Why is the ‘Times’ editorial board making a cause out of Al Jazeera?

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There's something oddly tin-eared about the New York Times' editorial today on the purchase of Al Gore's cable network, Current, by Al Jazeera. The editors argue, a little wanly, that it's a shame that Time Warner Cable won't carry the new network.

"While the cable company has the legal right to cut off Current, the decision is unfortunate and could block access to an important news source," write the editors, referring to the cable provider's decision to take advantage of a clause that would allow them to opt out of carrying Current if it changed owners.

Time Warner Cable is the only provider to have made that decision, but it's the second-largest single provider in the U.S. And as the Times reports on its front page today, many other networks may not have decided to stick with Current purely because of their hopes for the network's audience development under the new ownership. Al Gore, in fact, has been making the rounds for months, spending significant political capital trying to persuade networks to keep the arrangement in place, the Times reported.

The deal, which the Times, citing unnamed sources, pegged at $500 million, would at that size have gotten Gore himself a $100 million paycheck, nearly doubling his personal fortune.

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More from the editorial:

Al Jazeera could bring an important international perspective to American audiences and should be given a chance to prove itself commercially before cable companies remove Current TV from their lineups. If Al Jazeera America, the channel that the company plans to create in New York to replace Current, fails to attract a critical mass of viewers, cable companies would be justified in removing it.
Al Jazeera often brings a nuance to international stories that can be lacking on American networks, because it has more foreign correspondents and overseas bureaus than many established Western networks.

Now, I know that the editorial board doesn't have to consider whether it's a smart business decision for a cable carrier to take Al Jazeera America on as a matter of course. And the fact that if Time Warner Cable changes its mind, it will be able to make a pretty favorable deal with the upstart network later, is irrelevant to the Times' editors wish to see Al Jazeera America on cable.

But I wonder whether it isn't pointless to editorialize on it without at least some business context. As the Times' Brian Stelter noted on the paper's Media Decoder blog yesterday, Time Warner Cable has been tough on cable networks that don't deliver significant audience, whether they are owned by the state of Qatar or not. In fact, just Monday, a "temporary" extension was granted to AMC cable properties IFC and We, which carry popular shows "Portlandia" and "Bridezillas," because the channels' overall audiences weren't big enough.

Deals with BBC America made in the last year, similarly lauded for bringing a different and better-financed international news report to American cable customers, are tenuous enough on their own, however much those of us in the media are glad to have them around; why should we expect Time Warner Cable to take on another similar bet? How many options that we never seem to take is it Time Warner Cable's responsibility to provide?

Putting aside the question of Al Jazeera's "impartiality" and its connection to the Qatari government (the only counterargument the column envisages), the editorial is also naive about Al Jazeera America's plans in the United States. The editors cite Al Jazeera's performance during the Arab Spring, several times, and no others; but Al Jazeera America doesn't look like its setting itself up as the international news network for Americans.

“There’s a major hole right now that Al Jazeera can fill. And that is providing an alternative viewpoint to domestic news, which is very parochial,” a consultant who has worked with Al Jazeera in the past told the Times' own Brian Stelter. She also declared rather bluntly: "There is a limited amount of interest in international news in the United States.”

Sixty percent of the new network's programming, according to Al Jazeera, will originate from its New York headquarters and the United States. And while there will surely be moments where international stories where Al Jazeera is primed to deliver the deepest reporting will grasp the country's attention, it's only a bystander who would expect Time Warner Cable to sign them on based on such a wish.

Just as "Portlandia" and other original programming punches up the reputation of networks like IFC that have had difficulty retaining audiences across the board, Al Jazeera English is likely to struggle to get a foothold in the television-news diets of Americans on a day-in, day-out basis.

And if they find it, it might shock the Times editorial board to see how different it looked from the Al Jazeera you can stream over Newscaster today.

That's the other thing: the old Al Jazeera network was anyway already available to pretty much anyone already (if you've got a Roku, or other streaming device, you can even get it on your actual television). And that's part of the problem.

As Stelter reported: "[Time Warner Cable feels] there isn’t adequate demand for the channel from their customers." And: "They also resent that the channel is streamed free over the Internet."

It's in the last paragraph of the editorial that you really sense the impetus for the column: "Doubts about the independence of Al Jazeera do not justify removing it from cable and satellite systems."

I think the Times thought it was inserting a voice of reason into heated arguments about the network, which is owned by the government of Qatar and has aired controversial Osama bin Laden footage in the past. Unfortunately, those are not the arguments Time Warner Cable is having, nor are they the ones people who actually watch closely and attentively are having. They're only the arguments that are dominating Facebook and Twitter. Which, I might have thought, the Times editorial board was capable of pulling itself out of.