You’d think that a fledgling cable TV news channel owned by the Qatar-royal family’s Al Jazeera Media Network would be a tough sell in a deep-red state like Texas. But there was Al Jazeera America anchorman John Seigenthaler at a luncheon meeting of the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth the other day, showing the audience a clip from The Colbert Report in which the host was jokingly calling Seigenthaler and his employer part of the al-Qaeda Network. “That looks terrifying,” Stephen Colbert said to the veteran newsman, referring to the Al Jazeera logo. “That is not only Arabic; it looks like Arabic on fire! … It means, ‘The bombing starts at midnight!’ ”
During a PR visit to Dallas, Seigenthaler and other officials with Al Jazeera America didn’t flinch at such perceptions of their year-old cable channel, which purchased the assets of Al Gore’s Current TV channel and is now in more than 60 million U.S. households. (CNN and Fox News, by comparison, are in closer to 100 million.) Viewership for the AJA network is still miniscule, though Seigenthaler—a former NBC and MSNBC anchor—says it has increased every quarter. Today Al Jazeera America has 800 employees and a dozen bureaus around the country, including one in Dallas. Its calling card, it claims, is fact-based, in-depth, old-school journalism that’s as “unbiased” as possible. In the following interview, Seigenthaler and Mary Caraccioli, the news channel’s senior executive producer, talk about the challenges facing a start-up venture in a competitive media world.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER: A lot of people form opinions about us not based on the fact that they’ve seen us, but based on our name. I tell people, ‘Take a look at what we do.’ We’re out there providing a unique news product that we think isn’t being provided by a number of the cable channels and the networks these days, for a number of reasons. As you know, there have been enormous cutbacks in journalism. … [But] we’re hiring people, and while others are closing bureaus in the U.S., we’re opening bureaus in the U.S., and have bureaus [via Al Jazeera Media Network] internationally. We can cover stories that aren’t being covered here.”
GLENN HUNTER: Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, we already have a wide range of cable news operations, with opinions from left to right. So why should Americans be enticed by a new channel that’s owned by people from the Middle East?
SEIGENTHALER: That’s a good question. What I hear from people is, they’re tired of the yelling and screaming on MSNBC and Fox, tired of the stories on CNN, and looking for real news, serious news, in-depth, fact-based news, not opinion. It’s cheap to produce opinion programming. But it takes more time, energy, money and experience to do real serious news. Why watch it on a channel funded by the government of Qatar? My answer would be, why not? If you find that the program is honest, true, straightforward, and delivering a product you can’t find anywhere else, wherever it’s based, the country is getting something that is needed. That sidesteps the fact that it’s been controversial and its name, our logo, sometimes turns people off. I think it turns people off who haven’t seen what we do.
HUNTER: Have you ever thought about changing the name?
SEIGENTHALER: If we had changed the name, everybody would say, ‘You’re trying to hide something.’ And we’re not trying to hide anything. AJA is an outgrowth of the AJ Media Network, which includes some 29 different channels around the world, in 215 million households. It’s arguably one of the largest journalism outfits in the world. So I think being straight-up about who we are and what we do in the end will pay off.
MARY CARACCIOLI: Our headquarters are in New York. We’re an American company that is part of a global media network. Our management is best in class, from top networks in the United States. One of the important reasons to be in Dallas is that Dallas, like Al Jazeera, is international, a thriving city that has a really diverse population, and it’s on the cutting edge. There’s a real sense as we walk around here that there’s a buzz about what’s happening in Dallas. That’s the same buzz we want to see created for Al Jazeera. We pride ourselves on our editorial independence. We make our own decisions. But at the same time, we love the fact that we have access to global resources.
SEIGENTHALER: When I was approached by Al Jazeera, I didn’t know much about the organization, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do it. The primary thing for me was, are we going to be editorially independent, and not have somebody looking over our shoulder? I’ve worked for a number of companies in my life, including GE for NBC, and this past year at Al Jazeera I’ve had absolutely no influence, no contact, nobody telling me what to say or do. I’m not sure I can say that for all the other organizations I’ve worked for.
CARACCIOLI: Dallas is a global business city, and the business leaders and decision-makers here [don’t operate] in isolation. They need what we do. They need to know what’s going on in the world: how does that affect my business decisions? Take the student uprising in Hong Kong against the government—that has business implications. The other night when we led with that story, no other major cable or broadcast newscast touched it. We’re ahead of the curve. We were on the ground in West Africa, talking about Ebola before a case came to Dallas.
HUNTER: What will success look like for the channel over time?
SEIGENTHALER: The focus of this organization is producing quality news, not achieving a certain rating. We want people to watch, and of course that will bring us success, and we continue to grow quarter-by-quarter as far as audience is concerned. The numbers are still small, but we’re on track for growth. It will take some time. Success for us is maybe a little different from other news organizations, and that’s what makes us unique.