Al Jazeera America confirmed this morning it had signed a deal with former CNN star Soledad O’Brien to contribute to the network as “special correspondent.” O’Brien’s production company, Starfish Media Group will produce hourlong documentary specials for the cable network. “I look forward to beginning a relationship with Al Jazeera America, which has made a commitment to producing quality programming and pursuing underreported stories,” O’Brien said in the announcement, confirming speculation that started last week. As a correspondent, O’Brien will contribute short-form segments to the primetime current affairs mag America Tonight on the new network, which is funded by the government of Qatar.
O’Brien stepped down from CNN in March when network chief Jeff Zucker scrubbed her program Starting Point; he gave the time slot to Chris Cuomo’s New Day. At the time she left CNN, she formed Starfish Media, which, in addition to the production deal with Al Jazeera America, now also has a production deal with CNN, and development deals at HBO and National Geographic Channel.
America Tonight’s senior exec producer Kim Bondy is another CNN alum. In this morning’s announcement, Bondy said she’d worked with O’Brien since 1997, “so I know she cares deeply about covering the human side of a story based solely on the facts,” Bondy said, adding that the newsmag “will go beyond statistics and headlines to provide an in-depth, unbiased look at the events of the day and how they affect our viewers.” Al Jazeera Media Network exec director of international operations, Ehab Al Shihabi used similar language in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, saying the new network would be unbiased and feature less political grandstanding and celebrity coverage than existing cable news network. Al Jazeera America has been lining up relationships witeh names known to U.S. news viewers in an effort to quell what Al Shihabi, in that LAT interview, called “a bucket of resistance” to the channel. In addition to O’Brien, the list includes CNN’s Ali Velshi and NBC’s Mike Viqueira.
Among the reported candidates to take the role of Al Jazeera America president are former CNN/U.S. president Jon Klein, former CNN managing editor Mark Whitaker, and former ABC News topper David Westin. Would a CNN alum hire in this post advance efforts to get the biggest distribution holdout, Time Warner Cable, to carry the network? Back in January, when Al Jazeera coughed up a reported $500 million to buy Al Gore’s little-watched Current TV and replace it with Al Jazeera America, Time Warner Cable said its deal with Current had been terminated and it would no longer carry the service — a big distribution hit for the network. Shortly thereafter, however, Time Warner Cable said it was keeping an open mind about Al Jazeera’s plans.