On the heels of an explosive wrongful termination lawsuit, sources report that a major shakeup of operations and programming has been in the works for months at the Al Jazeera America cable news channel.
Sources familiar with the situation paint a picture of desperation inside the channel’s New York headquarters and pressure coming from the parent company in Doha, Qatar, to improve the channel’s fortunes. Al Jazeera America CEO Ehab Al Shihabi has been spending more time at AJA’s central newsroom offices near Madison Square Garden than in the business office in Lower Manhattan.
Sources say Al Jazeera America has quietly been replacing some of its programs and newscast blocks with the feed from Al Jazeera English, the English-language service run by the parent company that predated the launch of AJA. At the time AJA bowed in 2013, Al Jazeera executives insisted that the cabler would be distinct from the pre-existing Al Jazeera English service. Al Shihabi also repeatedly stated that AJA’s goal was not to generate profits but to build a credible newsgathering operation, focusing on hard news and substantive reporting.
Two senior executives — communications exec VP Dawn Bridges and human resources exec VP Diana Lee — resigned this week and are in the process of exiting the company, AJA confirmed. Sources also say Al Shihabi has instituted other changes that have had the effect of “marginalizing” AJA president Kate O’Brian, the ABC News vet who was recruited two years ago to launch AJA.
The roles of David Doss, senior VP of current affairs and an ABC News and CNN alum, and Marcy McGinnis, senior VP of outreach and a former CBS News exec, are said to have effectively been diminished in recent months. An AJA spokesman said Wednesday there has been “no change” in O’Brian’s role. McGinnis headed newsgathering for most of the her tenure at AJA but recently shifted to the ill-defined “outreach” post. Sources said more high-level execs are expected to follow Bridges and Lee out the door in the coming weeks.
The wrongful termination lawsuit filed Tuesday by Matthew Luke, AJA’s former supervisor of media and archive management, claims that the behind the scenes executives have exhibited “anti-American” bias and have steadily recruited more Middle Eastern execs into the operation.
Luke’s suit claims he was fired in February in retaliation for complaining to human resources about discriminatory actions taken against female executives and anti-Semitic statements made by Osman Mahmud, AJA’s senior VP of broadcast operations and technology. AJA would not comment on the pending lawsuit but said in a statement: “The company takes these matters seriously and will respond in the appropriate forum. Al Jazeera America’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is fundamental to its mission, and is boldly reflected throughout the company: in its staff, its leadership and its programming.”
Sources said Al Shihabi spent a lot of time last year shuttling between the U.S. and Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar. After the first of the year, he is said to have settled down in the 34th Street newsroom offices and has been exerting more influence over programming decisions. Al Shihabi is a former management consultant at Arthur Andersen and Deloitte who joined Al Jazeera five years ago to oversee its global news bureaus. He was initially tapped to serve as AJA’s interim CEO after the Current purchase, but the “interim” tag in his title was dropped more than a year ago. Al Shihabi has been convening lengthy meetings to discuss programs, talent and strategies. “It feels like a shotgun approach,” said a former AJA executive. “There’s no plan. Shows come and go and people come and go.”
Among the shows recently scrapped is “The Stream,” described as a showcase for “citizen journalism” from online sources. Earlier this month AJA announced a new half-hour foreign policy-centric program, “Compass With Sheila MacVicar,” would premiere May 10 and air every other Sunday.
Turmoil behind the scenes and shifting programming plans is nothing new for all-news networks or startup ventures. Al Jazeera made a splashy entry into the U.S. market with its $500 million purchase in late 2012 of of Current TV, the struggling cabler owned by former vice president Al Gore and other investors. The high price paid for Current was a sign of Al Jazeera’s determination to get a foothold in the U.S. market, as part of the parent company’s goal of building a global newsgathering network.
With the deep pockets of its parent company, funded by an affiliate of the oil-rich state of Qatar, AJA promised to invest in hard news, not fluff, and focus on programming with impact rather than profits and ratings. “We are not changing our journalistic identity for the U.S. channel,” Al Shihabi told Variety in June 2013. “We’re not like other organizations that are about maximizing profits. Al Jazeera America will reflect the values and the mission of Al Jazeera.”
After buying Current, AJA spent millions of dollars recruiting seasoned executives and production staffers who worked round the clock to ready the channel for its debut on Aug. 20, 2013. AJA opened 10 bureaus around the country in addition to its outposts in New York and Washington, D.C.
The prospect of working for a company that was well-heeled enough to put news quality over ratings and profit was a lure for many journos, both young and seasoned. The channel’s programming has drawn praise for in-depth reporting and strong emphasis on international issues, thanks to the reach of its parent company. Last year, Al Jazeera America’s investigative documentary series “Fault Lines” won two Peabody Awards.
The spread of Al Jazeera English programming on AJA has been disheartening to staffers as it has been interpreted as a sign of financial pressures from the parent org. When AJA was launching, Al Shihabi stressed that AJA would be separate from Al Jazeera English, in part because AJA was struggling to retain Current’s cable carriage agreements. The promise made at the time was that AJA would be a wholly new, U.S.-focused channel. At present, AJA reaches about 60 million homes and has deals with all the major MVPDs, including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish Network.
There is no doubt that ratings and advertising revenue for AJA have been low. In the first quarter of this year, AJA averaged 35,000 viewers, which was up from 16,000 in first-quarter 2014. AJA ranked No. 104 out of 106 ad-supported cable channels rated by Nielsen. Advertising on the channel is largely limited to direct response and informercials.
Beyond low viewership, AJA has the additional hurdle of overcoming the lingering perception that its parent company is connected to terrorist orgs in the Middle East. One of the biggest thorns in AJA’s side has been the Tampa, Fla.-based Florida Family Assn. The org that bills itself as “defending American values” monitors AJA advertising and mounts a pressure campaign against every sponsor. The FFA website claims it has deterred 223 companies from advertising on AJA.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that “Inside Story,” the nightly interview series hosted by Ray Suarez, had been cancelled. The series is relocating to a new studio in Washington D.C. and will return with new episodes on May 4.