With Soledad O'Brien, Al Jazeera America Gears Up for Launch  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2013

With Soledad O'Brien, Al Jazeera America Gears Up for Launch   

Al Jazeera's new American channel launches Aug 20. Fri., Aug. 9, 2013.

By Gabrielle Kratsas
AJR editorial assistant Gabrielle Kratsas (gkratsas@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

In 2011, Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Al Jazeera's coverage of the world as "real news."

On August 20, more Americans will have the opportunity to judge for themselves when the network launches its new TV news station in the U.S., Al Jazeera America, after a frenzied push to staff up over the last year.

The Qatar-based network purchased Current TV in January with plans to relaunch it as a 24-hour live news channel. At a time when other major news organizations are cutting back, the network has announced ambitious plans to open a dozen news bureaus in major U.S. cities. It has also hired several prominent American journalists, including CNN's Ali Velshi and former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien.

O'Brien's production company Starfish Media Group agreed to a partnership with AJAM, which was announced July 1. She will be featured in eight-minute pieces as a special correspondent to AJAM's primetime current affairs magazine program "America Tonight," and Starfish Media will produce hour-long documentary specials for AJAM.

"I will be doing some in-depth reporting on the issues that matter to me, personally," O'Brien said in an interview, adding that she plans to take a look at subjects like the effects of the sequester and the quality of education. O'Brien's Starfish Media Group currently has production deals with HBO's "Real Sports," CNN and the National Geographic Bee.

"I think it really is what I look forward to in a production company, and I think it's being able to do those projects you're interested in and skip over the projects you're not interested in," said O'Brien, who plans to return to Haiti for one of her AJAM documentaries. In 2010, she reported on Haiti's troubles outside of the earthquake in her CNN documentary, "Rescued."

Al Jazeera's reporting tends to reflect sensitivity toward stories highlighting disparities based on social class and race, which are O'Brien's forte, said David Zurawik, TV and media critic for the Baltimore Sun.

"Those stories seem to be the kind that O'Brien has been drawn to during her career and which she tells particularly well," Zurawik said. "I think American TV needs to report more of these stories and she is just the person to do it. I think she and Al Jazeera America were made for each other."

During her talks with AJAM representatives, O'Brien had a similar feeling. After suggesting an idea for a story on poverty, the reps thought it sounded interesting, and they asked her more about how she would tell it.

AJAM's tactical hiring didn't stop with O'Brien. The network recently announced several major executive hires, including former ABC News senior vice president Kate O'Brian as president, CNN veteran David Doss as senior vice president for news programming and CBS News' Marcy McGinnis as senior vice president, newsgathering.

"They're hiring good people, and the strategy, I think, with that is they know it's important for them to establish credibility with the American viewing audience," said Zurawik, referring to the problems Al Jazeera faces with coming into the U.S., where some conservatives have accused the network of having an anti-American bias.

O'Brien said she was confident of Al Jazeera's ability to enter into the United States.

"I think every network has to prove itself to its audience," O'Brien said. "Al Jazeera America has said they're going to do great storytelling, and I'm going to contribute to some great storytelling. I think that if they're able to do that, they'll be able to get an audience."

"If you look at the quality of the reporting from Al Jazeera English, it's excellent. If you look at their documentaries and how many awards they've won, it's clearly quality journalism. Al Jazeera produces straightforward reporting that's not framed by entertainment values," she said.

With the acquisition of former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV slot, AJAM should reach over 40 million households. The program's newsroom will be headquartered in New York City, but 12 other bureaus will be stationed throughout the U.S. AJAM has suggested it will separate itself from competitors such as CNN and Fox News with non-stop live coverage and fewer commercials.

As the station's new president, Kate O'Brian told the Associated Press, "We are going to be live, and we are going to be live 24-7." Al Shihabi also told the AP that the channel plans to air almost half as many commercial per hour as the industry standard.

To O'Brien, journalism is not about having a couple of commentators debating the news. It is about digging into an interesting story to understand the "why." And with AJAM, she said, she has a great opportunity to do just that.

"I think that Al Jazeera wants to offer great, smart journalism that goes beyond the headline and beyond the political talking heads," O'Brien said. "At the end of the day, I just want to do really good work for people who are interested in high quality reporting."