Global Viewpoint

Prof. Nancy Benson discusses Al-Jazeera's entrance to the U.S.

8/19/2013  8:00 am

The Middle East-based news network that many Americans have loved to hate is starting its own U.S.-based news channel. Al Jazeera America is scheduled to begin operations on Aug. 20, with bureaus in a dozen U.S. cities and experienced American journalists filling much of the staff. Why here and why now? And should people watch? Illinois journalism professor Nancy Benson has traveled the world training reporters in other countries and leading U. of I. students on foreign reporting trips. (One of her former students is the Chicago correspondent for the new channel.) She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Many Americans may have trouble getting past the anti-American label that Al Jazeera got tagged with more than a decade ago. Was that perception ever fair? And what should we know about the network beyond the controversy?

I think that perception stems from the fact that Al Jazeera was introduced to the American public at a time when the United States was still reeling from the effects of 9/11 and many U.S. media left the public with the impression that all Muslims were radical and wanted to harm Americans. Al Jazeera was also the target of the Bush administration after it broadcast tapes made by Osama bin Laden at the height of the U.S. war on terror.

Americans should also know that Al Jazeera has also been the target of Muslim leaders in countries where citizens demonstrated for democratic reforms during the Arab Spring. Some of those government leaders accused Al Jazeera of fomenting the call for change.

But, Al Jazeera is not the channel we will see in the United States. Al Jazeera America (AJAM) is newly created for the U.S. audience, staffed by mostly American journalists and news managers. While it might broadcast international stories from its bureaus around the world, the focus seems to be reporting on American issues for an American audience, in a way that is not currently done by other broadcast outlets. If AJAM adheres to the fundamentals of good fact-based in-depth journalism, as promised, that will benefit the American public.

What’s motivating a Qatar-based news network to pour resources into starting a new U.S. news channel?

I can’t say for certain. I can only report that Al Jazeera says it wants to be a global player in the news and information business. To do that it needs to tap into the audience in the United States, both as subjects and viewers of the news Al Jazeera America will produce.

Some skeptics have questioned how Al Jazeera America can find an audience and make money producing in-depth and investigative news, as it’s promising to do. What are its chances?

Al Jazeera America has put together an impressive stable of seasoned, award-winning investigative reporters. If it follows through on the promise of in-depth and investigative reporting from all parts of the United States, it will be doing what no other cable network is doing right now and would fill a void in the information marketplace.

It has the deep financial pockets to make that happen. But AJAM needs to negotiate deals with cable and satellite companies across the country to carry the channel, and even then, with so many channel choices, it will still need to convince consumers to tune in.

As Midwesterners, we’re used to a national news bias heavily skewed toward the East and West coasts. So it’s hard not to notice that half of the new channel’s bureaus are in the U.S. interior – Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Nashville and New Orleans. Is it possible that Al Jazeera America could cover the country better than U.S. networks?

That is definitely possible, and it would be great for journalism and the public. If you track it closely, you’ll observe that most of the news out of the Midwest centers on natural disasters like droughts, floods and tornadoes, or quirky characters who build unusual things in their backyards or basements.

There is a need for deep reporting on issues important to the Midwest that might also have impact elsewhere. Major media companies have very limited time in their nightly newscasts, and have cut back on their news staffs. Cable companies have learned that political talk shows are profitable. So much that happens in the Midwest is virtually ignored right now.