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Al Gore-Al Jazeera alliance runs into an American wall

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Amazing how Al Gore did not anticipate the resistance to Arab intrusion into the American mind space. The Nobel Laureate and Vice President under Bill Clinton is learning truths about American liberalism the hard way. He thought he would introduce intellectual variety into American discourse by bringing the world’s fastest growing TV channel, Al Jazeera into an alliance with his very own Current TV in California. But his intentions are being challenged.

On January 2, Gore outlined the purpose of his mission: “to give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell stories no one else is telling.”

Just in case someone thought Gore was taking the risk of exposing American mindscape to Arab influences, the Current TV’s spokesman Stan Collender, rushed to clarify: “This is a pure business decision that is based on recognized demand.”

It was a promising business model. Current’s viewership would be boosted considerably. Recent estimates promise that Al Jazeera’s novelty, plus its unparalleled professional and technical qualities would add an audience of 40 to 50 million viewers. It has the potential to grow even more.

Established global channels like CNN, ABC, CBS (even BBC is global, after all) would run for cover with their turf having been opened to competition from a channel owned by a man with the deepest pockets who ever took interest in the media, the Emir of Qatar.

Gore must have received something of a shock when America’s second largest TV operator, Time Warner Cable Inc, snapped its ties with Current as soon as Gore’s channel stuck a deal with Al Jazeera. Now the new channel named “Al Jazeera America” will have to find alternative cable outlets.

Robert Thompson, Professor of TV and Popular Culture at Syracuse University said it bluntly: “There’s a fair amount of paranoia when it comes to Al Jazeera”.

Jimmy Schaeffler, a pay TV consultant, elaborated: “people associate Al Jazeera with the Muslim world or the Arab world or the Islam world and they have problems with that.”

The surprise is that in the past two years Al Jazeera has been the toast of Washington. Hillary Clinton quoted it. CNN and BBC have been relying on it to boost their credibility whenever they had to telecast spurious news during the Libyan and Syrian operations.

I have not mentioned Al Jazeera’s coverage of Afghanistan and Iraq. This, because during those two military operations, Al Jazeera was on the opposite side, it reported the truth. It did not slant stories the way the US and its allies notably Saudi Arabia would have wanted it to.

The channel truly is a media phenomenon everyone likes to have an opinion on. But not many have cared to acquaint themselves with the circumstances in which it was launched.

The BBC, which ran its Arabic channel in collaboration with Orbit Communications, owned by the late Saudi King Fahd, had to close down its Arabic Service because the House of Saud would not permit a documentary on executions under Sharia Law to be telecast.

Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, who had serious differences with Saudi Arabia, invested $150 million to launch Al Jazeera in 1996. The Sheikh hired the BBC staff which had been fired by the BBC in pursuance of a new business model.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, CNN became the world’s first global channel which brought Operation Desert Storm right into the drawing rooms. A year later, BBC World Service TV was born. To break this Western monopoly on the media, focused excessively on the Muslim world, Al Jazeera was launched.

The West was livid. Intellectuals like Fouad Ajami, Professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, a vocal supporter of US occupation of Iraq, complained in a New York Times article, that Al Jazeera’s hero was Osama bin Laden. He was hopping mad that the channel had perfected “the sly game of mimicking Western norms of journalistic fairness while pandering to pan-Arab sentiments.” Why is the Professor bilious of that score?

For its sins, Al Jazeera offices in both Kabul and Baghdad were bombed by US helicopter gunships. A journalist was killed, several wounded, a senior correspondent was incarcerated in Spain.

When the Arab Spring began to topple dictatorships, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, in sheer panic, came out of hospital in Europe, rained 135 billion on his population to douse incipient rebellion, extended his hand of friendship to Qatar and, since both were scared of the Arab Spring, the credibility of Al Jazeera was placed at the disposal of the West first in Libya and now in Syria.

It was during this period that Al Jazeera was transformed, by Western caprice, from enemy during Iraq and Afghan wars to a reliable ally in recent adventures. Riding this crest of popularity in the West, it found its way into Gore’s favour. What happens next will be worth watching.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)