The Cable

Al Jazeera America Fumbles Attempt to Compete With U.S. Media

Al Jazeera America, unable to break into the U.S. media market, will close its doors.

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Less than three weeks ago, just ahead of the NFL playoffs, Al Jazeera America dropped a bomb. The network reported that a number of American athletes, including NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, were linked to human growth hormone, using the drug to help them recover from injuries.

Now, with libel suits in the works for the faulty steroid report, and days before a critical game between Manning’s Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL legend is still standing. Al Jazeera America, however, is down for the count.

On Wednesday, Al Jazeera America, the offshoot of Qatar-owned Al Jazeera news network beset by low ratings and internal scandal, announced it is closing its doors.

No one is suggesting the Manning report is responsible for its downfall. But it’s likely Qatar was more willing to operate a U.S. news unit when oil wasn’t dirt cheap. Al Jazeera purchased the network, then called Current TV, from former Vice President Al Gore in 2013 for $500 million. At the time, the price of oil — the lifeblood of Qatar’s economy — hovered around $100. On Wednesday, a barrel of crude was priced at $30.56.

The decision to shutter the network’s programming and digital news operations, which aimed to present a more sober version of the news offered by rivals CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, comes after two-and-a-half years on the air. Its programming was never able to gain any traction with American audiences; in 2015, the station was averaging 30,000 viewers in prime time and often had a zero rating in key demographics. The network debuted in August 2013.

Insiders blamed the lack of appealing programming on a culture of fear within the newsroom, created by Al Jazeera America’s concern of being perceived as biased. This charge is frequently made against its parent company, Al Jazeera, which has been accused of slanting its coverage against the United States. In 2015, a former Al Jazeera America senior vice president, Shannon High-Bassalik, accused the U.S. network of bias and sued.

Al Jazeera America was plagued by other lawsuits, including complaints about sexism and anti-Semitism in the newsroom. These led to the ouster of Al Jazeera America’s founding CEO. Late last year, the channel was rocked by reports that David W. Harleston, then-general counsel for the media company, was practicing law without a license. He was subsequently suspended by the network.

The channel will cease broadcasting on April 30 this year, Al Jazeera said in a statement. That same statement blamed the decision on “the economic landscape of the media environment.” Journalists were told the network would close at an all-staff meeting Wednesday.

The internal drama at Al Jazeera America obscured some quality journalism. In 2015, its documentary Miners Shot Down won an international Emmy. That same year, the channel also won a number of accolades from Editor & Publisher.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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