William Lafi Youmans, An Unlikely Audience: Al-Jazeera’s Struggle in America. London: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
William Youmans (WY): I was attracted to studying Al Jazeera’s uphill battle to gain American viewers because it was a test of everything I thought about US-Arab relations, the politics of news in the US, the restrictive political economy of television distribution and the dominant patterns of international communication. Given my views on these, I expected it to fail, but this was made interesting by the notion that the Internet opened up space for previously excluded news sources. Could online technologies really expand the public sphere to the extent that a vilified, Arab, Qatar-owned news company could go from a medium non grata to a bona fide competitor in the television-centered American news market?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
WY: At the book’s core, it tells the decade-long story of Al Jazeera seeking a broad American viewership through three distinct US-facing news outlets: Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera America and AJ+. The first, AJE, is an international channel, and it floundered in the US because the audience for quality global news reporting is small, many opposed AJ’s brand, and cable companies refused it carriage. Then, AJ withdrew AJE from the US after the network bought Current TV and launched an America-only channel, AJAM. The America channel closed after only a few short years marked by exorbitant expenditures and minuscule audiences. It was a total failure. Only the network’s final offshoot, the digital news pioneer AJ+, has found success attracting substantial traction within the news market. It was through social media, not television, however, and it was something of a departure from the traditional AJ style of English language news.
In recounting this story, the book considers the immediate political context, from the war on terror to the Arab spring, and the changing zeitgeist of the Bush and Obama administrations, among other factors. Yet, the book’s primary interest is applying international communication research. This scholarship has progressed through models of variable centricity through the years. The Cold War-era work saw information flows in the world as structured hierarchically. Media imperialism theses, which were inspired by dependency theory and World Systems theory, hypothesized that the advanced industrialized core nations would be dominant producers of news and information, exporting them to the global south. Such a framework could not imagine the idea of even a wealthy global south country, as Qatar is, creating news to be watched by a mass audience in the United States.
Then, globalization research emerged and it portrayed global media flows as de-centered, pluralistic, and hybridized, transnational, or multinational. Since the old hierarchies came to seem less apparent in world media, it would not be at all surprising to find Al Jazeera’s channels in some US households. I was initially interested in using the case of AJ in America to test this possibility and offering an explanation for the limitations of AJ’s “contra-flow” into the imperial core.
However, in my on-site research, I found a fascinating variation in the three entities: the extent to which they reflected where their main US operations were located, Washington, New York and San Francisco, respectively. I took the study in this direction, drawing from a particular line of work on the importance of cities as sites of globalization. From Saskia Sassen to Michael Curtin, who described media capitals as key industrial formations, and Doreen Massey, I was pushed to think more about the power of cities as places where “the global” is composed. The work of Manuel Castells on the network society, along with globalization theorists and those who study online news, tend to overemphasize social spatialization, which follows a longer tradition of western social science’s appreciation of space at the expense of place. My study is fundamentally about the continued power of key places for media, even media on the move (meaning international).
I formulate each city as a distinct “port of entry” with prevalent news industries and socio-political terrains that in turn inflect Al Jazeera’s in-flow into the country. The three AJ news services set up a comparative case study approach. Chapters three and four of the book present how the dominant media-politics rationale of DC influenced AJE’s work since its broadcasting center was based there. In chapter five, I considered how the America channel was built in the mold of the traditional New York television news broadcaster, and it showed in hiring, the use of contracted services, and even in editorial sensibilities. AJ+, the subject of chapter six, was headquartered in San Francisco, an ideal location in multiple respects, from adopting leading tech to exercising editorial independence from the network’s central administrators in Doha. Therefore, how news and information circulates in the world is deeply contingent on principle locations of productive networks.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
WY: It is my first book, and it stands alone from everything else I wrote about the network for other reasons. It is much more theoretically sophisticated than my published articles and book chapters on Al Jazeera. They focused more on the politics and fraught branding of the network in this country, without considering the geographies of production that are at the center of the book. Writing this book forced me to move past the traditional and over-simplistic story of Al Jazeera’s exclusion.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
WY: One reviewer who worked for Al Jazeera America wrote the book would be of more interest to an AJ “Kremlinologist” than a general reader. I was both flattered and concerned. Admittedly, I wrote this book for students and scholars of international communication, and secondly for anyone interested in Al Jazeera, from the many who have written about it to those in its audience who want to learn more about the network. I am hearing from many laypersons that the book is too academic.
