[On 23 February 2021, Politico broke the news that Al Jazeera was launching a right-leaning American digital news outlet called Rightly. The outlet’s first program “Right Now with Stephen Kent” is an opinion-led interview program reflecting libertarian perspectives on American politics. In response to the launch, over one hundred Al Jazeera staff members penned an open letter condemning the move as antithetical to Al Jazeera’s mission and values. Cat Haseman, MA Arab Studies candidate at Georgetown University and Jadaliyya copyeditor, interviewed Adel Iskandar, media professor at Simon Fraser University and author of Al-Jazeera: The Story Of The Network That Is Rattling Governments And Redefining Modern Journalism, to get a better understanding of recent developments and the debates about Rightly that have unfolded across social media in recent weeks.]
Cat Haseman (CH): Rightly brands itself as “a space for voices between the extremes to engage in thoughtful commentary.” Many of Al Jazeera’s staff members as well as readers and viewers believe launching Rightly contradicts the network’s commitment to journalistic professionalism. What are some of the key histories and characteristics of Al Jazeera that are important to understanding from where Rightly has emerged?
Adel Iskandar (AI): To best understand this move, one needs to historicize Al Jazeera’s global presence. Al Jazeera was launched in 1996 in Doha, Qatar on the initiative of then-Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalif. Just beforehand, a Saudi-funded collaboration with BBC briefly launched an Arabic-language broadcast news station from London. Due to disagreements over censorship with the Saudi parent company Orbit, this partnership failed before an early program about public executions in the kingdom even aired. With the abrupt and decisive shutdown of the network, the Emir of Qatar saw an opportunity and asked the suddenly unemployed team of journalists and producers to relocate to Doha and launch Al Jazeera, which aimed to become the first freewheeling, 24-hour news station in the Arab world without “direct” government intervention in broadcasting.
Instead of adhering to the Ministry of Information-esque method of news reporting that dominated the Arab region, Al Jazeera projected an image of being a transnational, pan-Arab network, concerned with the lives and livelihoods of peoples from Mauritania to Oman. From the beginning, Al Jazeera ruffled the feathers of government officials in nearly every Arab country—with the exception of Qatar of course. With its unique coverage, Al Jazeera coalesced a popular base of viewers thirsty for a different kind of news coverage. So, I would argue that this idea of “having a new conversation,” which has been used by Rightly today, was the original motto of Al Jazeera. They did not use those exact terms, but the work of Al Jazeera, especially in the beginning, challenged the status quo and presented news in a way that had not been done before.
But, it has been a long time since 1996. Al Jazeera has become a behemoth, a massive media conglomerate. The network has invested huge amounts of money, tens of billions of dollars, toward crafting worldwide programming in both Arabic and English. While we do not have exact numbers—the network’s budget is a closely held secret—we do know, for example, that launching the short-lived Al Jazeera America project cost somewhere in the range of a billion US dollars. The important thing to understand here is that Al Jazeera is bankrolled by the Qatari government. It is not a profit-generating operation the way most private networks are. It does not depend on revenue from advertising. The Emir of Qatar himself along with a close coterie of advisors determine Al Jazeera’s budget. For all intents and purposes, Al Jazeera is a government broadcaster that appears to maintain an editorial firewall between itself and the state. Of course, there are instances in which that firewall comes down.
CH: Where do you weigh in on this largely Twitter-based debate about how Rightly fits into Al Jazeera’s mission and current operations?
AI: Many are arguing that Al Jazeera is an independent, journalistic entity that is not in the business of producing opinion-led or biased content. I would question that premise. Today, Al Jazeera, with its various global operations, is designed to cater to a range of different audiences. It is such a large operation that it has begun to segment its audiences and market shares. Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English have their own distinct audiences, discourses, editorial policies, and red lines. Al Jazeera Arabic has long catered to right-wing communities in the Middle East, crafting specific messaging to a conservative market share. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English speaks to a more diverse, cosmopolitan, and progressive audience. Even so, I would say that Al Jazeera as a whole has begun to venture right. This is an important factor that anglophone readers and viewers—and even Al Jazeera English’s staff to a certain extent—do not realize.
CH: Rightly has already published six full episodes on YouTube as well as a variety of short video content across its social media platforms. What are your initial thoughts on the outlet’s content, style, and target audience?
