Al Jazeera America is promising that their news will be different than the other cable news nets out there.
The new Network is hitting the air on Tuesday with what they promise is a new approach.
The NY Daily News writes that CNN vets Joie Chen and Soledad O’Brien are lending their big names to the in-depth documentary show “America Tonight,” and former NBC journalist John Seigenthaler will anchor prime-time’s “Nightly News.” But beyond the plucked-from-elsewhere star power, Al Jazeera America won’t resemble anything else in cable news.
“I really saw it as a completely different kind of opportunity,” says Chen, who signed up as anchor for what has been billed as the station’s flagship program after network brass pitched her a show in which storytelling and good journalism would trump sensationalism and fiery opinions.
They way Chen tells it, “America Tonight” will use its 9 p.m. slot to focus on news and current affairs while offering in-depth reporting.
“We will be doing thoughtful eight- to 12-minute pieces,” she says. “Sometimes the pieces will be off of the news of the day, but often it will not — instead, we will try to focus on stories that we don’t hear repeatedly in the news.”
Think getting a reporter “embedded” with a Chicago street gang.
“What we’re doing is not the same as a traditional revenue-based cable network,” she says. “Our mission is different. We spend a lot of time talking about what we want our themes to be, what we want the pieces to be about — we don’t spend time thinking how can we do this the cheapest way possible.”
Don’t look for coverage of Kim Kardashian, or courthouse camp-outs during high-profile trials. Instead of following the lead of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN — which have played up crime coverage and punditry to increase ratings — Al Jazeera sees itself more as the NPR of the tube.
On TV, eyeballs mean dollars, but Al Jazeera says it doesn’t care about either, at least for now. Execs insist that methodical reporting and detailed pieces will win viewers and, in time, advertisers. In fact, the network is only dedicating six minutes per hour to commercials, while most news channels allot 15 minutes for ads. (Al Jazeera America CEO Ehab Al Shihabi insists this isn’t a sign the network can’t sell spots, claiming instead that he just wants to air more news.)
That’s the luxury of being owned by big oil — Al Jazeera was financed by the former emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa — rather than a media conglomerate.
Not that being based in the Middle East hasn’t been a hurdle. The Qatar-based broadcaster has long tried to break into the American market but was repeatedly shut out by large cable distributors like Time Warner and Cablevision due to the reputation it earned for airing videos from Al Qaeda terrorists including Osama Bin Laden.
It managed to reach European audiences when it created Al Jazeera English seven years ago as a satellite channel, but U.S. distributors balked.
So when network executives had a chance to snatch up Al Gore’s Current TV last winter for a mere $500 million, they jumped — bringing a news brand that won global praise for its balanced, in-depth coverage of the Arab Spring to American living rooms.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to do great storytelling around serious journalism,” says O’Brien, the tough-as-nails former CNN star who left the Atlanta-based network less than a year ago.
O’Brien, who will work as a correspondent for “America Tonight,” is actually an independent producer. She still sells documentaries to CNN and also appears on HBO’s “Real Sports.”
Among her first projects for Al Jazeera America will be an investigative piece on what happened to the money that was raised to help Haiti following its catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
“But we’ll also have a look at what has been successful in the years that have gone by since the earthquake,” she says.
Another topic for her Al Jazeera debut will be “a look at the quality of public education — depending on what your zip code is,” she says.
“I like that I’m able to take a look at these kind of issues in really deep journalistic ways that I might not have elsewhere,” she says. “They’re going to be well-told stories that focus on human beings and their struggle.”
Chen says she was immediately interested in Al Jazeera when she saw that its code of ethics included statements like “we seek not to sensationalize” and “we want to approach journalism in a fact-based way.”
“I had never seen that before — and that doesn’t mean that other news organizations don’t have the same sentiment somewhere in their hearts, but this is something Al Jazeera America is wearing on its sleeve.”
And she thinks American viewers are ready for it.
“How many times do you talk to people and hear them say, ‘I don’t watch U.S. news anymore because it’s the same stuff, same reporting, same sensationalized stories,’” Chen says.
“We’re going to focus on telling the stories that have not been told and finding the voices that have not been heard from.”