Last week Al Gore and his partners sold their foundering cable channel, Current TV, to Al Jazeera. Whether that will provide the Arab satellite TV giant with the access to the American cable market it has long sought is still unclear. Al Jazeera America, what the new station is likely to be called, is already losing a large chunk of the 60 million homes that Current TV reached.
Upon news of the sale, Time Warner Cable, the country’s second-largest cable operator, said it would drop Current but reserve the right to pick up the new Al Jazeera channel—“if it represents,” a Time Warner spokeswoman told The Scrapbook, “a good value to our customers.” Time Warner has long had an agreement to carry Al Jazeera but has not done so, largely because, as the spokeswoman explained, it’s already live streaming on the Internet. Their decision, she insisted, has nothing to do with politics.
Indeed, the reputation of Al Jazeera has come a long way in the last decade, since it first imprinted itself on American public awareness as Terrorism TV. For good reason, too, as the station not only cheered on American enemies, from Osama Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein and from the Taliban to Hezbollah, but was found to have provided cover for al Qaeda couriers. One of its most popular shows is hosted by Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood imam who authored a fatwa declaring that it was necessary for Muslims to fight U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But over the last few years, American political figures from both parties have made a habit of praising Al Jazeera. Nancy Pelosi, John McCain, and Donald Rumsfeld lauded the station for its coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings. Hillary Clinton said that, unlike U.S. networks, Al Jazeera had distinguished itself by covering “real news.” President Obama described Al Jazeera’s owner, the ruler of Qatar, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, as “a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform. You’re seeing it on Al Jazeera.”
The Scrapbook wonders if, now that the post-Arab Spring order has taken shape, some of Al Jazeera’s more prominent American supporters would like to modify their praise somewhat. After all, it’s now clear that Al Jazeera was agitating against repressive Arab nationalist regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, among others, not to promote liberty, but rather to advance the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood. This campaign was entirely in line with Qatari foreign policy.
The Qatari emir is not a democratic-minded reformer, lest he lose his throne. In giving money to, among others, the Hamas leadership in Gaza, and Muslim Brotherhood units among the rebels fighting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, he is promoting his own narrow interests. Some of those dovetail with American interests, but we should be under no illusion about the emir or his satellite TV empire.
Al Jazeera, contrary to the belief of many, is not just another cable channel with a distinct political perspective, like MSNBC or Fox. It is the strategic communications arm of Qatari foreign policy. For those many media experts who make careful distinctions between Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, decrying the excessive rhetoric, frequently anti-American and anti-Semitic, of the former, while praising the reportorial acumen of the latter, the reality is that the English station exists to lend legitimacy to the Arabic channel. The Al Jazeera America brand is a means to consolidate Qatar’s baleful worldview and extend it further into the American consciousness.
But here’s the rub. There’s a conviction, shared by many American elites, that the U.S. public is incapable of grasping complex issues—like the Middle East, for instance, and its many conflicts. From this perspective, the benefit of Al Jazeera America is that it will provide American news viewers with a point of view enriching their parochial beliefs, rather than the usual dumbed-down TV coverage. That is, a station like Al Jazeera shows that there is more gray in the world than black and white. However, American media consumers are more than savvy enough to know that, say, Hamas marching out toddlers in mock suicide vests is not a shade of gray but purest black.
We hope Al Gore enjoys the hundred million pieces of silver he pocketed in the transaction.