Al Jazeera English’s Future in the United States

The Arab Media & Society Journal recently published a study conducted by William Youmans and Katie Brown, which surveys the perception of Al Jazeera English amongst the American audiences.They found that that “[despite]  filling a gap in the global market for televised international news, AJE did not receive a welcome reception in the United States” and that this lack in reception “persisted until the early 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, when AJE’s coverage was acclaimed even by Western media giants” and also increased by 2500% of which 60% was coming from the United States. With its relentless and uncompromising coverage, AJE set it self apart from other global competitors, even drawing praise from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who heralded the outlet as “real news”:

“Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.” – Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State

The American discourse surrounding AJE was also found to be, albeit unsurprisingly, completely polarizing. Since Rumsfeld’s notorious characterization of Al Jazeera (Arabic) as ‘liars’ and the ensuing political and US MSM attacks against the Arabic channel and, by extension, English, the network as a whole has been attributed as being a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda, as anti-Semitic, and as overly sympathetic to, and thus grossly biased in favour of,  the Muslim and Arab worlds; a discourse which was captured well in the 2004 documentary Control Room that looked specifically at backlash against AJ following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  AJE has been conflated time and time against with its Arabic sister, from which it is markedly different.

Yet, negative reception towards AJE cannot simply be attributed to the negative coverage and characterization of its Arabic counterpart and coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, alone. Recent events in the Middle East have lent to the shifting of this discourse, as the demand for AJE’s availability in the United States has gained considerable ground both from American supporters and the network itself. Yet, some major obstacles remain that are beyond tangible discourse, finding a deeper abode that may serve to be the greatest challenge to AJE’s presence in the United States.

Youmans and Brown point to the striking, but again perhaps unsurprising, correlation between the lack of a welcoming reception of AJE by Americans to rising anti-Arab American sentiments. According to Youmans and Brown “as Arab-American prejudice increases, evaluated trustworthiness and intention to watch AJE decreases while AJE bias ratings and opposition to AJE cable carriage increase (Brown, Youmans pg. 11).  And political ideology also plays an integral role, with the findings showing that “as conservatism increases, reported trustworthiness of AJE and intention to watch AJE decrease, while opposition to cable carriage increases” (Brown, Youmans pg. 12). In its concluding discussions, the study states:

Ninety-eight percent of participants had little or no exposure to the news channel, yet generally find it untrustworthy and are uninterested in watching, even after exposure to a clip that is credible enough to boost CNNI [CNN International] evaluations when ascribed to that network. This does not bode well for the prospects of AJE gaining a broad audience in the United States, while CNNI’s better evaluations likely resulted from the goodwill of CNNI’s brand. This study indicates that AJE faces a long road if it hopes to overcome the negative associations its brand suffered in the years of the George W. Bush administration. Since the Arab-American prejudice score and self-identified conservatism significantly correlate with negative evaluations of the network, and each other, it seems the roots of AJE prejudice run deep.

Brown and Youmans further discuss their findings as well as resulting extrapolations in a recently published article for the Nieman Journalism Lab, entitled: The Power of Brand to Inspire Bias: How to Perceptions of Al Jazeera English Change Once the Logo’s Gone?.  The future for AJE in the United States looks grim, as Brown and Youmans write:

But even absent public opposition, there would still be doubts about the commercial feasibility of another news network. Cable companies can point to declining news audiences and the supposed lack of American public interest in international news, arguing that the TV news market has reached a saturation point. These, along with the fear of backlash, only creates further reluctance in an already risk averse industry. The preferences of those in favor of AJE’s availability, around one-third of our respondents, are overridden by this outcome. The power of cable as a gatekeeper prevents AJE from participating in the open competition of ideas so important to American free press values.

The obstacles for AJE are multifold:  a collective and holistic ignorance regarding the network; conservative political ideology and the ensuing incendiary public discourse in the MSM and, perhaps most importantly and most debilitating, the overarching and deep issue of discrimination against Arabs. These are significant obstacles that AJE will have to overcome to achieve the goal of being picked up by cable providers in the United States.

Brown and Youmans, however, don’t lose hope on AJE’s presence and influence on Americans. In their Nieman Lab article, they conclude:

AJE’s best chance for getting around cable gatekeepers is by continuing to develop new, mostly online, distribution channels. Survey research from Pew suggests that while TV news viewing since 1996 has been relatively stable, online news consumption since 2006 has been on the rise.

AJE’s provision of video clips and online livestreaming via its website and YouTube, where it is currently the third most watched news and politics channel, enhanced its accessibility tremendously. Google, to the extent it is increasingly becoming a media company, has been hospitable to AJE.

Thus the future of AJE relies primarily on the shifting character and future of journalism itself. Greater accessibility to AJE, through the avenues mentioned by Brown and Youmans, could work to the network’s greater advantage and assist in providing a counter-narrative challenge to the pervasive conservative narrative as well as work within the counter-discourse to anti-Arab and, through association, Islamophobic sentiments seemingly on the rise in the United States.

Whatever the result, here’s  to guaranteed continued camera coverage of Ayman Mohyeldin’s face.

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