Al Jazeera America: no soft power, just business!
Azzurra Meringolo interviews Stan Collender, Al Jazeera America spokesperson 25 January 2013

If on one hand the deal brings Al-Jazeera into closer competition with American news channels like CNN, MSNBC and Fox, on the other it confronts the Qatari network with a challenge. Described as a terrorist friendly and anti-American channel which famously aired Osama Bin Laden’s speeches, most major cable and satellite television networks in the US have refused to offer Al-Jazeera’s English-language service to their audiences ever since its inception six years ago. Will Al-Jazeera America be able to take over the American public? Stan Collender, Al Jazeera America spokesperson, answers to this and other questions. «We will demonstrate to Americans that this is the kind of journalism they appreciate», explains Mr. Collender. «Thanks to some surveys, we know that those Americans who watch Al-Jazeera English love it. The American audience already recognizes Al-Jazeera’s ability and journalistic professionalism. I am sure they will appreciate the launch of the new channel because this responds to their demands. They will admit that Al-Jazeera is not a terror network. Of course, this is the challenge we face and we will be able to answer to it. Al-Jazeera is not a political party or a government institution. It is an all-news channel. It is neither anti-American nor anti-Israel. It is an unbiased channel. There are those who have prejudices against the network. In principle, they are against Al-Jazeera and they are criticizing this new operation. But we are not afraid. We will surprise them, showing our way of working. In addition, we will give America and the Americans the opportunity to speak to the Arab World».

Where there more reasons that pushed the Qatari network to invest in this new channel? Does this have anything to do with Qatar’s diplomatic soft power?

Not at all. Behind this operation there is just business. 40 percent of AlJazeera English viewers come from the US. We understood that there was a strong demand for Al-Jazeera and its way of doing journalism. We made analysis and we discovered that those who watch Al-Jazeera are frequent users. Strong demand and large channel estimation were the factors that have driven this new adventure. The time is rife to introduce Al-Jazeera in the States. This is the time to expand the coverage in the US.

Al-Jazeera English already has its American audience which watches this channel via online streaming or by satellites. Why pass on to cable?

American people are used to cable TV. In order to reach a bigger market share we have to buy these kinds of facilities that Current TV already had. There were no ideological reasons behind the decision to buy Al Gore’s television. They had what we were looking for. By acquiring Current TV, Al-Jazeera will significantly resolve a distribution problem in order to expand the existing distribution footprint in the US, as well as increase our newsgathering and reporting efforts in America. For many years, we understood that we could make a positive contribution to the news and information available in and about the US and what we are now announcing will help us achieve that goal.

Current TV was a channel covering environmental issues. Al-Jazeera is a network financed by an oil-exporting country. Does it pose any problem?

There are those who say that Al-Jazeera bought Current TV because it shares the same values, it focuses on young people and it wants to give a voice to those who are not heard. This is not true. We just bought access to American houses. Current TV is just an instrument for us. We see that Al Gore is criticized by Americans who do not like this operation, but this does not create any problem for us.

For the next 90 days, Current TV will still be available. When Al-Jazeera America will replace Current TV, the contract with cable TV companies requires that neither the English or the American channels will be available on streaming. By embracing cable, aren’t you afraid of losing the web and its audience?

True, but this depends on the contract and the discussions with cable owner. The network’s decision to pull its service off the web reflects a broader conflict between pay television and online streaming that other TV channels face. Maybe when cable TV will understand that the American channel is something different from the English one there will be negotiations. We will try to work hard to do all that is possible.

Al-Jazeera America will combine programming from the existing English-language service with new material. What can you tell us about this new material?

It is important to understand that we are not speaking about Al-Jazeera English for America, We are creating a new channel and 60 percent of our material will be new. We will cover domestic US affairs and the best of international news. News about America and for America. We will have journalists all over the country. What will not be new is the way Al-Jazeera will do journalism. It will be all about serious news. We will stay on these stories more than other channels do. There will be no space for entertainment or soft stories. It will be typically strong Al-Jazeera journalism.

During the Arab Spring both president Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton praised Al-Jazeera’s coverage. How important was this endorsement for the creation of the new American channel?

It was not just Obama. Also republican senator John Mc Cain praised our coverage. He was a former critic of Al-Jazeera. Also Collin Powell, Secretary of State in the Bush administration, appreciated the network. The Arab Spring was an extraordinary event that gave us the opportunity to show our unbiased way of doing journalism. That is the reason why Americans appreciate our network. There are lots of people who started to watch us in this occasion and then got used to connect to our web site.

At the same time, during the transitions still in place in the Arab Spring countries, Al-Jazeera Arabic lost credibility among the Arab audience. Does Al-Jazeera America want to replace a market share?

The Arab network is totally different from the English one. The same will be true about the American channel. With this operation we just want to find a wider audience among the American public. We want to reach a different public.