In terms of impact, my aim was two-fold. First, the primary interest in asserting how place matters for media production practices is an effort to draw together media geography and international communication lenses, which I hope gives more scholarly attention to location considerations in media globalization strategies. Second, I am hoping to advance research on Al Jazeera beyond the overly simplistic views that each channel is monolithic, contains homogeneous views and is reducible to one identity or ideology.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
WY: I am co-authoring a book with the political theorist Libby Anker about the resurgence of sovereignty in political discourse around the world. It’s still in early development. I am also collaborating on a documentary with a colleague and documentarian about the still-unsolved 1985 murder of a Palestinian-American activist. It is in production at the moment but is a long-term project.
J: Is the book just about Al Jazeera America?
WY: No. I asked that of myself because the common perception is that the book is about just about AJAM. I hope this answer clears it up, though I have my doubts.
Excerpt from the Conclusion:
In 2012, senior Al Jazeera English (AJE) Correspondent Alan Fisher appeared on C-SPAN to discuss his employer. The host asked him a straightforward question that should have produced a simple answer: “What does Al Jazeera mean?” Fisher took the question as one of translation, and replied that it “means the peninsula. It is essentially that island.” He added that it “sums up exactly the geographic position.” This question about the name was common enough to be included in the FAQ section of a network website. It was the third question listed, no less, after such basic inquires as “What is the Al Jazeera Media Network?” In the answer, it did not mention island, saying instead the name means “‘peninsula.’ ”
This was not the first time the network insisted on the peninsular translation. In the years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the flagship Arabic news channel operated out of Washington, DC, under the formal name, “Peninsula productions.” This was inscribed on its offices in its early days. Its reporters seeking vox pop comments from people on the street identified their employer as “Peninsula News.” It was camouflage to avoid the sort of hostile confrontations expected during the “war on terror” decade.
Selecting “peninsula” as the translation of its trademark was certainly evocative. It hinted at its patron. Qatar is a small peninsula that juts out from a more massive one, the Arabian peninsula. This was what Fisher alluded to when he said the name captured the “geographic position.” Why, however, did Fisher mention “island” in his C-SPAN reply? The confusion may be in that “Al Jazeera” directly translates into “the island.” In Arabic, a peninsula is a modified island—sheba al jazeera (شبه الجزيرة), or semi-island. The network’s brand is a shortened reference then, but it raises a question: to which peninsula did it refer, Qatar or the regional, Arabian one?
The Arabian peninsula is the largest in the world, and the central focus of the channel’s ambitions. Qatar directly borders Saudi Arabia, the peninsula’s geographically and politically dominant resident. Its position on the map is fitting as a metaphor for the geopolitical arrangement that Qatar long sought to escape: Saudi Arabia’s regional hegemony. Al Jazeera, after all, grew out of the remnants of a failed Saudi media venture with the BBC. Once the project was nixed, it left a pool of unemployed, well-trained TV news workers and reporters, the eventual core of the groundbreaking Arabic channel’s human resources. As part of its novel, pioneering effort to bring debate and diverse views into Arab regional television, AJ aired dissidents who were effectively shut out of legacy media. This included rarely heard Saudi opposition activists. Al Jazeera also had the temerity to report critically on its behemoth neighbor, which cost the channel advertisers afraid to displease Saudi Arabia, a large, wealthy market. The intention was for Qatar to assert itself in the region, which necessitated moving out of its larger neighbor’s shadow. This regional ambition showed in the name. According to Miles, the chairman Sheikh Hamad bin Thamir Al Thani explained that the network’s brand was a tribute to Qatar being “an important part of the greater Arabian peninsula.”
