Al Jazeera America's demise and American concerns about Islam and Arabs

Soliciting and editing opinion pieces has been part of my job several times during my almost 50 years around the news and communications business. Being a highly opinionated sort myself, I enjoy the work quite a lot.

However, I've often been unsure about just how much to pressure an op-ed writer to add to, better justify or delete something they wrote.

In the end, I generally left the final decision to the writer. An op-ed is, after all, the writer's opinion about a subject and what they think is most important about it. It's the writer's prerogative to cherry pick from among the "facts" available on whatever the issue. The editor's job is to edit for style, grammar, originality, organization, libel and slander, personal animus and logical cohesiveness.

It's true that this can -- and often does -- result in one-sided, unfair and even intellectually dishonest copy. But that's the nature of the beast. Don't like it? Well, if you're in a position of authority you can always decide not to publish a piece or solicit another writer to produce one more to your liking. Or you can write one yourself (and hopefully find someone willing to publish it, but that's another issue).

A recent New York Times op-ed about the soon-to-close Al Jazeera America is a case in point. (I'll say more on the piece in a moment.)

One of the main reasons GetReligion was founded was to note this sort of imbalance when it shows up in basic, hard-news copy, specifically as it relates to religion news. But as I keep saying, subjectivity is an irrepressible human trait. It pops up everywhere, even in hard-news pieces. The examples are legion and have been known to show up here at GetReligion several times a day.

Obviously subjective copy is even more widespread in today's Web-driven journalism -- clearly with decidedly mixed results. Bottom line: Pay attention to the writing and editing of opinionated journalism. It's taken on greater importance and will continue to do so.

Still -- and despite my comment above about writers having the final say on op-ed content -- there are times when I read a column and wonder how an editor allowed it to be published with what strikes me as an obvious, elephant-size hole in the copy.

Enter the Times op-ed referenced above.

The piece was written by Hussein Ibish, a regular Times op-ed contributor. Ibish is a respected voice in Washington's Middle East think-tank community; he's currently affiliated with the American Task Force on Palestine. He takes, to my way of thinking, smart and reasonable pro-Palestinian positions without sparing the Arab political class from much deserved criticism.

Ibish also makes a point of publicly describing himself as a non-religious Muslim agnostic. This is no small matter in his community.

So I've long admired his writing and I follow him on Facebook, occasionally re-posting something he's written.

But his Times Al Jazeera America column, a sort of pre-death postmortem, misses, I think, the prime reason why the network failed to make it in 21st Century America. (I'll get to my take on that issue below.) His failure to do so seems such a colossal oversight that were I editing his piece I would argue forcefully for its prominent inclusion.

But who knows? Perhaps he and his editor had such a discussion, and, in the end, Ibish was allowed to have his say as he wished to frame it. Or perhaps he and his editor just disagree with me about why Al Jazeera America, failed?

So what's the missing element?

I think the prime reason Al Jazeera America tanked -- as I've written here before -- is the deep mistrust and fear Americans have these days of anything connected to Arabs and Muslims, two overlapping groups often inaccurately thought of as being absolutely identical in the average American mind.

Witness candidate Donald Trump's increasingly strong Republican primary run, despite -- or perhaps because of -- his harsh comments about Islam and Muslims, including his position that foreign Muslims be temporarily barred from entering the United States. And Trump is by no means alone among the candidates in his hyperbolic statements about just how much a threat Americans face from Islamic terrorism and how it should be confronted.

Religion journalists may remember that the Al Jazeera brand, including its American offshoot, has produced some above average coverage of religion-related stories. Here are two examples of GetReligion praise for that coverage -- click here and then here. Al Jazeera America has consistently drawn high praise from GetReligion readers, almost always for offering complex, nuanced and balanced coverage of issues involving both Islam and minority faiths in Muslim lands.

But, alas, solid religion coverage has never been, on its own, enough to keep any news operation economical afloat.

Al Jazeera America's failure suggests that Muslim and Arab communities must do more, probably much more, to ease Americans' concerns about where responsibility for the current conflicts rests. It's not enough to keep heaping scorn on America's policies -- not that some haven't been way off base -- and cry Islamophobia.

So, have you read Ibish's piece yet? If not, take a moment to read it through. Do you agree with my critique?

Now read this analysis piece by Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi, published in January when Al Jazeera America announced it would go dark on April 30.

Here's a bit of what Farhi wrote:

Internal surveys at its launch in August 2013 indicated that some viewers would not watch a channel with an Arabic name. An earlier version of AJAM, called Al Jazeera English, was largely rejected by American cable distributors starting in 2005 because of its association with the Arab-language Al Jazeera network, which had drawn criticism from members of the George W. Bush administration for its coverage of the U.S. military invasion of Iraq in 2003, and for airing Osama bin Laden’s secretly recorded video “communiques.”

I would say that nails it. 

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