The last time Al Jazeera had a big American strategy, it was rejected

The website announces a deal with CNN's Soledad O'Brien. ()
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On Sunday evening, The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald published an article about Al Jazeera America, the soon-to-launch Manhattan-based cable-news network I wrote about in a freelance web feature for New York magazine last Thursday.

As I noted in my piece, there's been some skepticism about Al Jazeera's motivation for creating what an executive of the Doha, Qatar-based broadcast giant repeatedly described to me as "an American channel for an American audience," one that by all accounts seems like it will look a lot like CNN minus the tabloid fluff.

Greenwald cites resistance among Al Jazeera journalists to the direction of Al Jazeera America. The argument is that the new network might water down its parent entity's reputation as "an intrepid and fearless global news organization: willing to cover stories, air dissident views, and challenge power in ways that many other outlets, especially in the US, are afraid to do," to quote Greenwald, in order to make itself viable to American viewers. (Or, more to the point, the cable providers who ultimately give these viewers their news.)

Tony Burman, who was Al Jazeera's chief strategic advisor for the Americas through 2011 and a former managing director of Al Jazeera English, made a similar case when I spoke with him recently: "Al Jazeera seems to be making compromises, probably to placate the cable and satellite companies. If you live in Washington, or L.A., or Chicago, or any city for that matter, why would you turn on Al Jazeera? You'd turn it on because, like the BBC, it could help Americans get a window on the world that otherwise wouldn't be available to them."

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The primary evidence of internal strife comes in the form of an 1,800-word email obtained by Greenwald in which Al Jazeera journalist Marwan Bishara blasts company brass for leveraging the outlet's "brand, journalism and credibility, only to distance AJAM whenever convenient to appease those who won't, or don't necessarily want to be, appeased, and in the process insult the intelligence of the American people." (You can read the full screed here.)

Greenwald also spoke to an anonymous insider who blamed a cabal of powerful consulting firms for tilting the forthcoming American channel's identity toward a more mainstream-friendly, CNN-style editorial model with a focus on U.S. news and international news that's relevant to people in the U.S. Indeed, as I'd reported, representatives from DLA Piper, Qorvis Communications and Siegel + Gale were hard at work on devising a strategy for selling Al Jazeera America to politicians, pundits and the public even before the ink had dried on Al Jazeera's $500 million purchase of CurrentTV, which is how the network is being made available in 49 million U.S. households come late August in the first place.

But it's worth noting that this isn't the first time Al Jazeera has come up with a grand plan to penetrate the American cable-news market. And in fact an earlier strategy that was under consideration might not have set off alarm bells.

Three years ago, the network was weighing a proposal to retool Al Jazeera English, the English-language offshoot Al Jazeera had been lobbying for in the U.S. before it decided to buy its way in via Current, in a bid to make it more palatable to an American audience, thus potentially making cable providers more willing to distribute the network.

The pitch went like this, in part:

AJE has a poor brand identity in the Americas. With very few people exposed to the channel, and a lack of proactive brand-building, negative misperceptions have been allowed to persist. There is also confusion about the relationship between “Al Jazeera” and “Al Jazeera English.” One result is that distributors are wary of the potential commercial and PR risks of carrying the channel. A branding review is a critical first step to all the other marketing, communications and distribution efforts described in this section of the strategic plan. Equally essential is the engagement of a full-time, permanent Communications team for the Americas, based in DC, to oversee all these activities.

The three-year strategy, known internally as "The Americas Project" and spearheaded by Burman over the course of about five months, was submitted to Al Jazeera management in February of 2010. It included many of the same tactics now being employed by Al Jazeera America, according to a draft of the proposal that was shared with me: "More reporters on the ground in more places"; "Stronger prime-time News Hour(s)"; "Flagship program series; in-depth documentaries"; "Breaking stories and investigative reports"; "More exciting on-air look; high-profile hosts."

The key difference? The strategy was based on Al Jazeera English's model of providing "international coverage you can’t get elsewhere" as opposed to focusing on the type of American-centric news that's already well covered by existing U.S. outlets.

"We concluded, the group of us that looked at this, that the only way there would be any value in Al Jazeera making a concerted push to be a presence in America was if it retained its brand and didn't lose sight of what Al Jazeera represents for many people: A progressive, globally engaged international news channel with journalists in virtually every corner of the world," Burman told me.

The strategy called for an initial investment of roughly $10 million during the first two years. According to the proposal, it would have expanded Al Jazeera English's distribution in the top 10 U.S. markets (as well as Canada, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil), as well as increasing viewership, bureaus, programming and "high profile contributors."

That is, if it hadn't been rejected.

"This was never accepted by Doha as the road ahead," said Burman, who noted that Al Jazeera was under different leadership at the time. "The response was: 'No interest. We don't want to invest in this kind of enterprise.'"

Whether or not "The America's Project" would have achieved the same ends as Al Jazeera America in terms of getting the brand in front of U.S. viewers is now a moot point. Three years later, Al Jazeera is sinking mountains of cash into its soon-to-launch American channel, which has posh headquarters in the New Yorker hotel, nearly 700 newly-hired employees and multiple distribution deals inherited through the Current TV acquisition.

But as Greenwald notes, whether or not Al Jazeera America will fill the need for "a new, aggressive, fearless investigative approach and a well-recognized global brand" in the U.S. TV news landscape "remains to be seen."