For several years, despite spending billions of dollars, having spy satellites that can record your ATM pin number from space and thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan, President Bush and his friends couldn’t find Osama bin Laden, a six-foot-tall bearded man on dialysis living in a cave. During this time the only news outlet that seemed to have any communication with bin Laden was Al Jazeera’s office in Qatar which received sporadic recorded videos of Osama’s infrequent proclamations usually around a time Bush’s poll numbers dipped below 50 percent.
Rather than the United States military and public appreciating the Al Jazeera network for reporting on Osama, or even better, being the only real insight into middle east thinking during the war, the opposite occurred. The administration and many American press outlets painted the network as aiding and abetting terrorists, despite no credible evidence to back up this assertion. Donald Rumsfeld went so far as to say the airing of Osama bin Laden’s videos was “vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable,” a description better suited for the war itself rather than a fledgling news network bringing clarity in a time of chaos.
However unfair the accusations against Al Jazeera were, major cable providers like Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision and DirecTV refused to pick up the network. The only cable providers where you can pick up Al Jazeera in 2011 are in Toledo, Ohio, Burlington, Vt. and the Washington, D.C. metro area. Reports show that hits to the Al Jazeera website have gone up over 2,000 percent in the last week, with more than half of that number coming from American audiences.
Could all of this newfound attention lead to Al Jazeera English breaking through and ending up on our local cable network this summer? Unfortunately I doubt it. In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked as a political analyst for Al Jazeera for more than four years and have always found their reporting to be insightful, fair and well sourced. The passion of their staff, both stateside and abroad, is infectious and there is a real commitment to bringing out stories that no one else is covering.
So it is disappointing to say that when the smoke clears in Egypt, or worse, when Americans simply become bored with the story, Al Jazeera will likely go back to its status as the exotic NPR. Loved and revered by Americans with a real taste for news and content but few others.
When it comes to news, the American viewing audience has the collective attention span of a 4-year-old in pixie stix. If Beyonce announced tomorrow that she was expecting twins, and wasn’t sure that Jay-Z was the daddy, the crisis in Egypt would be put on the back burner. First by one network, then two, until eventually the struggle of thousands of young men and women for democracy was reduced to a crawl on the bottom of the screen between stock prices and the latest bombastic quote from Sarah Palin.
BBC America has been available for years, is geared towards a U.S. audience and it still has not expanded beyond a niche audience and I fear that will be the fate of Al Jazeera. I don’t think the stateside consumer is mature enough to make a 24-hour international news station profitable enough for risk averse cable operators to buy in. So for now, enjoy the national fetishizing of Al Jazeera news, like it or not, we will be on to the next fad before the end of the month.