TAMPA — Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news agency that stoked anti-Muslim emotions in the West a decade ago when it aired taped Osama bin Laden's threats to the United States, is now available to American news consumers and can be seen by Tampa area couch potatoes on the Verizon FiOS cable system.
That doesn't sit well with David Caton, head of the Florida Family Association, which has mounted an email campaign targeting corporations that advertise on the news channel.
He said there are only about eight major American companies advertising on Al Jazeera America.
“When we started, there were about 65,” he said. “Our goal right now is to educate corporate America that the channel is there and urge them to stop spending advertising dollars there. We don't want American consumer dollars to go back to Qatar.”
Al Jazeera executives are aware of Caton but are largely unconcerned.
Ken Ripley, Al Jazeera's executive vice president for advertising sales, said Caton's efforts “are distracting for some,” but won't impact the news network.
“He's a single-person organization,” Ripley said. “My take on this is that it is his job is to raise funds, so he is continually looking for issues” to grab onto. “That's how he exists,” he said. “It seems pretty self serving to me.”
Caton and many Americans recall when, as U.S. forces hunted bin Laden, Al Jazeera aired tapes of the al-Qaida leader vowing violence on America and the West. That painted Al Jazeera for many as the voice of radical Islam. Since then, the news gathering agency has expanded across the globe, garnering journalism awards for its in-depth reporting.
Caton shrugged that off, saying the content of the news programs make no difference. He says the organization still is tied to radical Muslim organizations.
“If they played Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons 24 hours a day,” he said, “our consumer dollars will still be sent to Qatar.”
Al Jazeera has delivered the news since 1996, mostly in the Middle East, and is funded largely by the royal family in Qatar. In December, it broke into the American news market by buying Current TV, owned by former Vice President Al Gore, for $500 million, and on Aug. 27 began broadcasting news programs.
Advertising industry observers say Al Jazeera America likely will grow and because of that, advertising dollars will follow.
Though Al Jazeera America, in the minds of many Americans, is too closely associated with Middle East radicals, the news gathering organization “knows the Middle East upside down and sideways,” said an Aug. 18 article in Adweek, which quoted Al Jazeera America CEO Ehab Al Shihabi as saying 90 percent of Americans who have watched the programming liked it.
The Adweek article said that three out of every four viewers “who hadn't tuned in had a negative opinion of the channel.”
Regardless of viewership and advertising revenue, Al Jazeera America likely will be around for a while, media experts say, mainly because its revenue comes from grants and not advertising dollars, like most U.S. news organizations.
According to Ad Age, Al Jazeera America has begun its programming with reduced commericial breaks, about six minutes of commercials an hour, compared to about 15 minutes on other news programs.
Florida Family Association, which monitors television and radio programming and mounts boycotts for programs it deems offensive, now has placed Al Jazeera America in its cross hairs, even though the news agency has gained widespread respect and is looking at a growing viewership.
In less than a year, Al Jazeera America has opened about a dozen bureaus around the nation and debuted last month to about 48 million households. The first few broadcasts were viewed by a scant few, by some accounts less than 60,000.
Some are labeling Al Jazeera haters as Islamophobes.
Council on American-Islamic Relations Executive Director Hassan Shibly denounced Caton's moves as “hate mongering.”
“This country is great,” Shibly said, “It's all about freedom of speech, and the more views presented out there, the better.”
He said he wasn't surprised to learn Caton had taken up the task of trying to cripple Al Jazeera America's advertising income.
“David Caton has a track record of promoting hatred of anything remotely linked to the Muslim community, and that's a shame,” Shibly said. “The American public and people here recognize that he is a fear monger and a hate-filled bigot and won't give in to his threats.”
In spite of the debate, Al Jazeera America will remain on Verizon FiOS' Channel 114, said cable company spokesman Bob Elek, though there has been a smattering of push-back from viewers objecting to the new news station.
“It's been very limited,” he said. “What we're telling folks is that there are over 575 channels on FiOS and 100 news information channels from around the world. They can make their collective choices of what to watch based on their own interests.”
Al Jazeera America has mustered some local support.
Brian Cole, a representative of the Libertarian Party in Florida, said adding Al Jazeera America to the cacophony of news programs “is a positive development for all Americans.
“To be truly informed,” he said, “a person cannot rely on the government-supplied talking points provided through ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. The more available sources there are to independently document a news story, the greater likelihood the truth will actually be reported to those wanting to be in the know.”