The Tragedy of Al Jazeera America’s Demise

Ari Paul

Skep­tics said it wouldn’t last, and they were right.

Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca launched in the sum­mer of 2013, a spin-off of the Doha-based channel’s Eng­lish ver­sion to specif­i­cal­ly tar­get a Unit­ed States audi­ence. For the last decade, Al Jazeera had built what some might con­sid­er the one of the most cov­et­ed of jour­nal­is­tic rep­u­ta­tions: It was con­sid­ered anti-Amer­i­can and anti-Zion­ist in the US, while Arab gov­ern­ments saw its sto­ries as pure West­ern pro­pa­gan­da. By the time of the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera Eng­lish became indis­pens­able for any­one in the Unit­ed States who want­ed to know what was going on.

Hav­ing poached Eng­lish lan­guage tal­ent from oth­er news providers, Al Jazeera’s Eng­lish-lan­guage ser­vice could no longer be ignored in North Amer­i­ca. In a mar­ket where tele­vi­sion news is sat­u­rat­ed with scream­ing pun­dits and web­sites that spend more time on aggre­ga­tion and the click-hun­gry hot takes, a new chan­nel ded­i­cat­ed to cov­er­ing US issues and the world with a cold and seri­ous eye seemed like a wor­thy gamble.

On Jan­u­ary 13, the world learned that Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca would soon close. And while some employ­ees could migrate into the network’s expand­ed dig­i­tal oper­a­tions, many will spend the com­ing days and weeks look­ing for new work.

The news comes as Al Jazeera’s pri­ma­ry patron, the Qatari gov­ern­ment, enters a finan­cial down­turn; it will have its first bud­get deficit in 15 years. AJAM always strug­gled with low rat­ings; as the New York Times report­ed last May, The sta­tion has been a non­fac­tor in news, draw­ing about 30,000 view­ers a night.” And while its online pres­ence has been expan­sive, that still isn’t what brings home the prover­bial bacon. Al Jazeera Eng­lish always strug­gled to get onto U.S. cable ser­vice, and so too was it dif­fi­cult for AJAM — not to men­tion that espe­cial­ly for younger view­ers, more and more news is con­sumed online rather than through tra­di­tion­al cable. Peo­ple aren’t sit­ting at home wait­ing for the night­ly news any­more — they’re get­ting their infor­ma­tion on their phones through­out the day.

All news orga­ni­za­tions have their insti­tu­tion­al prob­lems, their insuf­fer­able office pol­i­tics where reporters have to bat­tle favoritism and pet­ty bean coun­ters, and accord­ing to many who work there and who worked there in the past, Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca was no dif­fer­ent. There’s no sense lament­ing it as some angel­ic insti­tu­tion that couldn’t hack it a sep­tic Amer­i­can media market.

But if AJAM gave us one thing in its brief life in the Unit­ed States, it was a ded­i­ca­tion to cov­er­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and the grow­ing oppo­si­tion to it in the wake of Occu­py Wall Street. It seems con­tra­dic­to­ry that a news orga­ni­za­tion made pos­si­ble almost entire­ly by a petrol monar­chy would be the go-to source for eco­nom­ic pro­gres­sives, but its edi­tors, espe­cial­ly opin­ion edi­tor David John­son (for­mer­ly of the Boston Review), focused almost laser-like on a mis­sion to pro­mote sto­ries about the widen­ing wealth gap in the Unit­ed States and the monop­o­lis­tic grip Amer­i­can tycoons had on polit­i­cal power.

This gave it the abil­i­ty to lift voic­es large and small, from for­mer New York Times reporter David Cay John­ston and econ­o­mist Dean Bak­er to labor reporters like Ned Resnikoff, who came from MSNBC, and Paul Abowd, an asso­ciate pro­duc­er at AJAM’s show Fault Lines, who got his start at Labor Notes, the scrap­py rad­i­cal jour­nal that reports from the per­spec­tive of rank-and-file work­ers demand­ing more mil­i­tan­cy and democ­ra­cy in their unions. Yours tru­ly has been a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor; in fact, my last arti­cle, about a Supreme Court case affect­ing pub­lic sec­tor unions, was pub­lished the day before news of the channel’s demise was announced. In a media-scape where its still dif­fi­cult to men­tion class con­scious­ness, this was indeed a rad­i­cal development.

It’s easy to dis­miss that by say­ing not many Amer­i­cans out­side of edu­cat­ed, world­ly cir­cles in big cities and uni­ver­si­ty towns tuned in. But it’s not that sim­ple. Al Jazeera America’s pres­ence nev­er went unno­ticed by oth­er news orga­ni­za­tions like MSNBC or even the New York Times, eager to expand its dig­i­tal pres­ence, giv­ing AJAM com­pet­i­tive influ­ence in the Amer­i­can media world. More than that, it pro­vid­ed real jobs for jour­nal­ists with class con­scious­ness and a crit­i­cal eye when it came to US for­eign pol­i­cy. A decade ago, many of these writ­ers would have real job options. Now, in a world where even the ven­er­a­ble McClatchy fam­i­ly of news­pa­pers is shut­ter­ing its for­eign bureaus, hope seems far off.

The fall is also a major set­back for media unions in what has been wide­ly seen as their renais­sance in the dig­i­tal age. The News­Guild of New York, a Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca affil­i­ate, orga­nized the shop last year, which along with new bar­gain­ing units at Salon and Gawk­er seemed to show that media unions were grow­ing with the chang­ing land­scape. Alas, one of the Guild’s land­mark shops will close down before it even had the chance to set­tle a con­tract. That also means the union means lit­tle to those fac­ing lay­offs. The union gave few specifics of what it could do for those fac­ing unem­ploy­ment, oth­er than that it will vig­or­ous­ly advo­cate for them in the com­ing months.”

Per­haps there’s a lit­tle bit of hope that Amer­i­can news con­sumers will have more access to the dig­i­tal out­put of Al Jazeera Eng­lish, which also has many tal­ent­ed jour­nal­ists. But, again, it will feel a bit more like an import­ed prod­uct, a ser­vice pro­duced over­seas because we Amer­i­cans can’t cre­ate some­thing sophis­ti­cat­ed as that on our own.

In a sense, that’s what made Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca so spe­cial. It was Amer­i­can. And that will be missed, because it was so necessary.

This post first appeared at FAIR​.org.

Ari Paul has cov­ered pol­i­tics for The Nation, Vice, The Guardian, Dis­sent, Jacobin, Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca and many oth­er outlets.
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