Scott D. Pierce: Al Jazeera is not Arab propaganda machine

First Published      Last Updated Jul 16 2014 04:54 pm

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the words Al Jazeera America?

If you think unbiased reporting from a TV news channel, you may be in the minority. If you think Middle Eastern conspiracy, you're probably a little bit … well … um … racist.

Al Jazeera is owned by the ruling family of Qatar. Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer bin Mohammed Al-Thani is the director general of the company.

But is that greatly different from when Ted Turner owned CNN? Or from Rupert Murdoch and his political agenda controlling Fox News?


Al Jazeera doesn't try to hide its ownership. If it did, it would choose a name other than Al Jazeera.

(Al Jazeera, by the way, means "the peninsula." Because Qatar is a peninsula.)

It's not as if the people at Al Jazeera America don't know what they're up against.

"We all walked in eyes open that we would have brand challenges here," said Shannon High, AJA's executive vice president for news programming and documentaries. "And I think what surprised me the most is how we're, much faster than I thought, overcoming them."

Well, not that fast. It's been a slow build; the channel's ratings are negligible. But the theory is that the work will overcome the image so many Americans seem to have of Al Jazeera America.

"We are the place to go when you want unbiased, high-quality, in-depth news," said Kate O'Brian, president of Al Jazeera America. "We're the only broadcast network to offer news in prime time, hosted by John Seigenthaler at [6 MT] every night. It's news from the around the country and around the globe and how that news affects us here in the U.S."

And, she insists, AJA does not lean in any direction politically.

"We don't want to be right-leaning or left-leaning," O'Brian said. "We don't want to be taking a position on something. We really want to tell the story of the people that the story is affecting and let the viewer decide."

Believe it or not, Al Jazeera America has lived up to that promise. The news operation somewhat resembles the early days of CNN technically — there's considerably less whiz-bang technology and a lot more simple reporting. But in an age when it's sometimes hard to find newscasts on cable news channels, AJA is filled with somewhat old-fashioned newscasts and interesting documentaries.

"I just want more people to watch it and judge for themselves," said anchorman Tony Harris, "and see, for example, what I'm doing on my 4 o'clock and my 6 o'clock newscast, take a look at my rundown in terms of the news we're covering and compare that to anything out there.

"And then we can have a conversation about that."

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.