fielded calls on “everything from extramarital sex to suicide bombing,” and incurred the wrath of conservatives by declaring that the Koran did not prohibit fellatio.

Al Jazeera was accused, respectively, of being anti-Western, pro-Israel, Islamist, pro-Iraq, anti-religious, and funded by the CIA. It was also enormously popular. By 1999, when the channel began 24-hour broadcasting, it had twelve international bureaus and employed over 500 people.

After 9/11, the network gained prestige and made an enemy out of the Bush administration by regularly broadcasting interviews with Bin Laden and footage of American airstrikes in Afghanistan, where it was initially one of the only international channels with a camera crew on the ground. When Colin Powell asked Emir al Thani during a visit to Washington if Al Jazeera could “tone down” the coverage of the Afghan war, the Emir displayed his knack for PR by making this request public. As the American public’s support for the war began to wane, the network’s credibility rose, though its revenue did not. While Al Jazeera was expected to be profitable within five years of its launch, it was hindered by Saudi and Kuwaiti pressure on advertisers, the prevalence of illegal satellite dishes in the Middle East, and the network’s tendency to provoke regional governments into blacklisting it. In 2001, Al Jazeera borrowed an additional $130 million from the Qatari government to keep the lights on, and to prepare for the launch of an English-language channel.

Al Jazeera English went live in 2006 with lofty editorial aims. As William Youmans puts it in An Unlikely Audience, his history of the network’s English-language expansion, the ambition was to “cover parts of the world to which the global news titans gave scant attention: Southwest Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and urban ghettoes in the West.” Its news agenda would range from “poverty and the plight of minority groups, to the social, cultural, and environmental costs of global capitalism and power politics.” This soft power strategy earned them little attention until 2011, when revolutions broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and Al Jazeera became the go-to channel for international viewers. AJE’s coverage of the Arab Spring was not without controversy—it was noticeably cool on the rebellion in Bahrain, a Gulf Cooperation Council ally—but its livestreaming attracted over 1.6 million American viewers to its website, and solidified the network’s reputation enough that its leaders decided to pursue their most ambitious expansion to date: entering the U.S. market.

From beginning to end, Al Jazeera America (AJAM) lasted little more than three years and was known to cost at least $2 billion, the majority going to expensive real estate and TV distribution deals that never managed to push the channel above a dismal average of 30,000 viewers a day. Along the way, it provoked a raft of lawsuits, highlighting the tensions between Qatari managerial culture and that of the left-leaning American newsroom, and provided a cautionary tale about pursuing old-school TV news in the age of the Internet.

It also produced some excellent journalism, taking a page from AJE’s mission to serve as the voice of the “global south” while also focusing on underrepresented groups in the U.S. After a series of scandals and personnel shuffles, everything came to an abrupt end one morning in early 2016. At that point, ratings were still in the toilet, oil prices were plummeting, and rumor had it that the new Emir preferred spending his money on thoroughbred racehorses. Staff members were notified of their impending unemployment in a grim all-hands meeting in the ballroom of Manhattan’s New Yorker hotel, the Moonie-owned building where the TV network had been leasing space until construction was completed on the 55th Street headquarters. Getting out of the 55th Street lease alone cost Qatar about $45 million, and this financial hit was deepened by severance and health care payouts for around 900 employees, as well as settling the remaining lawsuits, of which there were more than a few.

I had joined the network a year earlier as a features editor on Al Jazeera America’s website, which was based downtown on Hudson Street in a large, airy office directly above the New York Review of Books. It was a collegial newsroom with a dedicated and talented staff of around 50, who, lacking direction from the higher-ups, decided to do good work on their own. I was told that the CEO, a former management consultant with no newsroom experience, once remarked that he enjoyed reading the Economist. This was the most I heard about editorial guidance.

