- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Al Jazeera America was already dogged by low ratings and an anti-American image, and then the network aired a thinly sourced report last month accusing Peyton Manning and other top athletes of using performance-enhancing drugs.

The combination was apparently too much for the news outlet to overcome. On Wednesday, Al Jazeera America announced that it would fold operations April 30 after spending less than three years on the air and untold millions of dollars in an effort to establish an Arab-led foothold in the U.S. media market.

“While Al Jazeera America built a loyal audience across the U.S. and increasingly was recognized as an important new voice in television news, the economic landscape of the media environment has driven its strategic decision to wind down its operations and conclude its service,” said a statement Wednesday on the AJA website.

In the same statement, the parent company, Al Jazeera Media Network, announced that it would expand its digital services “to broaden its multi-platform presence in the United States.”

Funded by the government of Qatar, Al Jazeera America was never able to catch on with U.S. audiences, drawing fewer than 30,000 viewers per night on average. The network, which was available in 60 million homes, struggled to gain wider cable distribution.

“The cable news outlet wrapped 2015 with a mere 7,000 average primetime viewers in the news demographic of adults 25-54,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The network also suffered from internal strife: CEO Ehad Al Shihabi was replaced in May, and a former employee filed a lawsuit last year accusing a manager of making anti-Semitic remarks and engaging in sexist behavior.

Given the no-end-in-sight decline in the price of oil, pouring millions of dollars into Al Jazeera America may have become financially unsustainable for the network’s owners, who bought Current TV from former Vice President Al Gore for $500 million before rebranding and launching in August 2013.

“It’s not shocking to me that the propaganda network for the oil nations collapses as oil prices collapse,” said Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture for the conservative Media Research Center.

“In 2½ years, they would have had to burn through hundreds of millions of dollars, just based on the number of staff that they had — hundreds and hundreds of staffers, including top-line network talent,” he said.

Al Jazeera America also struggled to establish a voice in the U.S. market.

Conservatives slammed what they called the network’s anti-Israel, left-wing bias — “It was MSNBC with an even more anti-American slant,” said Mr. Gainor — while the liberal website Intercept described it as a “diluted, extra-fearful version of CNN.”

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald characterized Wednesday’s announcement as the “stunning and rapid collapse of what, from the start, has been a towering failure.”

Supporters point out that Al Jazeera America has been honored for its investigative journalism, winning prestigious Peabody and Emmy awards for the kind of in-depth, monthslong reporting that many news outlets are no longer able to afford.

That reputation for laudable documentary work took a hit last month with the release of “The Dark Side,” a highly publicized investigative report on performance-enhancing drugs in sports that ultimately backfired on the network.

Major League Baseball players Ryan Howard and Ryan Zimmerman filed defamation lawsuits against Al Jazeera America over the Dec. 27 report, which included doping accusations against a half-dozen professional athletes by a former pharmacy intern who recanted his statements before the program aired.

The former intern, Charlie Sly, said during hidden-camera interviews that shipments of human growth hormone had been sent to Mr. Manning’s wife, Ashley Manning. The Denver Broncos quarterback called the report “garbage.”

After being told Wednesday that Al Jazeera America would fold, a tongue-in-cheek Mr. Manning told reporters, “I’m sure it’s just devastating to all their viewers.”

The flap surrounding the documentary did raise Al Jazeera America’s profile, leading to questions over whether the network may have aired the sensational report in a last-ditch attempt to lure viewers.

“It may have been their last chance to get something right, and they didn’t,” Mr. Gainor said. “They attacked an American icon. They attacked Peyton Manning and didn’t have the goods on him. That’s shoddy journalism.”

He added that the doping report “smacks of some internal desperation where people are trying to get attention to try to save their jobs.”

Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online journalism at the Poynter Institute, said Wednesday that the network’s folding is “truly not good news.”

“I am saddened most by the loss of the concept of lots of regional bureaus that cover the news around the country,” Mr. Tompkins said in an email. “And I hate to hear that some dedicated and talented journalists are facing tough times.”

He added that Al Jazeera America “has done some really good work in their brief existence, punctuated by the unfortunate recent ‘investigation’ into drug use” in pro sports.

Al Anstey, CEO of Al Jazeera America, praised the news team at Al Jazeera, calling the journalists “some of the most talented people any organization could wish for.”

“Since its launch in 2013, the work done by the team at Al Jazeera America has been recognized with nearly every major award an American news organization can receive,” Mr. Anstey said in a statement. “I greatly respect the unrivaled commitment and excellent work of our team, which has created great journalism. We have increasingly set ourselves apart from all the rest, and the achievements of the past two-and-a-half years should be a source of immense pride for everyone.”

Media critic John Nolte characterized Al Jazeera America as “the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one there to hear it.”

“There are mom-and-pop websites that have done what AJA couldn’t with all of its millions and all of its staffers: have some kind of effect on the news cycle,” Mr. Nolte wrote in a Wednesday column for Breitbart.

“Never, not once, did AJA come up with a story, an interview, a scoop, a meme, or even a photo or video that became part of that day’s national conversation. In the department of epic fails, that in and of itself is an extraordinary accomplishment,” he wrote.

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