Like most people who appreciate the necessity of independent media outlets, it was personally frustrating to watch Current TV go under back at the beginning of the year. You don’t have to agree with every point-of-view presented by a news organization to value its freedom to make those points-of-view public; Current had a lot of people working for it whom I couldn’t have stood in more diametric opposition to on a number of issues, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important to hear from those challenging voices on occasion. Al Gore’s decision to succumb to the siren song of a huge payday rather than continuing on with his mission to provide an independent outlet for liberal news and opinion on television was to be expected, but it doesn’t mean anyone other than he himself — the guy who walked away from the collapse of Current with a hundred million dollars — had to like it.
While there was immediate concern from many that Gore not only sold-out but had done so to the oil-rich royal family of Qatar — the wealthiest country in the world — there was still hope that what rose in the ashes of Current would be worthwhile. Al Jazeera America, as it was dubbed right off the bat, promised to bring both the ferocious journalistic spirit and bottomless well of resources to newsgathering and reporting that Al Jazeera had become famous for. But now that the network is getting ready to launch in the U.S., with an admittedly smaller cable TV footprint that it had hoped for given a lot of providers’ anxieties about Al Jazeera’s somewhat unfair reputation for being anti-American, it’s time to take a look at exactly what Al Jazeera America is going to look like — what we know so far anyway — and whether it’s really going to stand out from the cable news pack or be just another example of what gets shoveled in our direction day after day on the other big three networks.
Over the past few days I’ve taken an informal poll of former and current CNN and network producers because while some of the highest-profile hires Al Jazeera America has made in preparation for its debut are personal friends of mine or people I’ve worked closely with in the past, others I’ve only done time with peripherally or don’t know at all. I wanted to try to put together a realistic picture of what AJA may look like once it launches, or at least get a better overview of what its news philosophy might be given the kinds of people it’s chosen to provide its editorial backbone, and I couldn’t do it on my own.
If you look at the overall swath of recent hires at Ajam — according to The Times‘s TV news savant Brian Stetler, that’s what insiders are calling the network, pronounced like “A-Rod” — there could be cause for concern for anyone hoping that what we’ll see come August 20th will be significantly different than anything we’ve seen in cable news before. A substantial portion of the network’s on-air and behind-the-scenes talent is made up of people who’ve been in U.S. TV news for years — most of them ex-CNN with a few network people thrown in for good measure. But that’s to be somewhat expected since Al Jazeera America would want to be as Americanized as possible and would therefore go with staffers who ostensibly had their fingers on the pulse of the U.S. news market. But do they? That’s the question. Are the people they hired actually any good?
Well, we know about Soledad O’Brien and Ali Velshi, both of CNN fame. Soledad I worked alongside for a while on American Morning and Velshi’s both a former co-worker and a friend. Soledad’s always been solid but it was the direction in which she took her too-smart-for-CNN morning show Starting Point during the 2012 presidential campaign that cemented her reputation as a journalist with a fierce intolerance for any of the usual talking points. Her willingness to confront bullshit on her show made her a true hero at a network which had very, very few. Velshi, meanwhile, is one of the smartest financial reporters around, a guy who talks money well and who doesn’t get bogged down in the silly political posturing from the right you find on outlets like CNBC and Fox Biz. Whether Soledad and Velshi will be used to their fullest potential remains to be seen; right now Soledad is merely a “special correspondent” for AJA’s flagship nightly news show, America Tonight, while Velshi is slated to host a weekend business show that may eventually be moved to weekdays. Not necessarily the most daring of casting choices.
While we’re on the subject of America Tonight, its host will be former CNN and CBS correspondent Joie Chen. Not a bad choice but nothing to blow anyone’s ears back. The joke I made yesterday to an ex-CNNer I was talking to was that maybe Al Jazeera never actually met with Joie and thought they were hiring Julie Chen. Joie wouldn’t under any circumstances be the first choice I’d make to helm a flagship show, but there’s a distinct possibility that the entire personnel roster on the show was handpicked by its new senior executive producer, Kim Bondy. I worked with Bondy briefly on American Morning and I’m not exactly engaging in underhanded gossip to say that nobody loves playing favorites like her. She and Soledad are practically a package deal and if she likes you, she’ll make your life great — if not, you’ll find yourself not really seeing or hearing much from her other than the talking-to you get when you screw up because she’s not giving you much in the way of direction. A friend of mine, a female segment producer, who worked very closely with her at CNN calls her a “diva,” someone who was always more interested in how the show made her look than in how she could make the show look. In my friend’s words, Bondy ran American Morning like an arrogant Mean Girls clique in high school.
Among the other Al Jazeera America hires, there’s Shannon High, my former executive producer at WSVN in Miami and someone I respect quite a bit; she’s had a long history as a local news director and a manager at CNN and MSNBC. AJA has also tapped long-time network news correspondent Mike Viquera and ex-Miami anchor and ABC News guy Antonio Mora, the latter of whom may as well be a piece of whole-wheat toast, as well as David Doss, Marcy McGinnis, and Kate O’Brian, all lifers, in the senior executive positions. Again, all decent enough people but there’s something still sort of — to continue the bread analogy — stale about the entire effort. While it’s impossible to expect a new network to launch with all new people, seeing the same old names recycled in new positions just doesn’t scream “revolutionary.”
Then there’s another consideration: how well Al Jazeera America will come out of the gate with a social media presence. Of the names I’ve mentioned, only a select few have a sincerely worthwhile following on Twitter. Velshi and Soledad are already big enough names and they’ve utilized social media to such an extent that people pay attention to them and interact with them online. Former MSNBC anchor David Shuster, who’s also on-board at AJA, has a very large presence on Twitter because he’s spent the past several years engaging his audience with it to his fullest advantage. But as for the rest: Joie Chen has 216 Twitter followers. Antonio Mora has 544. As another ex-CNN friend of mine said, these are people in prime spots at the network — with a lot riding on their ability to helm the entire endeavor — and the very important new media metric used to judge their cultural standing registers around zero. Granted, once they go on-air those standings will increase, but not if no one is watching Al Jazeera America.
And maybe that’s the problem. For a network that’s already buried at channel 1750 on Fios and may not appear at all on Time Warner Cable, Al Jazeera America doesn’t seem to be going far enough in any one direction to be noticed — either going with truly a revolutionary stable of new talent or with a group of people with massive name recognition. It all seems, well, very middle-of-the-road.
This could be a huge problem for the network. Because what this makes it is no different from everything else in cable news.