ABC-6 Reporter Mark Curtis: “The Sunday Political Brunch” August 25, 2013

by ABC6 Chief Political Reporter Mark Curtis

mcurtis@abc6.com

(Providence,
Rhode Island) – The much talked
about debut of the Al Jazeera America (AJAM) news network happened this past
week. I watched if for a few hours out of curiosity and came away with a number
of thoughts and impressions.

“Crank Up the Coffee” – Okay, let's just say the
presentation was sober.  That's probably
putting it kindly. The anchors were serious and deliberate (yes, boring). Read
the news, and move on. It reminded me of the BBC which I have never warmed up
to. Mind you I don't like the incessant happy talk that poisoned much of U.S.
TV in the 70s and 80s, but it seems to me there is a pleasant balance between
the dissemination of information and the art of doing it with some semblance of
personality.

“Warts and All” – I think there was a preconceived notion – based
on Internet comments I read from the U.S. – that Al Jazeera was going to try to
portray the Mideast and predominately Muslim world in a glowing light, and be
anti-American, too. The first days did not give me that impression at all. News
of the unrest in Egypt and Syria was
hardly flattering. They didn't try to ignore the “white elephant” in the room. It
should be known that Al Jazeera is based in, and is funded by, Qatar, a Mideast country on relative good terms with
the U.S.
I would not imagine that Iranian-based television would seemingly try to be as
balanced.

“Did They Really Show That on TV?” – I have to say that I
was simultaneously mortified and impressed that Al Jazeera chose to air a video
that purported to show the victims of a chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government.
It was horrifying. The video was some of the most graphic I have ever seen. The
specter of children poisoned and dying and adults too, was quite disturbing. Al
Jazeera America
made the proper and wise move of saying it had not verified the authenticity of
the video. But if it was real – and it sure looked to be – then it was a
horrifying portrayal of what is going on there. I did not see any similar video
on U.S.
networks. American television generally avoids showing such graphic footage,
which I think can be a mistake. 

“Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart's Club Band” – Okay the photo
backgrounds behind the anchors were huge, and the anchors looked like part of
the picture. It was oddly reminiscent of the old Beatle's album cover from
“Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.” From a production standpoint, they
ought to put the anchor out front, closer to the camera, so he or she does not
blend in as an incidental part of the background. But in a way, I get it; the
anchor is just a presenter – not a part of the story – unlike U.S.
television. But, let's face it; the target audience of this network is the U.S., so maybe
it should adhere to local customs and norms. Yes, it would be a cross-cultural
gamble. 

“America
the Beautiful” – Okay, it was the first week, so I will give some of the
hiccups a pass. But the show needs more American voices, commentators, analysts
and opinions – positive or negative. The target audience is in Kansas
City, not Beirut.
It needs more “live” presence in the field. Pre-taped reports – whether on CNN,
Fox, ABC, or AJAM often sound stale. Give me live reports and take me to the
scene! 

“Yawn!” –  The big
American live guest on one of the days I watched was Daniel Ellsberg, of
Pentagon papers fame. He was on to talk about the sentencing of Private Bradley
Manning for releasing classified U.S. intelligence information. Ellsberg
– who spent much of his airtime on a tirade against former President George W.
Bush – added little to the conversation. He could have offered so much valuable
perspective, but didn't. That's probably more the fault of the guest than the
network, but a good anchor can redirect an interview when it goes off course. 

“Tune In; Tune Out; or Turn Off” – I think the biggest
challenge for Al Jazeera America
does not involve journalism, but rather it involves math. The two most pressing
questions are: 1) is there enough viewer demand for another 24-hour news
network in the United States;
and, 2) are their enough advertising dollars to sustain the operation. I have
my doubts, but since the owner, (the government of Qatar), has deep pockets, it
may all depends on how long it wants to operate at a loss in the U.S. Al
Jazeera has multiple international news and sports networks, and overall is
quite successful. 

“The Numbers” – In the all-important May ratings, Fox News
was #1 overall and had the top thirteen rated shows. CNN finished second. Even
CNN's Headline News channel, had 7 of the top 30 rated shows.  MSNBC was ranked last among the 24-hour cable
news networks. Then you add in the various C-SPAN channels; CNBC and Fox
Business; and even BBC in the U.S.
and you have to wonder if there are enough viewers left for Al Jazeera America. I doubt
it. But on the other hand, people scoffed at the Fox News business model when
it launched in 1996, and look where it is now. In today's world “broadcasting”
is really a misnomer. “Narrowcasting” to a niche audience – and its advertising
dollars – may be the television business model of the future. We'll see!

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© 2013, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.