Confronted Monday with questions about a wrongful-termination lawsuit, defections of senior executives and meager ratings, Ehab Al Shihabi, the leader of Al Jazeera America said, “I know what I’m doing.” On Wednesday, the backers of the network said he would be replaced as head of the troubled cable-news outlet.
The Qatar-backed network said it would replace Al Shihabi, who has led Al Jazeera America since its 2013 launch, with Al Anstey, a veteran executive who has been serving as managing director of sister outlet Al Jazeera English.
“I am confident Al’s leadership will transform the channel’s ability to lead in the U.S. marketplace,” said Mostefa Souag, chairman of Al Jazeera America’s board of directors, in a prepared statement. “His demonstrated success leading Al Jazeera English and his passion for the Al Jazeera brand positions him with the unique ability to undertake the strategic changes needed for the success of the channel. I am extremely pleased at Al’s appointment.”
Al Shihabi’s ouster is the latest in a series of twists that threaten to derail what was supposed to be the launch of a more serious-minded news network. When Al Jazeera American debuted in 2013, it did so with a phalanx of prominent TV journalists from CNN and ABC, among other outlets, as well as a stated mission to pursue in-depth journalism about important issues and stories, rather than getting caught up in partisan debate or a desire to entertain.
Since that time, however, the network has not made much of a dent in the world of U.S. television. Its ratings are minuscule. Its advertising is mostly of the direct-response variety. A wrongful-termination lawsuit filed recently by a former employee charged executives at the network were making anti-Semitic remarks, and people familiar with its operations suggested Al Shihabi had taken a more hands-on role with editorial operations as its owner grew more concerned about the network’s finances. In recent months, Al Jazeera America scrapped a good deal of its original schedule in favor of more live, of-the-moment programming.
Earlier this week, Marcy McGinnis, a veteran of CBS News who originally joined Al Jazeera America in the summer of 2013 to be its senior vice president of newsgathering, announced her departure, saying in a memo that Al Shihabi would not tolerate people who did not agree with his vision for the network. In recent months, she had been identified as senior vice president of outreach amid speculation that her role at the network had been marginalized as Ehab Al Shihabi, chief executive of the U.S.-based network, took a greater interest in its editorial operations.
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, part of the parent company’s goal of building a global newsgathering network.