The new A-Jam America is the old CNN

Joie Chen, formally of CNN and CBS host of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news show live from Washington.
Joie Chen, formally of CNN and CBS host of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news show live from Washington.

A while back I turned on the TV at around 9 p.m. ET looking to watch some news. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC were as usual doing talk and little else. I then went to BBC World feed, always a good choice, when I remembered a friend had told me about a new network he was working for Al Jazeera America. I gave the network a chance and I am now a fan, in large part because it reminds me of the good old days of CNN.

Those of us in the business and it’s grown group of fans know it as ” A-Jam.” If you don’t already have it as part of your Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks cable it is coming so keep a look out for it. You can try it at the website Al Jazeera America by clicking here. 

I will admit that some people will have trouble with the networks name but if you are willing to give  Al Jazeera America a try you might just like what you see. It might remind some of the golden age of cable news some  33 years ago when Ted Turner introduced the country the first all-news television service, CNN.

The first thing that people will have trouble with is that the channel is owned by the leaders of Qatar, the oil-rich Middle Eastern emirate. But this network has vast talented reporters from all over the world.

Al Jazeera’s global feeds, in Arabic and English, have been criticized on occasion for disseminating speeches by leaders of Al Qaeda. Yes, those were the same feeds that aired on EVERY American broadcast and cable news program and of course the gold standard of world news the BBC, but don’t let the facts get in the way of hating something for no reason.

Never mind that the network employs, Protestants , Jews, Catholic, Muslims and a few atheists. That they have as much if not more diversity as any network in the United States today, with many of their production and news staff being hired from CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, CBS and yes even Fox News.

Some Americans — among them hosts at Fox News — are openly critical of giving Al Jazeera a powerful voice on America’s cable and satellite airwaves. But Al Jazeera is a real game changer when cable news needs something to shake it up a bit.

Viewers able and willing to sample it (the service will initially reach roughly 48 million U.S. homes) will get a view of world affairs quite different from what is available on existing American TV.

At a time when U.S. news organizations are closing foreign bureaus and cutting back on international coverage, this will be eye-opening and minding-expanding.

Existing cable channels, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, will be forced to step up their games in response. All three, which have lost viewers since the height of their respective popularity, will be studying the new service closely.

The network’s executive director, Ehab Al Shihabi, says he plans “less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings.”

That is by the way the “old” CNN philosophy when they first started. News, without opinion, just facts and good solid reporting.

Finally, Al Jazeera America — A-Jam, as it’s already known — will help drive the conversation on international affairs. It’s influence, at least at the start, is likely to be greater among editors and producers at competing outlets, and even among Washington politicians, than among the general public.

A-Jam has hired as its president Kate O’Brian, an ABC-TV veteran of 30 years. She has put together a great staff of dedicated news professionals to staff their studios in both Washington, D. C. and New York.

It is a staff that numbers almost 900, but few of them household names.

When CNN began in 1980, its biggest on-camera star was Bernie Shaw, a veteran reporter previously at CBS. Most of the newsreaders were hired from local stations and a few from broadcast network operations.

There were two little-known husband-and-wife anchor teams, Don Farmer and Chris Curle, and Dave Walker and Lois Hart.

Ted Turner, the visionary business tycoon who gambled on all-news TV, wanted the news to be the star. That was convenient, perhaps, since he couldn’t afford the inflated network salaries, but it was also a blessing that set CNN on the right course.

Viewers can expect the same from A-Jam.

My goal here is not to  glorify the people behind Al Jazeera America, especially when their service has barely started.

My judgments about the tone and objectivity of A-Jam’s newscasts should be harsh if it ever turns out that content is overtly filtered to please Middle Eastern interests.

But Americans should at least be willing to sample the new channel, and do so with open minds. As a nation, we are more isolated from international news and views than most other democracies.

At launch, Kate O’Brian might well have described her mission as being “to provide information to people when it wasn’t available before; to offer those who want it a choice.”

She could have dedicated the channel to “the American people, whose thirst for understanding … has made this venture possible.”

She could have said all those things about A-Jam simply by quoting Ted Turner when he launched CNN.

Jim Williams is the Washington Bureau Chief, Digital Director as well as the Director of Special Projects for Genesis Communications. He is starting his third year as part of the team. This is Williams 40th year in the media business, and in that time he has served in a number of capacities. He is a seven time Emmy Award winning television producer, director, writer and executive. He has developed four regional sports networks, directed over 2,000 live sporting events including basketball, football, baseball hockey, soccer and even polo to name a few sports. Major events include three Olympic Games, two World Cups, two World Series, six NBA Playoffs, four Stanley Cup Playoffs, four NCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship Tournaments (March Madness), two Super Bowl and over a dozen college bowl games. On the entertainment side Williams was involved s and directed over 500 concerts for Showtime, Pay Per View and MTV Networks.