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Al Jazeera America: Will U.S. viewers buy it?

August 12, 2013

By Roger Yu

After Mike Viqueira was hired as White House correspondent for Al Jazeera’s new American television venture, the former NBC News veteran braced for a barrage of negative reaction on Twitter.

“I expected some comments from people unfamiliar with Al Jazeera,” Viqueira says. “Out of 300 comments I had on Twitter, there were maybe two that hinted at that.”

“That,” of course, refers to the lingering perception that Middle East-based Al Jazeera is anti-U.S. and a mouthpiece for terrorists, sentiments that took hold when it aired numerous Osama bin Laden videos in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and stories that were critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War. Indeed, for many Americans, the only encounter with the Al Jazeera brand came during those years.

As Al Jazeera America prepares to debut Aug. 20 on cable lineups in 48 million homes, Viqueira and his co-workers are eager to eviscerate that reputation. The new cable entry rests entirely on a bet that there is a good-size audience hungry for the straight down the middle, “serious and in-depth” journalism that its management boldly promises.

“The only thing I will say is watch and see,” Viqueira says. “We are going to be about journalism and content.”

Al Jazeera America, the latest offshoot of the Al Jazeera media conglomerate funded by the government of oil-rich Qatar, is buying its way into the lucrative U.S. market. After paying about $500 million in January for Current TV, a struggling cable network founded by Al Gore, Al Jazeera is gutting the channel and installing its own brand of news programming. It will be an entirely new network focused on U.S. domestic news and will be run separately from Al Jazeera English, which will be phased out in the U.S.

Now that the launch is barely a week away, the pace has picked up at AJAM. Nearly all 850 employees budgeted for the debut have been hired, including writers and editors for its website: http://www.aljazeera.com/america. (Several former USA TODAY reporters are among those hired by the network.)

It has opened 12 bureaus across the U.S., with reporters filing stories for rehearsal programs. The bureaus are in Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Several former anchors at rival networks — John Seigenthaler from NBC; David Shuster from MSNBC; and Joie Chen, Ali Velshi and Soledad O’Brien from CNN — have joined the roster. In July, former ABC News executive Kate O’Brian was named president, heading the editorial operation that comprises about two-thirds of its total employees.

Its journalistic credo – offering “fact-based, unbiased and in-depth journalism” – will be supported by “heavy investment,” according to its interim chief, Ehab Al Shihabi, an Al Jazeera international operations executive who was tapped to oversee the launch. “We’re not coming here just to survive. We’re coming here to win.” Read more in USA Today.

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