“Consider the source.” ABC News ex-president David Westin on the Al Gore Jazeera jibe. It’s merely an Arab version of the BBC pimping “British values” in America!
I’ve taken the liberty of editing Westin’s Huffington Post blog post — removing Westin‘s Peter Jennings dead-seven-years nostalgia — an eternity in the netherworld of the Internet and media.
Westin: The sale of cable news network Current TV to Al Jazeera has raised more than a few eyebrows. There’s the fact that Al Jazeera is largely financed by the Qatari monarch, which makes some people question whether the new channel will enjoy true editorial independence. There’s the reported price tag of $500 million, which seems pretty high and will richly benefit Mr. Gore and others. And, some have even found irony in the environmental champion Gore going into business with the petro-chemical industry (although, in fairness, the vast wealth of Qatar at this point comes, not from oil, but from the more environmentally-friendly natural gas).
Whatever comes of it all, the creation of this alternative to CNN and Fox News and MSNBC shows just how much has changed in the news media.
First, the way we’ve traditionally paid for news coverage just isn’t enough anymore.
The simple truth is that good journalism costs money — real money. When audiences for the traditional news outlets of newspapers and television were growing and the money was rolling in, there were plenty of resources to invest in reporting. But as audiences have splintered, it’s gotten harder and harder to find the money to invest in great reporting.
The second thing Al Jazeera’s buying Current TV highlights is just how little international news is covered in most of our media today. This is not new.
There’s strong reporting being done from around the world to this day in the mainstream media. We see it front and center when there’s a big story — such as the Arab Spring or the fighting in Syria. But overall, much of the news media have retrenched in their overseas coverage, not only because of the resources required, but also because they’ve concluded that it’s not what the audience wants right now. And this leaves an opportunity for the BBC’s [sic] and the Al Jazeera’s [sic] of this world to step into the void.
So, we now have rich Emirs and British subjects and charitable foundations giving us some of the journalism we can’t afford and the international coverage not enough of us seem to want. We’re good, right? Well, maybe yes and maybe no. And that’s the third thing — the biggest thing, the most important thing — that the Al Jazeera/Current TV deal points out.
Every time someone steps up to invest in news content, there’s a reason. Going back to the early days of television, the networks invested in news divisions in large part to justify their broadcast licenses to the government. With de-regulation in the 1980s, the regulatory reason for investing in TV news took a back seat and earning a reasonable operating income became more important. When audiences were growing, this wasn’t too difficult; in recent years, it’s become more of a challenge, which necessarily affects the news we see.
But the alternative business models also have their own reasons for investing in the news. Years ago, I was exploring the possibility of expanding on the partnership that we at ABC News had formed with the BBC. I remember having dinner with my counterpart to talk through the possibilities. At the end of a long dinner, after I’d laid out the ways we could improve our financial results by integrating our operations more, he looked at me and said, “Why, there’s the problem. Our mission isn’t really about making money.” When I asked him what their mission was, he told me it was to “promote British values around the world.”
This may or may not be how the BBC sees its mission today, but it shows how important it is to consider the source of your news. As much faith as I have in BBC reporting on news stories (its present unpleasantness to the contrary notwithstanding), I always know that a BBC report comes from a particular institution with a particular set of goals and priorities that could influence what they’re telling me.
The same can be said of Al Jazeera. It was created by the Emir of Qatar as a news outlet based in Doha to concentrate on events on the Arabian peninsula and throughout the Arab world. It has always had more of an Arab viewpoint on world events than we get elsewhere. Those in the Bush administration and others criticized it for being too closely aligned with al Qaeda. On the other hand, more recently it has received a Polk award for its coverage of the Arab Spring and has been praised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for covering more “real news” than some of what she’d seen on American television. (Full disclosure: I made a deal with Al Jazeera in the build-up to the Iraq War in early 2003 for us to share video, which benefited ABC News in our war coverage.) As a U.S. executive from Al Jazeera has said, we’ll need to judge the new channel by what they do. But we’d be foolish simply to ignore what we know about the parent company.
All of us will have to consider the source when we watch the new Al Jazeera America channel — but that doesn’t make it different from any other source of our news today.