Al Jazeera opens with a whimper not a bang in US

The Taliban attack on Christians has rattled Pakistanis to their core, and sparked a long overdue debate on national and religious identity.

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For much of this year, US politicians, foreign policy experts, and media-watchers analysed each step as Al Jazeera America prepared for its first broadcast last month.

Which famous TV journalists had signed on? Would major cable-television distributors like Comcast and DirecTV carry its shows? Right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh warned darkly that “Al Jazeera doesn’t have much to say about western civilisation that’s good.”

To add to the drama, just one day after the station launched, major news erupted in its own backyard: a chemical-weapons attack in Syria, spurring international outrage and threats of retaliatory strikes by Washington and Paris. Surely, this controversial new station would make a grand entrance?

Yet Americans hardly seemed to notice that Al Jazeera America – known as AJAM – now existed.

No protesters marched in front of its New York City studio, nor did Pastor Terry Jones publicly burn copies of the Quran in Florida. There were no fulminations from Sarah Palin, the outspoken former vice-presidential candidate.

The only apparent grumblings were minor. The website of the conservative magazine National Review quoted a professor claiming that the station had “an anti-American undercurrent”. One New York State legislator called for a boycott.

In fact, viewership – just 22,000 people for the initial hour – was too low for Nielsen, the main source of TV-watching statistics, to measure accurately. AJAM’s most popular show drew 54,000 viewers. By contrast, Fox News typically gets an audience of 1.2 million, and CNN, 477,000.

One reason for the poor ratings is that the breaking news that should have helped Al Jazeera America actually hurt it.

All of its competitors were also flooding the Middle East with their best reporters, thus neutralising AJAM’s presumed local expertise.

The station may have made things worse for itself by trying too hard to appeal to American tastes and not seem too exotic.

When the respected Pew Research Center analysed cable TV coverage of the early days of the Syrian crisis, from August 26 to 31, it found that "Al Jazeera America was largely in sync with its US cable news competitors, most often CNN".

Well, if American viewers weren’t going to get any special insights from AJAM, and they could see their familiar morning news host Charlie Rose interview Bashar Al Assad on CBS, why should they give up the American TV stations they were accustomed to?

AJAM’s biggest problem may be the overall fragmentation of the media. Thanks to cable, satellite, traditional broadcast, and the internet, the average US home now gets 118.6 TV channels, according to Nielsen.

Americans – and people in most developed countries – can choose among a cornucopia of specialised outlets appealing to every conceivable prejudice and niche.

And unfortunately, that is exactly how Americans are choosing.

In a groundbreaking 2009 study, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, surveyed college students’ political views and then tracked the online articles they read.

She found that they spent 36 per cent more time reading articles that agreed with their pre-existing point of view.

Conservatives follow Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Liberals watch MSNBC and listen to National Public Radio. Evangelical Christians have religious broadcasters, while Latinos can turn to the Spanish-language network Telemundo. By contrast, Newsweek, one of the last traditional US magazines to try to appeal to a broad-based audience, ceased publication last year.

So if viewers are going to seek their news primarily from speciality outlets that share their most important worldviews, there simply aren’t that many Americans who see Islam, Arab culture, or the Middle East as their main identity.

The key issue isn’t whether AJAM is a roaring success. The problem is that all of us – in the US and around the world – need to listen more to people with whom we disagree.

Indeed, it would be far better if Al Jazeera’s offices were being picketed every day – if that meant that more people were watching the network.

Fran Hawthorne is an author and journalist based in the US