Al Jazeera America launches today, beginning one of the most ambitious projects in television news of the last several decades. With a starting broadcast reach of 48 million viewers, Al Jazeera America is the largest such project since Fox News launched in 1997. While Fox News, despite their own branding, is known as a mouthpiece for conservative politics in America, Al Jazeera America is describing itself in much more sober terms:
“There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings,” said Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera America’s acting chief executive. If one removed opinion, yelling and celebrity sightings from Fox News, there wouldn’t be much left, and, to be fair, that’s true of most cable news networks, including CNN.
So, how did Fox News welcome the appearance of a hard-hitting, sober news outlet on the market? Well, when you are drunk on opinion, yelling and celebrity sightings, the sober guy in the room looks pretty unreasonable. Fox News anchor Jim Scott interviewed conservative Jim Pinkerton and liberal Alan Colmes about Al Jazeera. Both Pinkerton and Colmes gave some guarded respect to Al Jazeera, until Scott gave the cue to attack Al Jazeera for being an Arab news station:
SCOTT: What about the editorial side of it, Jim? I mean, Al Jazeera, many people saw it as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden because that was the channel that regularly aired his diatribes right after 9/11.
PINKERTON: Well, I think there is something to that. But look, they’re an Arab news channel and let’s face it, many if not most Arabs probably support what bin Laden was trying to do in terms of killing Americans and so on. The polls, certainly from the Pew Center certainly show that. Look, they cover stuff. I give them credit on stories like Egypt and Syria I find myself watching. I’m under no illusion as to their bias but they spend real money to put real reporters into hot zones and cover them and they do it hours on end. There’s a value to it.
While Pinkerton is getting most of the attention here for his inflammatory and incorrect quoting of Pew polls, and the assumption with little evidence that Al Jazeera speaks for Team Arab (which is itself a Fox News construction), let’s not let Scott off the hook. The “many people” that saw Al Jazeera as a "mouthpiece" for Osama bin Laden are people who assume that Al Jazeera, as an Arab-owned news outlet, would simply have to be on bin Laden’s side. To just announce as given that it is a commonly held opinion that Al Jazeera is pro bin Laden might fit well with the Fox News viewership, but there aren’t any facts to back it up.
As for the Pew Polls that Pinkerton refers to, those polls found a divided Arab world on how much confidence they had in Osama bin Laden in 2003, when the Iraq War was starting, and opinion on Bin Laden has steadily declined since then. In 2011, Pew found “Minorities of Muslims in Indonesia (26%), Egypt (22%) and Jordan (13%) expressed confidence in bin Laden, while he has almost no support among Turkish (3%) or Lebanese Muslims (1%).”
When Reza Aslan says that Fox News has been “spinning Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim sentiment into ratings gold,” this is what he is referring to.