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Al Jazeera America Strove For Journalistic Lightness of Being, Was Darkened by Market Economics

Strive to keep it alive. Fight the good fight. May your soul evade St. Peter before he knows that you are gone. Well, maybe not the last adage, but a lot could be said of Al Jazeera America’s television network that has now gone black. I have had the time in the last week to digest its passing. Here is what could be said of the former latecomer American television news network. Indeed, the network rocked the proverbial boat by entering the realm of the American broadcasting industry in 2013.

Getting off to a good start is important in any media launch. The loss of channel placement in the transition between the Al Gore Current TV era and the sale to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network was like running a telecommunication gauntlet of sorts. The historical running of the gauntlet as a 17th century socializing ritual was a physical form of provenance for those that were subjected to it. Continued life was the only passing grade that mattered to those participants. The three years of operation that Al Jazeera America competed for ratings left it reeling by the end of its run.

It may be more of a comparison between fig nuts and strawberries, but the humble beginnings of the Indian Country Today Media Network as a regional newspaper called the Lakota Timesspurred what it would later become. Truth and consequences news reporting in Indian Country by former editor Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota) left a lasting impression on journalistic standards recognizable under any auspices. The finished news product could be appreciated by more than a minority Native North American cultural population. What typified the process was exposing smaller Native news stories to a national level.

Like an outpost on a blighted plain, this work is often solitary in nature. The retaliation against truth-seekers is par for the course. Withholding advertisements is a longtime tactic for news subjects brought under the rays of examination. The lightness of being is the heaviest of weights to keep in the air for publishers and owners under such return fire. Message driven media is synonymous with a lean and mean business plan, because of these (all-to) human tendencies.

There was no doubt that Al Jazeera America had the chops to remain true to itself. It had hired well upon its inception, drawing upon displaced broadcasting industry veterans. Some of them like Joie Chen, Ali Velshi and Soledad O’Brien had previously been built up as stars by their former network, CNN. Now 700 or so of these employees are without steady employment. Former CBS star news anchor Dan Rather raised the flag of distress this week in discussing the expensive business of hard news production, like Al Jazeera America presented. As has been adroitly stated elsewhere, success has many fathers while failure (historically) remains an orphan.

The stated intention to provide insightful news coverage was stifled when relatively few viewers tuned in to see the televised product. Gathering compelling storylines, while critical to the news vehicle, was undone by North American politics and innuendo. A continuing aspersion of Arab culture by American viewers once comfortable with Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones cinematic depictions was possibly forever molded by the events of 9/11. The high road of unfettered reporting suffers handily when the audience has already been channeled towards entertainment over in-depth information.

Al Jazeera America collected its share of outstanding journalism awards and accolades, including the Peabody and the Emmy Awards. It was just the slim viewership that was suggested at around 20,000 viewers that finally brought the network to a hard decision. And the dropping price of oil…

I found it interesting that among regional Gulf of Arabia news stories this week, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia offered to sell off American-based assets worth almost one trillion U.S. dollars, in response to continued calls to release the complete 9/11 Commission Report. It has been presumed that 28 pages of withheld information from the report implicate Saudi Arabia in the 2001 terrorist conspiracy. There were even murmurs from them to withdraw from joint military operations taking place against the Islamic State presently.

Such global political considerations rarely trickle down to the average American television viewer. The national imprinting of the Arab world after 9/11 by American military actions carried over a reluctance to embrace a rehabilitated, cooperative posture by Gulf oil states allied with America. The Arab Spring political movements notably were given widespread American media coverage as they were taking place. These news depictions however, may have further ostracized the potential viewership of Al Jazeera America as a “pro-Arab” media outlet. In any case, the average American viewer never really tuned in to the trend-breaking format, for them to ever actually have to tune out to it by the end.

Some might casually dismiss the failed business plan as unlikely to ever succeed, even under the best of market conditions. That might be a callous reading of hindsight, but the tendency of American consumers to shop in herds might actually show that Al Jazeera America never found the continuing storyline by which to brand itself.

The coverage of Native American issues by Al Jazeera America brought the television network attention where it had hardly any competition. These stories often had a gritty feel to them, and may have sometimes reflected the tenor of a bygone age, like Cold War era news coverage did. By backlighting the shrouded depths of the U.S. government’s stewardship of Indian Country today, the failures of American domestic policy were regular fare. Mainstream American viewers enjoy the occasional expose of U.S. government excesses, but the general indifference to North American history shows itself when such contemporary news coverage is more widely or regularly offered. It gets ignored.

“Make you feel bad while you watch it” video programming also has established structural limits associated with it. Take the high road and only focus on the beaming achievements of a culture is one variant, which can mention the low points without hovering over them. Or go all-out in wallowing in the poverty porn depiction and shoving the failure message down the throats of anyone still tuning in by the end of the telecast. There is not a lot of grey area between these formulas and that says a lot for any “up n comer” straight news networks in the future. The burgeoning All Nations Network associated with the Canadian news broadcaster APTN might suffer in gaining industry traction amidst this outcome.

Al Jazeera America had no control over the world demand for or the pricing of crude oil sales, which subsidized the network operations for possibly the entire three year run. Yet the stain of an empty screen that has gone black is not the end. Going forward it will live on as an online news presence, fighting the good fight once again and forever.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.