By the time I got there, much of the early optimism had waned, and my colleagues would refer darkly to the arbitrary machinations of Doha (the Qatari capital) or the employees who had left for greener pastures. Many had been lured from prestigious and progressive publications with the promise of creating the news network they wanted to work for, only to be disappointed by an arcane bureaucracy whose mandates arrived in cryptic bilingual emails. (Our internal newsletter was called Tawasul, which can be translated as “a position of power due to one’s proximity to the king.”) Reporters and editors were in the early stages of unionizing, and I awkwardly interrupted many furtive conversations in the hallway before figuring out what was going on. Despite the mood, there were perks. My team had no budget constraints (nor an actual budget), editors were encouraged to pursue substantive stories, and we were overseen by a boss who quoted Gramsci at staff meetings. Uptown, at the 34th street TV headquarters, the stakes were higher and the turmoil heavier.

In An Unlikely Audience, Youmans, an assistant professor of media at George Washington University, offers a forensic account of why the endeavor tanked, contrasting the failure of AJAM’s TV station with that of AJ+, the network’s digital media channel, which has prospered as a producer of youth-oriented viral news videos. (AJAM’s website gets almost no consideration, which more or less reflects how it was treated by management.) Unless you are a serious Al Jazeera Kremlinologist, this book is not for a general audience. It makes frequent use of terms like “glocalization” and approaches its subject through the concept of “port of entry,” which, as far as I can tell, is the notion that companies are shaped by the places they choose to set up shop. Still, Youmans’s research is impressive, and it is to his detriment that “clusterfuck” is not part of the accepted vocabulary of media studies.

There are few late-breaking surprises in AJAM’s story—the network’s problems were evident from the beginning. AJAM came into existence on January 2, 2013, when Doha announced that it had purchased Al Gore’s Current TV network for half a billion dollars. For Al Jazeera, the deal meant readymade bureaus in New York and San Francisco (the latter would become the laboratory for AJ+) and access to sixty million viewers, in other words, an instant foothold in the American market. For Al Gore, the deal was a golden parachute out of a rapidly failing business endeavor, as TV was quickly losing ground to Internet streaming services, and cable companies were attempting to ward off the threat by packaging together even more channels, effectively watering down the offerings. The golden days of TV news were over, and Doha had not yet gotten the message.

The Current TV arrangement was followed by months of lawsuits and infighting with skittish cable companies, which resulted in concessions such as the agreement that no TV content could be featured online—effectively partitioning AJAM’s channel and website. Doha also turned a blind eye to the company’s negative associations in the U.S. Though Al Jazeera had been fondly nicknamed the “terror network” by the Bush administration, company officials refused to tweak the name or logo to assuage its stateside audience. This obstinacy likely had the effect of alienating (and inflaming) potential viewers. While sitting in a park several weeks ago reading An Unlikely Audience, a man noticed the cover and started opining on Al Jazeera’s strategy of exporting extremist ideology. When pressed, he confessed that he had confused the network with Al Qaeda.

The network went live eight months and 900 new hires after January 2, and did so without much of a plan, or a sense of how it was expected to interact with existing Al Jazeera structures. While AJ+ benefitted from the sandbox-experimentation culture of San Francisco (and a ten-hour time difference with Qatar), AJAM was hidebound by the sober traditionalism of TV newscasting, which was becoming more outdated by the day, and a vexed relationship with Doha. Though HQ was hands-off at first, problems arose when editorial agendas began clashing with AJE, and as seasoned American producers found themselves having a hard time adjusting to the perspective of their new employer.

The best parts of An Unlikely Audience capture these problems succinctly: Youmans recounts a conversation in which a producer tells him that the network would not know whether to lead with “a report of a massive attack that leaves many casualties in Syria or a Texas shooting that kills three Americans,” suggesting that contrary to AJE journalists, “those trained in U.S. news organizations appeared conditioned to think ‘American lives are more important.’” Similarly, while many Western news organizations promoted the perspective of the home country, Al Jazeera took a more decentered approach, encouraging correspondents to present the viewpoint of wherever they were reporting from.

