Watchdog groups voice concern over Al-Jazeera’s purchase of Current TV

ADL cites Qatari channel’s ‘troubling record’ of serving as a propaganda tool against the State of Israel

Al-Jazeera logo
Al-Jazeera logo

The Anti-Defamation League on Friday expressed concerns about Al-Jazeera’s recent purchase of Current TV, citing the Qatari channel’s “troubling record” of providing a platform to all manner of virulent anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic extremists, and of serving as a propaganda tool against the State of Israel.

In a statement, ADL’s National director Abraham Foxman said, “We will be watching and monitoring the broadcasts as they become available to a much wider audience in the United States.”

Similar worries were voiced by Boston-based news monitor CAMERA, whose president Andrea Levin said, “If Al-Jazeera, a creature of the Qatari government, does convert Current TV into ‘Al-Jazeera America’ as reported, its coverage will demand the closest scrutiny.”

“Though some Al Jazeera English programming has been unobjectionable, it’s crucial to keep in mind that the parent network is an arm of the Qatari government. And Qatar, in turn, is a small, oil-rich, family-run state with its own agenda,” Levin added.

CAMERA Associate Director Alex Safian noted that, in reporting Israeli-Palestinian news, although Al-Jazeera sometimes gives Israeli spokesmen a chance to state their case, it often dwells on Israeli counter-terrorism operations without covering the Palestinian attacks that caused them.

The acquisition of Current — the news network that was co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore — boosts Al-Jazeera’s reach in the U.S. beyond a few large U.S. metropolitan areas including New York and Washington nearly ninefold to about 40 million homes.

Gore confirmed the sale Wednesday, saying in a statement that Al-Jazeera shares Current TV’s mission “to give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling.”

Al-Jazeera plans to gradually transform Current into a network called Al-Jazeera America by adding five to 10 new US bureaus beyond the five it has now and by hiring more journalists. More than half of the content will be US news and the network will have its headquarters in New York, spokesman Stan Collender said.

Collender said there are no rules against foreign ownership of a cable channel — unlike the strict rules limiting foreign ownership of free-to-air TV stations. He said the move is based on demand, adding that 40 percent of viewing traffic on the Al-Jazeera English website is from the US.

“This is a pure business decision based on recognized demand,” Collender said. “When people watch Al-Jazeera, they tend to like it a great deal.”

Previous to Al-Jazeera’s purchase, Current TV was in 60 million homes. It is carried by Comcast Corp., which owned less than a 10 percent stake in Current TV, as well as DirecTV. Neither company announced plans to drop the channel.

In 2010, Al-Jazeera English’s managing director, Tony Burman, blamed a “very aggressive hostility” from the Bush administration for reluctance among cable and satellite companies to show the network.

Even so, Al-Jazeera has garnered respect for its ability to build a serious news product in a short time. In a statement announcing the deal, it touted numerous US journalism awards it received in 2012, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award Grand Prize and the Scripps Howard Award for Television/Cable In-Depth Reporting.

But there may be a culture clash at the network. Dave Marash, a former “Nightline” reporter who worked for Al-Jazeera in Washington, said he left the network in 2008 in part because he sensed an anti-American bias there.

Current, meanwhile, began as a groundbreaking effort to promote user-generated content. But it has settled into a more conventional format of political talk television with a liberal bent. Gore worked on-air as an analyst during its recent election night coverage.

Its leading personalities are former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and Cenk Uygur, a former political commentator on MSNBC who hosts the show called “The Young Turks.” Current had signed Keith Olbermann to be its top host in 2011 but his tenure lasted less than a year before it ended in bad blood on both sides.

Current has largely been outflanked by MSNBC in its effort to be a liberal alternative to the leading cable news network, Fox News Channel.

Current hired former CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman in 2011 to be its president. Bohrman pushed the network to innovate technologically, with election night coverage that emphasized a conversation over social media.

Current TV is expected to post $114 million in revenue in 2013, according to research firm SNL Kagan. The firm pegged the network’s cash flow at nearly $24 million a year.

With its purchase of left-leaning Current TV, the Pan-Arab news channel has fulfilled a long-held quest to reach tens of millions of US homes. But its new audience immediately got a little smaller.

The nation’s second-largest TV operator, Time Warner Cable Inc., dropped Current after the deal was confirmed Wednesday, a sign that the channel will have an uphill climb to expand its reach.

“Our agreement with Current has been terminated and we will no longer be carrying the service. We are removing the service as quickly as possible,” the company said in a statement.

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