Tools of the Sheikh

By John Michaelson, January 4, 2013

al jazeera english 640x480 Tools of the Sheikh

Much is being made of Al-Jazeera’s purchase of Al Gore’s television channel, Current TV. Current TV was created by Gore and businessman friend Joel Hyatt. The channel was unabashedly progressive and specifically aimed at a young market. Though it was intended to revolutionize television, Current TV not only failed to change television, but it also failed to make much money. Current TV was, simply put, unpopular. There was nothing that it provided that other channels didn’t do better. Its intended progressive market niche was already occupied by MSNBC and Jon Stewart. In the last several years it has transformed from a sort of rotisserie news network to one featuring original programming to one featuring television simulcasts of popular radio shows. These format changes alienated an already small audience and failed to gain them any additional viewers.

Current TV does not have many viewers and it doesn’t make much money. So why is Al-Jazeera buying it?

At first glance, Current TV does have one asset: access. Its cable partners broadcast Current TV into sixty million households. Right now, Al-Jazeera only reaches 4.7 million households. For Al-Jazeera this is an opportunity to reach beyond Washington D.C. and New York City and into “middle America.” There is a catch, however. Time-Warner Cable, the second largest television provider in the United States, is determined to dump Current TV even though it is being remade into Al-Jazeera America. Even though this will significantly cut into Al-Jazeera America’s potential reach, it’s still a huge step up in exposure for the Qatar-based television network.

Bully for Al-Jazeera, bad for the U.S.

Al-Jazeera promotes itself as an earnest and honest news network that provides a different perspective: instead of Westerners reporting on the Middle East, it is Arabs reporting on events in their region. Let us not be fooled, though. While a claim might be made that Western news outlets like CNN or SkyNews are biased, they are beholden to a huge number of sponsors, cable outlets, and television viewers. They simply cannot afford to be a propaganda organ. Al-Jazeera has no such restriction.

Al-Jazeera is responsible to one person only: the Emir of Qatar. There are no restrictions on the Emir’s power. His government (such as it is) is highly personalized and idiosyncratic (the Emir’s cousin runs Al-Jazeera). He is also extraordinarily wealthy. Al-Jazeera cannot survive without his patronage, much less expand and thrive. Al-Jazeera and all of its employees have every reason to toe the Emir’s line. This means suppressing news that casts Qatar in a bad light. This means always taking the Palestinian side, even when Israel is clearly in the right. It means misrepresenting the Arab Spring so as not to undermine the Emir’s absolute power. It means ignoring the very real existence of slavery in the country. How can anyone expect a news organization to be reliable or honest when it is essentially a propaganda service for a despot?

Current TV– which aimed to be a transformative news network for a new generation– is shutting its doors and being replaced by a Qatari propaganda organ. And what do the former owners of Current TV get out of this? Money. Current TV barely made a profit and was never able to leverage its viewership into a successful IPO. For Al-Jazeera, Current TV fills a need that makes the investment worthwhile. And finally, after years of struggling, Current TV’s original investors are finally seeing a payoff. It’s just too bad that they are selling out their purported values at the same time.

John Michaelson

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