The imminent closure of the Al Jazeera America news channel this April, as well as the shuttering of the digital operation today, demands celebration, reflection, and humility.
We should celebrate Al Jazeera’s overall performance because it is the only example of an Arab or Third World organization that has taken on the Western world on its own turf, and won. Al Jazeera television in Arabic and English is the most — perhaps the only — significant example of genuine “decolonization” in which Third World operations have matched and even bested their older counterparts in the West.
We should reflect on why Al Jazeera has succeeded in different realms, and why the Arabic service has lost some viewers in recent years — though it remains the single most watched television service among the Arab region’s 370 million citizens.
We should also be humble as we watch the lights go out now on Al Jazeera America, nearly three years after it launched in 2013. The decision to enter the American market was one of the great gaffes in global broadcast history, probably reflecting an exaggerated sense of invincibility that followed the network’s successes in other domains.
Secrets to success
The American service’s digital operation was much more successful than the television channel. It attracted large and loyal audiences who appreciated its progressive coverage of social and economic issues, and of segments of the population that mainstream media rarely touched. These points — which also partly explain why its worldwide Arabic- and English-language networks have developed large audiences — offer lessons for Al Jazeera’s future plans.
First, successful broadcasters must know their audience, and offer it substantive fare. Al Jazeera Arabic television was an instant hit two decades ago because it deeply and daily fed the Arab public’s copious appetite for genuine news and views — nothing spectacular or flashy, no rock stars necessarily, just a daily menu of accurate, timely reports about what actually is happening in the world today, along with a variety of different analyses and opinions about those events. Al Jazeera became the most watched Arab television service simply because it told the truth, while official broadcasters and state-sanctioned private media often lied or told only part of the truth.
Second, Al Jazeera was digital decolonization at its best. It offered world news and views that could match and often beat the competition that was mostly from the West, including BBC, CNN, Sky, Fox and others. It smashed the previous chokehold that Western news media enjoyed over the world’s mainstream television and radio broadcasters. It did this so well that many major governments decided they had to start their own Arabic-language television services to try and counter it, which they never could. The U.S.-based Al-Hurra network and Sawa radio, France 24, BBC and Sky news Arabic and several others generated small followings, while many Arab countries launched their own competitors. Only the Saudi-financed Al Arabiya television got anywhere close to Al Jazeera’s market dominance, but none equaled it.
I have followed Al Jazeera television’s non-stop development for the past 20 years, since its birth with the Arabic language network in 1996 and the English television service in 2006. Rarely has a day gone by in those two rollicking decades that I did not interact with one of its many services in Arabic and English, on the Web, radio and satellite television. This is because it reported the news professionally, treated its audience respectfully, and covered not just Western or Arab news, but global news.
After watching Al Jazeera’s news segments, we feel that we are more informed about our world, and perhaps more linked to its entirety through a better appreciation for our shared humanity.
Its first managers, professionals who often learned their trade at leading Western broadcasters such as the BBC, insisted on reporting the news dispassionately to the greatest extent possible. During the Iraq wars they covered an American general’s news conference live, then they gave views from Arabs and others on the ground in Iraq whom the Americans had just bombed. They interviewed Israeli politicians, and Arabs whose lands were colonized by those same politicians. They did not invent the idea of covering all sides of a story. They were just the first Arab-owned news service to do this seriously and consistently, and to break the Middle East’s half-century-old legacy of state-controlled official and private media that only gave state-approved news and views.
They also took advantage of fortuitous timing, entering service at a time when it was technologically possible to broadcast to homes not only across the entire Arab world, but most of the rest of the globe as well. They capitalized on their dynamic live coverage of big events during wars in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, and their lively studio debates that both challenged and reflected mainstream Arab thinking.
The Arab uprisings that started in late December 2010 in Tunisia and rolled across North Africa and the Middle East probably helped them reach their largest audiences — the exact number is not known, but must have neared 70 million at its peak with the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in February 2011.
A shift in viewing habits
That coverage also saw the start of an audience shift, as some viewers, myself included, grumbled when Aljazeera Arabic television showed too much enthusiasm for the downfall of the regime and the subsequent victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian elections. We loved and depended on Al Jazeera, because we always knew we could rely on it to give us the news quickly, comprehensively and usually live, with an unmatched combination of news, analysis and lively opinions. I did not appreciate its increasingly obvious bias for or against any political actor, because that meant we probably could not fully depend on the accuracy or veracity of its news coverage. For its part, Al Jazeera English appears to have largely avoided the Arabic station’s penchant for emotional and political leanings.
Al Jazeera America television probably did not generate a sizable viewership because it never quite mastered what its audience wanted from television, which largely seems to be entertainment rather than serious coverage of public affairs. Its timing was also problematic, as it entered a very crowded cable news universe with already small and segmented audiences. The American operation’s website saw greater success, because it offered something unique that responded to the emotional and political sentiments of many followers in a way the television operation did not.
I still turn to Al Jazeera in Arabic and English every evening, and check in once a day on their English website, if even for just the headlines. In the past two years I have also checked the Al Jazeera America opinion section of the website, to better understand the grievances of those in the U.S. and the world whose worlds and sentiments were not well reported otherwise.
But nowadays I also scan half a dozen other news channels to be sure I have not missed an important piece of news or slant of opinion. Al Jazeera television’s coverage from the entire world is also extraordinary for regularly providing spot news and features from far corners of the globe. One of their great contributions has been to air short news features on issues we might never go looking for on our own: local fishermen’s problems in Cambodia, environmental challenges in Madagascar, novel health promotion strategies in rural India, the survival strategies of the urban poor in South America or Chicago. Yet after watching these well-produced segments, we feel as if we are more informed about our world, and perhaps more linked to its entirety through a better appreciation for our shared humanity.
As the Al Jazeera America operation shuts down in the 20th year of the history of all Al Jazeera services, it is worth recalling that three of its four branches — the Arabic and English global services and its online website — have been successful. That’s 3 for 4 — batting .750 — which in the world of news, as in baseball, is pretty impressive.