November 15, 2006

Al Jazeera International’s Quiet Launch

No. of Stories
Al Jazeera International/English 72
Bill Marimow 246
James OShea 392
Dan Rather 736
Borat 3110

To say that the Nov. 15 launch of the Al Jazeera International (AJI) global news channel was greeted with a collective yawn by the rest of the media world may be stretching the point.

But not by much.

Despite an initial flurry of media attention to the English-language cousin of the controversial Arab channel, Al Jazeera, a number of factors worked to chill that interest over time. A Google News search from Nov 7-Nov. 14 found only 72 stories mentioning the term “Al Jazeera International” or “Al Jazeera English,” as it now calls itself. That’s despite the fact that the outlet will employ hundreds and says it has a reach more than 80 million homes worldwide.

The Google search revealed that press coverage of AJI in the week leading up to its launch paled in comparison to the attention paid to some other media players making news – ranging from former CBS anchor Dan Rather to incoming Los Angeles Times editor James O’Shea.

Rather, who left the CBS anchor desk under the shadow of scandal last year and who launched his newsmagazine show on the cable outlet HDNet last night, was included in 736 stories in the past week. O’Shea—who replaced the ousted Dean Baquet as Times editor and Bill Marimow, who was named editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, are media insiders who are not well known to the public. Yet the search uncovered 392 stories from Nov. 7-14 mentioning O’Shea and 246 mentioning Marimow.

Of course, none of them could touch Borat, the fictional Kazakh journalist (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) who is currently starring in his own hit film. The Google search found 3,110 stories mentioning Borat in the past week.

If media interest in the launch of AJI waned over time, the network itself is partly responsible. Initially slated for a debut in the first half of 2006, AJI was plagued by a series of delays. Its officials have also been generally tight-lipped about programming and operational details, and there are lingering questions about what kind of cable or satellite carriage the channel will have in the U.S. (In a new AJI press release, it mentions four platforms in this country – GlobeCast, Fision, Jump TV, and VDC.)

Against this backdrop is the continued concern and suspicion in some quarters that the Al Jazeera news brand tilts anti-Western and pro-militant Islam. It is difficult to definitively state how many of the 72 stories mentioning "Al Jazeera International" or "Al Jazeera English" also contained words such as "bin Laden," "Al Qaeda" and "terrorist" because of the possibility of overlap in the same story. But the Google search does reveal that a number of articles about the new network did include those terms, which have become synonymous with violent Islamic fundamentalism.