Recounting the brand name’s exegesis further justifies the book’s interest in media geography. Even though it was a pan-Arab network, it is impossible to detach the Al Jazeera Media Network’s original raison d’etre, foundational principals, and development from its basic locationality in Doha, Qatar, the Gulf region and the Middle East at large. Even at it genesis, then, Al Jazeera was deeply imbued with geographic properties. The news network that became famous for reporting critically on the nearby US-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq under the Bush administration was undeniably a product of a Qatari gambit for regional and then global prominence, an intense, multi-actor geopolitical contest. Furthermore, it was only possible due to the geological resource-driven political economy that financed it (based on oil and natural gas). This was all encoded in the name.
Still, the basis for AJ’s origins and Qatar’s motives in supporting the network are at best partially explanatory of what Al Jazeera built for the US market. Yes, Qatar pursued it goals of inflated prestige through an expanding Al Jazeera media empire that set its aspiration upon the United States. The Doha headquarters designed and steered the subsequent global expansion that produced the three outlets reviewed in this book. But, actualizing its US plans was accomplished by integrating industrial wisdom from the places it located within, the three media capitals. What the ports of entry explanation contributes is a framework for thinking geographically and industrially about a media company’s entree into a foreign country. Al Jazeera’s mobility into the United States was negotiated through the three cities’ production contexts and placial characters. In other words, being in the United States made AJ’s outlets more than just simple extensions of the sum of Qatar-specific and institutional factors. Market entry through foreign direct investment fundamentally gave shape to what AJ’s US-facing projects became because it authorized adjustment in and to these places.
Discussing the origin of the brand name in terms of the Gulf region was instructive because of how the infamous logo complicated the network’s US expansion. In furtherance of the media port of entry framework, we can think of how the brand became translated through each subsequent media capital. In Washington, DC, politicos sanctified the brand once it was expedient with the Arab spring in 2011. Al Jazeera America’s brand was a limited attempt at an Americanization actualized through its adoption of the classic model of the sober, straightforward TV news broadcaster. In contrast, AJ+ innovated on the brand in such a way that somewhat obscured the original name and parent company while projecting itself as a next generation digital news start-up in the San Francisco tech mold.
Al Jazeera in US Ports of Entry
While media ports of entry are conduits to larger markets and therefore oriented around facilitating movement, they are self-contained industrial sites, cities, places. Thus, each of the city’s industrial cores that AJ tapped into was also a “bubble.” An AJ employee who worked at several of the company’s services used that exact term to describe how the personnel experienced the places as disconnected islands. As an example, he said that AJE was subject to Washington, DC’s political rationale, which was dominated by Democratic-Republican partisanship. It cued the media-politics industry, framed much of the capital’s political deliberation, and therefore carried more relevance and stake among the larger place of the Beltway than it did with any other city of production; this is especially so vis-à-vis San Francisco, a veritable capital for progressive politics. The city on the bay provided for a much different news-making context than did New York City and Doha, he observed. The bubble-like nature of each service entitled each its placeness in its respective port of entry. Such emplacement is the basis for the sustained clout of place in media globalization, showing how place matters for space of flows dynamics. Yet, as Aristotle’s quotation in the introduction’s epigraph suggests, we inquired into these bubbles because of Al Jazeera’s motion into them, with an eye towards what these places did for their formation and eventual media production. As central as flows are to the emergence of these places, we must accept their relative detachment—making them more like an archipelago than nodes in a technologically fused network. This is to recognize the vibrancy of place against spatializing processes like media globalization and the power of networked technologies.
[Excerpted from An Unlikely Audience: Al Jazeera`s Struggle in America with author permission (c) 2017.]