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Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 by the emir of Qatar, the first 24-hour news channel in the Arab world. It remains primarily funded by the Qatari government, which helps free it from a profit-driven approach.
In 2006, Al Jazeera launched Al Jazeera English, which now airs in 100 countries and is available in at least 130 million households. (That reach includes only a couple of U.S. cities.) The channel has been praised for its extensive international coverage and has become the dominant television news organization covering the developing world.
In light of its acclaimed reporting of the Middle Eastern and North African protests of early 2011, Al Jazeera English pushed for further U.S. distribution, starting a social media campaign and meeting with U.S. cable providers. In August 2011, it began broadcasting in the New York area through a deal with Time Warner Cable.
In August 2013, Al Jazeera launched Al Jazeera America, or AJAM. AJAM was formed out of the Al Gore-founded cable news channel Current TV, which Al Jazeera bought in December 2012. (Gore sued Al Jazeera over the purchase in 2014.) After its difficulty getting cable carriage for Al Jazeera English, the purchase of Current was widely seen as an effort to gain more distribution in American homes. Al Jazeera America hired at least 680 employees and opened 12 U.S. bureaus before its launch, with former ABC News executive Kate O’Brian hired as its first president. Ahead of its launch, a prominent Al Jazeera journalist raised concerns that the new channel would neuter its editorial voice in an attempt to appease American audiences and cable distributors.
The channel was initially praised for its seriousness and substance, and won Peabody awards in its first year. A 2013 Pew study found that Al Jazeera’s content regarding the Syrian conflict resembled the other American cable news networks. Initial ratings were low; after six months, AJAM had lost more than half of the Current TV audience that preceded it. Ratings remained extremely low through 2014, with an average of 17,000 viewers in primetime. Al Jazeera America professed indifference to its low viewership and announced plans two months into its run to add news staff and programming and open 12 new bureaus. In April 2014, however, it laid off dozens of employees and cut its sports unit.
Al Jazeera English’s reach in the U.S. plateaued at 4.7 million households in 2012. After Al Jazeera had difficulty getting the channel picked up by U.S. carriers, it created a branded YouTube channel to distribute its programming online to viewers. As of 2012, about 40 to 45 percent of its video-streaming traffic came from countries where its channel is banned or not carried, including the U.S. However, with the launch of Al Jazeera America, the network ceased live-streaming its programming and blocked its YouTube videos in the U.S. as part of an effort to improve its value for cable carriers. (The U.S. videos were unblocked a month later.) Before it launched, however, the channel was dropped by both Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-Verse, though it was picked up by Time Warner a few months later.
Though the channel was to be largely independent from its Arabic-language parent, staffers have repeatedly expressed concern that the Arabic operation is exercising significant editorial control. In 2012, Al Jazeera reportedly cut or relocated about 200 of Al Jazeera English’s staffers and centralized control in Qatar. At the same time, it began moving heavily into sports broadcasting, especially European soccer.
Al Jazeera has often been accused of having an anti-Israel or anti-U.S. bias, though it has also been praised for its distinct perspective. In 2011, however, its news director resigned after diplomatic cables revealed that he had modified Iraq war coverage in response to U.S. pressure, and in 2012, its news director re-edited a video package to focus on the Qatari emir, the channel’s owner. In 2013, 22 staff members resigned in protest of what they called biased coverage of political events in Egypt.
The network has been active in publicly led journalism, using Ushahidi to crowdsource breaking news. It launched a citizen journalism platform, Sharek, in 2008, that had had 70,000 videos uploaded by 2012. It has also released significant amounts of news footage under a Creative Commons license, allowing anyone to use it with credit. It was an early partner of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, which became OpenNews, and has used open live-blogging platforms for several major news issues.
Al Jazeera was widely praised for its coverage of protests in the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011, particularly online, drawing attention for its use of streaming video, social media, and other online tools. The coverage propelled its online traffic and visibility to unprecedented levels.
In January 2011, Al Jazeera launched a system on its website for sharing leaks called the Transparency Unit modeled after WikiLeaks. The network published the first set of links later that month as the Palestine Papers.
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