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Making Sense Of The Demise Of Al Jazeera America

Feb 5, 2016

In 2013, the U.S. TV news market witnessed the debut of Al Jazeera America. The network, based in Qatar and funded by that nation's royal family, was considered to be the crowning touch of their  web of TV networks.
 

Not even three years later, the network announced it will shut down its American operations. Yet Al Jazeera made quite a name for itself - it has 12 bureaus and won scores of awards for its long-form documentary-style reports, which is becoming kind of an endangered species.

So why is it closing?

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said there are several reasons:

  • The network wasn't carried on a lot of cable providers, and even then, you had to pay an extra subscription fee;
  • They hired a lot of great journalists, paid them well and were doing some good work, but a lot those journalists quit before the final show, suggesting that there were management problems; 
  • They were never designed to make money. It was always going to be a money loser, but when oil dropped to $30 a barrel - meaning less money flowing into the pockets of the Qatari royal family - losing that much money every year had to hurt;
  • Then, there was the name. Al Jazeera literally means "The Island", or "The Arabian Peninsula," and may have been perceived by many Americans as promoting an Arab point of view. 

That was backed up by a lawsuit filed by a former senior vice president of programming and documentaries at Al Jazeera.

Shannon High-Bassalik is suing the news network, claiming it is biased against non-Arabs and women in stories that it produces and in its treatment of employees.

She was fired in February after working through half of a three-year contract. She said the network's recently ousted chief executive Ehab Al Shihabi left meetings when women were speaking and admitted that he tried to favor an Arab point of view on the air to please AJAM's Qatar-based ownership.

"As ratings failed to live up to the expectations of management, Al Jazeera openly decided to abandon all pretense of neutrality in favor of putting the Arabic viewpoint front and center, openly demanding that programs be aired that criticized countries such as America, Israel and Egypt," High-Bassalik's lawsuit stated.

Al Jazeera America called High-Bassalik's accusations unfounded.