Ehab Al Shihabi looks at the legacy, and the void left behind by the closing of Al Jazeera America.
This article was originally published at medium.com
Al Jazeera America has closed but I am proud that the station’s exceptional staff made a powerful impression on the American media landscape through their impact journalism.
The station drew strong praise in the United States and around the world. The Nation called Al Jazeera America’s work “extraordinary,” praising it effusively even as it closed on Tuesday evening after a three-year run.
Likening its quality to the BBC, The Nation wrote that Al Jazeera America produced “some of the best fact-based, socially liberal TV reporting in the United States in recent years.”
Al Jazeera America said in January it would stop broadcasting in April because “our business model is simply not sustainable.” Still, staff should feel proud that Al Jazeera now has a reputation in the United States of a respected maker of unbiased, provocative, hard-hitting news. They also transformed the U.S. perception of Al Jazeera.
In its final days, the station aired a four-part documentary “The Limits of Hope: Inside Obama’s White House,” featuring interviews with President Obama and members of his inner circle — a testament of the respect for the channel even among the highest echelons of Washington’s elite.
Equal to the Best American TV
Shows including America Tonight Presents and Fault Lines were equal to the best American TV journalism. Having led the launch of the station, hired hundreds of staff, opened 12 U.S. bureaus and brokered deals with cable operators, I am proud of the achievements of the hard-working people who made all this possible. And I thank all of them for their tireless efforts.
After the closure was announced in January, The Wall Street Journal wrote, “The channel hoped to differentiate itself from other cable and broadcast news outlets by doing investigative journalism. The channel steered clear of the traffic chases, celebrity gossip and political shouting matches. Its on-air look was stripped of the graphics that fill the screens of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and other outlets. The strategy paid off in awards for its work.”
Al Jazeera America won more than 70 honors, including an International Emmy, prestigious Sigma Delta Chi awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and Peabody Awards. More acknowledgment should come once 2016 honors are handed out. The work of these remarkable journalists was available to more than 60 million American homes because the quality of their journalism impressed cable operators.
Making an Impact
To be clear, Al Jazeera America was not about chasing ratings above all else. The initial goal was producing impact journalism — telling stories that shine a light on the world’s oppressed. Impact journalism does not chase ratings by reporting on salacious celebrity gossip or by engaging in the political shouting matches that have become all too common on American cable news channels. Great impact journalism would eventually bring a loyal, growing audience.
It takes seven years to fully establish a brand in any new market and Al Jazeera made incredible strides in less than three years in the United States.
Judged on impact, Al Jazeera America was a success. For example, Al Jazeera America was among the earliest to extensively cover Flint’s poisoned water crisis. Media Matters notes that Al Jazeera covered the story extensively whereas Fox, CNN and ABC’s top news shows all ignored the Flint crisis until 2016 and CBS, NBC and PBS only covered it briefly.
By contrast, in 2015 Al Jazeera published one online article about Flint in March, followed by at least seven online articles between September 2015 and the end of the year, and also aired at least seven segments on America Tonight Presents during that period.
Impact journalism like this is important now more than ever because too many Americans have lost faith in the news media. According to Gallup, only four in 10 Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust and confidence in the media to report the news accurately and fairly. That low level of trust matches historic lows set in 2014 and 2012. Confidence in the media among Americans has dropped from a high of 55% in 1998 and 1999.
Another impact of Al Jazeera America was changing the reputation that Al Jazeera had in the United States when it launched. In August of 2013, the newspaper of the American everyman, USA Today, wrote that there was a “lingering perception that Middle East-based Al Jazeera is anti-U.S. and a mouthpiece for terrorists.” Harsh words indeed. Today, few Americans who have spent time watching Al Jazeera America’s news could retain such prejudice.
While the station has now gone dark, we should thank the staff of Al Jazeera America for giving America a taste of quality, impact journalism at a time when so much of cable news is hot air. As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
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