Many of us in the U.S. have come to know of Al Jazeera as the Arabic news network that has often seemed to serve as the mouthpiece for Muslim extremist terrorist groups. When Osama bin Laden wanted to release his latest videotaped diatribe against the American and western devils, he chose Al Jazeera as the place to submit the tape. From there, it would go worldwide on other news services, but it usually started with Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera has been building a U.S.-based operation, hiring non-Muslim reporters, newscasters and even a President of Newsgathering with the decidedly non-Muslim name Kate O'Brian. One or two relatively high-profile cable newspeple have also signed on, led by Soledad O'Brien, who had been a headliner at CNN and NBC News.
When Al Jazeera America takes to the airwaves (or cable waves) next Tuesday afternoon, what sort of American audience will it attract? Another question for the ad-supported operation is what sort of reception will it get from potential advertisers?
Beyond the growing Muslim population here in America, who will watch Al Jazeera America? There's not even a guarantee that all Muslims living here will tune in, just as all British ex-pats don't necessarily tune into the BBC channel on cable, or all Latinos don't automatically watch Univision.
Although the new network will have only six minutes of ad time each hour, can we expect to see Al Jazeera America's commercial breaks filled with ads for Chevy, Bud Lite, Cheerios and Walmart? (Certainly not for Hebrew National.) Will pioneer advertisers on the channel risk backlash and talk of boycott by outraged Americans who remember seeing Al Jazeera coverage of Arab crowds cheering in the streets after the Twin Towers were taken down and the Pentagon was hit on Sept. 11th?
This is America, where we value and protect the concept of freedom of speech. Al Jazeera has a right to operate here, and their CEO, Ehab El Shihabi says in an Adweek interview today that "Americans want to have more in-depth coverage and less opinion; that is what we will have and that is how Al Jazeera operates."
Will Americans buy into that? Al Jazeera America has an uphill battle, I think.