The most interesting wrinkle behind all these problems, however, was that Al Jazeera did not need to be profitable. The network, like the BBC, is more of “a state, public broadcaster than a private, commercial, profit-maximizing company,” meaning that it could theoretically exist off the largesse of the Emir. While it claimed to aspire to financial independence, Doha defined success in terms of influence, rather than profit, and exerted minimal effort in finding advertisers. Unlike other U.S. networks, which would commonly dedicate fifteen-to-seventeen minutes of ad time per hour, AJAM sold just six. This put it in the strangely luxurious position of “being uncompromising in journalism… to the point of being anti-commercial,” which, in turn, made it less relevant to viewers and less appealing to cable companies seeking to bring in large audiences. (Only in America does the lack of a profit motive raise suspicion.) Over time, problems escalated. Nasty lawsuits emerged in which top network officials were accused of anti-Semitism, discrimination and sexism. High-level female employees began resigning en masse. By 2015, big changes were in order.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all dysfunctional companies are dysfunctional in their own way. (To wit: the “Al Jazeera controversies” Wikipedia page is thousands of words long and subdivided into fourteen different country sections.) In New York, things took a noticeable turn for the worse in the fall of 2015, several months after Doha sacked the Jordanian former-management-consultant and replaced him with a prosaic Brit with TV-anchor hair. In a last-ditch effort to consolidate the network, the new CEO announced plans to move website employees to the 34th Street office, a maneuver that required desk-sharing and seating journalists in the hotel basement and uncomfortably close to the bathrooms, as there was no extra space. Following a complaint to the health department, about a dozen employees (myself included) were left in the Hudson Street offices pending the results of an asbestos and bedbugs investigation, which was where we stayed until everything folded. The last several months of Al Jazeera America saw a slow parade of scandals.

In November, the New York Times revealed that Al Jazeera’s general counsel, the former president of Def Jam Recordings, had been practicing law without a license. He vanished soon thereafter, though reportedly remained on the payroll. Several weeks later, The Intercept reported that Doha had geo-blocked an op-ed by a Georgetown University law professor condemning Saudi Arabia’s plans to execute more than 50 alleged terrorists on a single day. (The piece was later reinstated, and it is worth mentioning that Doha never explicitly prohibited journalists from covering particular issues, though self-censorship was certainly a factor.)

The coup de grace came two days after Christmas, when Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit—a six-person team headed by an American ex-marine known for promoting the controversial theory that Yasser Arafat was poisoned with radioactive polonium—released a documentary accusing more than half a dozen professional athletes, including NFL star Peyton Manning, of illegal doping. The story relied on a single source, a former intern at an Indianapolis clinic, caught bragging on a hidden-camera recording. He denied everything in a YouTube video the day before the story was published. Several of the athletes sued, the piece was widely panned, and AJAM, which had been suddenly instructed to run the story, incurred the wrath of media critics and the general public. Seven months later, the NFL cleared Manning of all doping charges and the quarterback went on to lead the Broncos to a Superbowl victory. By then, Al Jazeera America had been off the air for three months, and most former employees were looking for work.

The tragicomic story of Al Jazeera America would be more amusing if it weren’t for all the good journalism it produced. As major networks were competing over access to celebrities and exclusive quotes from politicians, the website routinely covered issues of domestic poverty and inequality, racism and environmental injustice; it sent reporters all over the world to dig into underreported subjects, and spent thousands on lavish multimedia projects and images from world-class photographers. This was at times admittedly anti-commercial, but nobody else was running front page pieces on the elections in Burundi or the refugee crises in Myanmar. We won awards for our coverage of Native Americans, which was a standalone beat, and ran story after story on the riots in Ferguson and the effects of coal mining in West Virginia.

There wasn’t, and isn’t, any American news outlet like it. While the organization was conceived to further Qatari influence, in New York it was an earnest leftist agenda that emerged, propelled by the impulse to cover issues routinely overlooked by profit-driven outlets. Should Qatar concede to shut down Al Jazeera, it will be abandoning many headaches and a long legacy of poor choices, but also this tradition, which is worth preserving and honing as international media outlets struggle to find their footing. That DNA still exists in AJ+ and AJE. As for the AJAM TV channel, I can’t say. I never watched it.