By W.T. “Bill” McKibben, Senior Counsel, The Great Lakes Group
In a long overdue move, Al Gore and his partner Joel Hyatt cashed out Current, a non-starter cable channel for lefties (a role already more than adequately filled by MSNBC). They have been trying to unload this turkey for years. Qatar owned Al Jazeera, the Middle East news network paid an astonishing five hundred million for Current. The network never had more than a handful of viewers; however, it does have distribution deals with most all of the sources where folks pick up cable content. Al Jazeera has worked to gain a spot on cable for its English broadcasts, so we can assume that’s what they ponied up a half-billion dollars for, Current’s cable slots.
The ink was barely dry on this deal when Time Warner, the number two cable company in the US, announced they were dumping Current. They gave no reason and say they have an “open mind” on returning the channel to Al Jazeera, a claim that is pretty hard to swallow. A case of Islamophobia seems a much more likely reason. Violent opposition to Al Jazeera by the Bush administration spooked the cable operators and reinforced their unwarranted bias against anything with the slightest connection to Islam. If bias concerns Time Warner, they obviously have not been watching Current or any number of other channels in their line-up.
Time Warner used a clause in the Current agreement that allowed them to dump the network if it was sold. Some have suggested that the cable giant took the “out” as a negotiating tactic to cut a better deal. Given the logistics involved –you don’t just flip a switch to take a channel down– that seems unlikely. Besides, a threat of a cut-off is a much more effective negotiating tool. Shame on Time Warner; there is no more reason to block Al Jazeera than BBC America. With the thousands of channels Time Warner offers subscribers, there is surely room to retain the space Current occupies. It’s not like anyone is going to be forced to watch Al Jazeera, it just should be available.
Al Jazeera’s plan to convert Current to Al Jazeera America sounds interesting to any open-minded individual or organization, as Time Warner claims to be. The plan calls for as many as ten bureaus in the country, up from the five they now have, and as many as 300 staffers. Just the potential for them to offer coverage of more than major happenings in America to the people of the Middle East is more than enough reason to encourage their growth.
While the First Amendment applies only to government interference with speech and the press, the spirit of that guardian of the people’s right to know should lead Time Warner to do the right thing, the ethical thing. Knock off this nonsense and offer Al Jazeera to your customers.