AI: My first impression is that I am not sure “Right Now with Stephen Kent'' will successfully tap into the viewership it aims to reach, namely center-right folks who feel left out of mainstream media. These days, everyone in the media realm has realized that center-right constituencies in the United States constitute an untapped market. In the four years of the Trump presidency, viewership of far-right alternative news entities, like Infowars and Breitbart, skyrocketed. This kickstarted intense competition in the realm of right-leaning and far-right media production. Diving into this field as an investor or producer, however, is not a walk in the park. We are talking about an audience that is immensely skeptical of “the media,” and with that skepticism comes a desire for authenticity. There is a preference for zealous, homegrown content that resonates with their frustrations, anxieties, and acrimony toward Washington decision-makers.
CH: How does Rightly fit into the conservative American media landscape you have just described?
Comparatively, “Right Now with Stephen Kent” is quite boring. If I were a right-wing media consumer looking for an outlet that speaks to my convictions and worldview, I would see Rightly as a “diet” version of what I am craving. I have lived in the US rural Midwest, and my conservative friends and colleagues tend to consume and interact with media content that incorporates political punditry—the interpretation and translation of political events for viewers. “Right Now,” on the other hand, features cerebral conversations about the nature of American politics. Stephen Kent and his co-hosts seek a certain level of abstraction in the political conversation, but this pursuit situates them in a gray zone between average viewers and right-wing intellectuals. As it currently looks on the screen, “Right Now” resembles the kind of debates and conversations that happen between College Republicans at Ivy League universities—dry, high-brow, self-righteous, self-congratulatory, and heavily scripted. It is yet to be seen if there is a substantial enough audience within this gray zone. What’s more, the outlet’s current viewership is quite miniscule. To increase the amount of viewers, Rightly’s content will need to be shared by conservative influencers and personalities across the internet. But, for some reason, it seems that Rightly is being intentionally skipped over or ignored by the major voices in the conservative political space. This could be because, with funding stemming from a foreign country, Rightly does not have organic reach into its target communities. Or this could be because, like I said, the conservative media landscape is intensely competitive, noisy, and increasingly saturated. Either way, Rightly’s low viewership seems to indicate that the existing conditions of the American media landscape are not serving the outlet’s goals.
CH: Al Jazeera’s executives decided to launch Rightly as a clearly marked subsidiary of the network, as opposed to a seemingly independent US-based outlet. You mentioned that this association with a foreign, specifically Arab Muslim, country could jeopardize Rightly’s authenticity amongst conservative American communities. If so, why would Rightly so openly declare its ties to Al Jazeera?
AI: Al Jazeera and Rightly are quite clearly affiliated. Rightly’s social media handles are @rightlyAJ, and within the introductory monologue of the first episode of “Right Now,” Kent openly declares the show’s funding relationship with Al Jazeera. We must consider that Rightly may have been designed as an extension of Qatari foreign policy, an instrument of public diplomacy. Qatar does not care about profits in this context. Al Jazeera has always been about political influence and has unabashedly been a voice for Qatari foreign policy. By this, I mean that there is virtually no circumstance in which Al Jazeera’s coverage of regional and global events contradicts Qatari foreign policy. Taking this into account, we can see how Rightly may be meant to help Qatar gain political traction within a new constituency. But, this does not necessarily mean Qatar seeks to strengthen the Republican Party or Tea Party-like American political factions. Frankly, Qatar could not care less which political narrative wins out in the United States, as long as they bet on the right horse and stand to benefit. It is helpful to consider the case of beIN SPORTS. In 2012, Qatar launched and bankrolled the world’s largest sports network, which broadcasts various sports leagues all around the globe. For a long time, beIN SPORTS was kept at arm's length from Qatar. Yet, when the network became successful, amassing an enormous cultural footprint around the globe, Qatar openly took credit for it. This history of Qatar’s public diplomacy strategy is missing from ongoing debates about Rightly.
Moving forward, we should be wary of thinking about Rightly as a solitary media product. Rather, we should pan out and take stock of what is called in media studies “a political economy.” With this broader analytical frame, we can see the Qatari state-driven institutional impact of Al Jazeera launching Rightly.