In the first few hours of its debut Tuesday, the new Al Jazeera America news channel proved to be what you might expect in a new mainstream news channel. It was accurate, responsible and technically polished. The question is: Is that enough?
The odds against the channel are so formidable – more than half of American cable and satellite homes dont even receive it – that Al Jazeera America might need more than the just-the-facts reporting that it aired in its debut. AJA might be testing the proposition that the straight-up presentation of the news can succeed in a crowded media landscape.
Its also testing whether Americans will embrace anything called Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera America is the fully Americanized version of Al Jazeera English, the English-language version of the pan-Arabic satellite channel that revolutionized news reporting in the Mideast starting in 1996.
AJA faces what might be called a perception issue but should be called a prejudice issue. Among some Americans, the name Al Jazeera is associated with Osama bin Ladens videotaped threats and anti-Americanism generally. More recently, the parent network has been harshly criticized for its allegedly biased coverage in support of ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi and his organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.
AJA spent its first hour Tuesday subtly addressing this elephant in its control room. It aired promos featuring its anchors and reporters, but also interviews with Americans attesting that the arrival of AJA was welcome because the American news media werent always so fair, either.
AJAs initial news broadcast featured a conventional rundown of stories – turmoil in Egypt, gunfire at an elementary school in Georgia, wildfires out West, a feature on the new San Francisco Bay Bridge span.
There was little flash. The lead story – team coverage of the Egypt crisis – consisted solely of talking-head reports from the White House and Cairo. The other stories also were presented without gimmickry.
The network has a handsome look. Anchors deliver the news in front of a floor-to-ceiling video wall. Names and datelines are rendered in distinctive yellow, black and white lettering.
The national cable-news marketplace is bustling, and perhaps bursting. In addition to the four leaders – Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and HLN – there are successful niche and specialty players such as ESPN, CNBC, CSPAN and Bloomberg.
In late October, ABC News and Univision will launch Fusion, an English-language news-and-entertainment network aimed at younger Hispanics. And that doesnt count foreign-based news sources trying to chip off their own sliver of American mind-share, from the BBC to Russias RTV to Chinas state-run CCTV.
Al Jazeera Americas slogan promises, Theres more to it. If it hopes to stand out in a crowded field, it knows it has to make good on that.