- By Alicia P.Q. WittmeyerAlicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.
What does one Nashville soul food restaurateur think about Al Jazeera — the Qatari-funded TV network, once vilified by George W. Bush as "hateful propaganda" – setting up shop in his hometown? Let’s say he’s skeptical, but open-minded:
"I don’t know a lot about you," he told an Al Jazeera crew, who dropped by his restaurant to get his thoughts. "I’ll know more when I see you on TV, and then I can have a better opinion once I get to see you."
Give them some credit for tackling the elephant in the studio head on. In the one-hour preview leading up to the official, much-anticipated launch of Al Jazeera America on Tuesday, the network was upfront about the possibility that the average viewer might find something about the network … a little unfamiliar, perhaps?
One man, in one of many man-on-the-street interviews featured in the promo, said he’d "heard the name" Al Jazeera — and knew that it had "something to do" with the Middle East. Another volunteered that it was "not in California," and "not in Texas" but rather somewhere far off and exotic: Iraq or Iran, maybe.
As the buildup to Tuesday’s launch reached a fever pitch — with everyone from the New York Times to Bloomberg to the Baltimore Sun weighing in on the new network — almost all agreed that Al Jazeera faces at least one major potential stumbling block: Can it win over viewers who missed the network’s moment of glory, during the 2011 Arab Spring, and mainly remember the days during the Iraq war when people like Donald Rumsfeld accused the broadcaster of promoting terrorism?
During the one-hour promo segment, AJAM appeared to strive mightily to convince viewers of its American street cred. The preview opened with praise from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain for its coverage, and proudly promoted the network’s choice to open a bureau in Nashville (a decision some viewers found utterly perplexing today) in part, various network personalities said, because Nashville was representative of real, middle America.
In the people, Americans with southern accents and tattoos voiced their appreciation for a new choice in TV news. A man wearing a yarmulke didn’t go quite so far — but he did say the network was "entitled to set up a business." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
At the same time, Al Jazeera sought to assure viewers that it was perfectly natural to feeling uncertain about this new network with the funny name that has someone found its way into their homes.
"I think it’s sometimes hard for people to believe in something and watch something that they don’t know a lot about," Jonathan Martin, Al Jazeera’s Nashville correspondent, told the camera reassuringly. The implicit message: You might come to like us, if you give us a chance.
How was the network’s coverage in the hours following its debut? The first hour of news featured a mix of generally very competent Egypt coverage — including a good backgrounder on how the country came to be in the messy state it’s in today — alongside news about the Georgia school shooting and wildfires in Idaho. FP blogger Stephen Walt discussed the crisis in Egypt as one of the channel’s first guests, drawing criticism from the Washington Free Beacon and other right-wing outlets critical of Walt’s views on Israel.
Some have questioned whether Al Jazeera will struggle to find advertising, and for the brief period I watched yesterday, besides an ad for Gillette and two ads for Vonage, there were lots of spots for Proactiv and endless swimming pools — standard daytime TV fare, but not exactly marquee names (to be fair, I wasn’t watching during prime time).
Did you catch any of Al Jazeera America’s coverage yesterday? Leave any thoughts about what you saw in the comments.