After a decade and a half, it's fair to say that Al Jazeera—the news channel owned by the
tiny Gulf state of Qatar—has "arrived" into the mainstream. Millions of dollars of investment and hundreds of journalists' hard work have earned the broadcaster—which has Arabic and English channels—a credibility that few other state-owned media since the BBC can claim.
But the Arab Spring has been a big test for the channel, which some viewers have accused of covering the uprisings with a bias that gleans of Qatari foreign policy. I have a recent piece out on just how and why the critiques of Al Jazeera have grown:
Since the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera’s previous success has been amplified and the Qatari government has started playing a bigger part in regional policy. Suddenly, the cozy relationship between patron and broadcaster carries a bit more baggage.
...To some viewers, the coincidence of Qatari policy and Al Jazeera’s aggressive reporting on Libya and Syria seemed too close for comfort, particularly when other revolutions – those that hit closer to home for Qatar and its Gulf allies – got less attention.
You can read the whole article here. But there's one more point to make: Interestingly, the Arab Spring may have finally made the English channel as important—if not more so—than its Arabic twin. That's a big shift for a channel created to be the BBC of the Arabic-speaking world.
During the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera out-performed almost all major Western news outlets. Many of its correspondents spoke the language—or were even from the countries they were reporting on. So while journalists in the Anglophone press were often caught furiously trying to keep pace with events, Al Jazeera was setting the tempo of news coverage. Part of that came from their early mastery of digital social media—something that networks in the United States and Britain have yet to match. The network has invested heavily in understanding how to use and interpret user-created content. Needless to say, this proved an invaluable asset amid a string of revolutions broadcast by cellphone video uploaded to YouTube.
Increasing numbers of viewers in the United States in particular took note—and began watching online. Al Jazeera is not available in most stateside cable packages, but that didn't stop a new, tech-savvy generation who could easily spot good coverage. Al Jazeera's management says the number of streaming viewers has exploded. And since English is as close as we have to a universal language, the potential for Al Jazeera's anglophone stream is enormous.
This may in fact be one of the biggest developments in the media world following the Arab Spring. Expect Al Jazeera English to capitalize on the credibility it has built up covering the unrest in the Middle East—and then some. And expect that to make a big difference in the media environment in coming years. Perhaps I am being starry-eyed, but it would be a welcome change if the channel's news-heavy coverage displaced the talking-head tendencies of most American TV news.
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English