Al Jazeera America finally came to TCA Press Tour, after previously backing out twice, to take questions from the media. The session was long on sales pitch, short on substance – and even shorter on questions. Numbers were scarce — AJAM panelists noted the network is on track to reach 59 million households, has access to more than 80 bureaus worldwide, etc. – but no mention was made that the network currently is averaging just 15,000 viewers in primetime and about 5,000 in the news demo. AJAM President Kate O’Brian said ratings were going in the right direction — up — though Nielsen records show AJAM averaged about 21,000 viewers in September.
There was, however, a lot of talk about “unbiased, fact-based, in-depth” and “immersive” news — very big on the word “immersive” at AJAM — and telling stories from the “ground up,” from the “human angle” and in “360 degrees. “We don’t have an opinion,” O’Brian explained.
One exasperated TV critic finally demanded they address “the 800-pound gorilla in the room”: “What does Al Jazeera mean?”
The panelists confessed it means “The Peninsula.” AJAM anchor Tony Harris held up his hand, stuck out the thumb, and illustrated what is the meaning of “peninsula”.
Another TV critic wondered what is the status of the three Al Jazeera journalists sentenced as spies in Egypt, and what was Al Jazeera doing to try to obtain their release; that critic felt the story should have been bigger in the press. O’Brian called it “a terrible situation for these three gentlemen” and said they are doing their best to keep this story out in front of viewers. Harris said they are “open to all kind of ideas and suggestions” how to accomplish that. But he also said he thinks the situation will be “resolved.”
Last Sunday, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi acknowledged that the sentences handed down to the three journalists had a “very negative” impact on his country’s reputation, according to press reports. Their sentencing on June 23, after a five-month trial, has been condemned as a fraud by various organizations and media outlets. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentences “chilling and draconian.” In his remarks published Sunday, Egypt’s president did not say whether he will “pardon” the journalists, and he refuted claims that the trials were politically motivated and a part of the tension between Egypt and Qatar, the Gulf state that owns Al Jazeera. Press reports on the situation have noted Qatar was a supporter of Egypt’s ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group. When Morsi was ousted last year, many of the group’s leaders moved to Qatar, according to press reports.
Another journalist at Summer TV Press Tour 2014 wondered if the Al Jazeera America panelists had experienced any “pushback” in their coverage of the “World Cup Scandal for 2022” and the “incredible string of deaths” associated with the building of stadiums for that competition to be held in Qatar. O’Brian insisted they had experienced “no editorial influence all all from Qatar, at Al Jazeera America, and were “completely editorially independent.” Qatar won the bidding to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, though the hot climate has raised concerns about holding the event during the traditional June and July. Qatar also has been blasted over reports that hundreds of workers have died during construction of facilities for the event — not to mention the accusations of corruption and bribery that have been leveled at country in re it winning the right to host the event in the first place. Media reports say FIFA is conducting an investigation into these allegations, which proves they do have a sense of humor.
The appearance at a press tour is Al Jazeera America’s first. In January, AJAM bailed on taking questions from TV critics at TCA Press Tour for the second time. In fairness, the fledgling cable network did provide breakfast for the critics that morning, per its original arrangement with the group that organizes the cable-TV days of each tour. But no AJAM execs or talent were around to take questions from the critics. Al Jazeera America also had canceled, at the eleventh hour, its scheduled Q&A session at TCA Summer Press Tour 2013.
Fortunately, most of what were sure to be the critics’ more pressing questions that morning last January had been asked just days earlier of AJAM’s primetime news anchor/former NBC News anchor John Seigenthaler by Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report:
Colbert: This is the network where Bin Laden used to send his gloating tapes.
Seigenthaler: We’re part of the Al Jazeera Media Network…
Colbert: Which is part of the Al Qaeda Media Network.
Seigenthaler: We can bust some myths here, because it is absolutely NOT part of the Al Qaeda network.
Colbert: Al Qaeda America – whatever.
(Colbert points to Al Jazeera America logo)
Colbert: That is terrifying. That that is not only Arabic, it looks like Arabic on fire – it looks like exploding Arabic. Why shouldn’t I be afraid?
Seigenthaler: Do you know what it means?
Colbert: It says, ‘The bombing starts at midnight’.
Seigenthaler: No. It means ‘peninsula’.
Colbert: What does that mean — is that a metaphor?
Seigenthaler: ‘Peninsula’, [like] Florida.
Colbert: That’s where the attack is coming?
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