September 19, 2020

Media Decoder Blog: Al Jazeera Seeks a U.S. Voice Where Gore Failed

Al Gore, a co-founder of Current TV, which will be shut down by the Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera.Danny Moloshok/Associated Press Al Gore, a co-founder of Current TV, which will be shut down by the Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera.

9:16 p.m. | Updated Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news giant, has long tried to convince Americans that it is a legitimate news organization, not a parrot of Middle Eastern propaganda or something more sinister.

It just bought itself 40 million more chances to make its case.

Al Jazeera on Wednesday announced a deal to take over Current TV, the low-rated cable channel that was founded by Al Gore, a former vice president, and his business partners seven years ago. Al Jazeera plans to shut Current and start an English-language channel, which will be available in more than 40 million homes, with newscasts emanating from both New York and Doha, Qatar.

For Al Jazeera, which is financed by the government of Qatar, the acquisition is a coming of age moment. A decade ago, Al Jazeera’s flagship Arabic-language channel was reviled by American politicians for showing videotapes from Al Qaeda members and sympathizers. Now the news operation is buying an American channel, having convinced Mr. Gore and the other owners of Current that it has the journalistic muscle and the money to compete head-to-head with CNN and other news channels in the United States.

Al Jazeera did not disclose the purchase price, but people with direct knowledge of the deal pegged it at around $500 million, indicating a $100 million payout for Mr. Gore, who owned 20 percent of Current. Mr. Gore and his partners were eager to complete the deal by Dec. 31, lest it be subject to higher tax rates that took effect on Jan. 1, according to several people who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But the deal was not signed until Wednesday.

A spokesman for Al Jazeera said that antitrust regulators had not expressed any objections to the deal.

Going forward, the challenge will be persuading Americans to watch — an extremely tough proposition given the crowded television marketplace and the stereotypes about the channel that persist to this day.

“There are still people who will not watch it, who will say that it’s a ‘terrorist network,’ ” said Philip Seib, the author of “The Al Jazeera Effect.” “Al Jazeera has to override that by providing quality news.”

With a handful of exceptions (including New York City and Washington), American cable and satellite distributors have mostly refused to carry Al Jazeera English since its inception in 2006. While the television sets of White House officials and lawmakers were tuned to the channel during the Arab Spring in 2011, ordinary Americans who wanted to watch had to find a live stream on the Internet.

To change that, Al Jazeera lobbied distributors and asked supporters to write letters to the distributors — but accomplished next to nothing.

Some activists accused distributors like Comcast and DirecTV of blacklisting a channel that is widely respected elsewhere in the world. But the distributors said there was scant evidence that many American viewers wanted to watch.

Current, similarly, has suffered from paltry ratings. “Nobody’s watching,” one of the channel’s prime-time hosts, Eliot Spitzer, quipped to a reporter last month.

Current was conceived in 2005 after Mr. Gore and another co-founder, Joel Hyatt, bought the small cable news channel Newsworld International. After several years in obscurity showing viewer-submitted videos and documentaries, Current tacked to the left in 2011 with the hiring of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. A year later, Mr. Olbermann was fired, but a channel made in his image remained, with Mr. Spitzer, Jennifer Granholm and other liberal pundits as hosts. But on a typical night last year, just 42,000 people watched their shows, according to Nielsen.

By selling Current, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt are giving up their vision for an alternative to MSNBC, which has much higher-rated liberal hosts.

On Wednesday, Mr. Hyatt praised Al Jazeera for “bringing large-scale resources to journalism — something which we have not been able to do.” In a letter to Current employees, some of whom are expected to lose their jobs, he said he and Mr. Gore would join the advisory board of the newly rebranded channel.

“We look forward to helping build an important news network,” Mr. Hyatt wrote.

Rather than simply use Current to distribute its existing English-language channel, Al Jazeera said it plans to create a channel based in New York. Tentatively titled Al Jazeera America, roughly 60 percent of the programming will be produced in the United States, while the remaining 40 percent will come from Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera, which has bureaus in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, intends to open several more in other American cities.

“There’s a major hole right now that Al Jazeera can fill. And that is providing an alternative viewpoint to domestic news, which is very parochial,” said Cathy Rasenberger, a cable consultant who has worked with Al Jazeera on distribution issues in the past. However, she warned, “there is a limited amount of interest in international news in the United States.”

And others are trying to elbow their way in. News channels financed by Britain, China and Russia are especially hungry for American cable deals. To date, the BBC has had the most success; its BBC World News channel is now available in about 25 million homes thanks to a deal struck last month with Time Warner Cable.

But the takeover of Current brings Al Jazeera to the front of the line. In recent weeks, Mr. Gore personally lobbied the distributors that carry Current on the importance of Al Jazeera, according to people briefed on the talks who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Distributors can sometimes wiggle out of their carriage deals when channels change hands. Most consented to the sale, but Time Warner Cable did not, Mr. Hyatt told employees.

Time Warner Cable had previously warned that it might drop Current because of its low ratings. It took advantage of a change-in-ownership clause and said in a terse statement Wednesday night, “We are removing the service as quickly as possible.”

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Greek Squabbles Prolong Selection of New Leader

The list of candidates mentioned in media reports included an array of senior figures, including Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos after Vassilis Skouris, president of the European Court of Justice, was mentioned as the most likely contender.

But analysts said they did not rule out a surprise challenger emerging to succeed Prime Minister George A. Papandreou. After months of protest and building pressure from the European Union, Mr. Papandreou agreed two days ago to step down once political negotiators had established a new unity government. But from the start those negotiations seemed dogged with reverses.

By late afternoon Tuesday, Greece seemed to face yet a new set of troubles as Antonis Samaras, the leader of the main opposition party, New Democracy, balked at a demand by Eurogroup, the European Union’s group of finance ministers, that several top Greek leaders give a written commitment to the terms of an expanded bailout hammered out with Europe’s leaders last month.

“There is such a thing as national dignity,” Mr. Samaras said in a statement. “I have repeatedly explained that in order to protect the Greek economy and the euro, the implementation of the Oct. 26 agreement is inevitable.”

He added, “I won’t allow anyone to question the statements I have made.”

His statement came just a few hours after Finance Minister Venizelos told a cabinet meeting that five top Greek officials were being asked to sign the letter — a demand made on Monday by the chief of Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker — reaffirming their commitment to Greece’s bailouts deals and economic reforms before the next tranche of aid to Greece would be released.

The demand landed in the middle of byzantine negotiations that dragged on through yet another day. The apparent choice of Mr. Papademos, a former vice president of the European Central Bank, came after more than two days of intense wrangling here and growing fear that Greece’s political class would be unable to stop feuding — and positioning themselves for the next elections — long enough to agree on a unity government.

But early Wednesday morning, several local media outlets reported that there had been discussions about other possible candidates for prime minister, including the Parliament speaker, Filippos Petsalnikos, and a former speaker, Apostolos Kaklamanis.

In the through-the-looking-glass world of Greek politics, the argument was not over who could claim the cabinet positions, but who could avoid taking them, particularly the Finance Ministry.

Mr. Papandreou was repeatedly rebuffed when he offered positions in the new government, reports said, because nobody wanted to be associated with the unpopular measures Greece will be forced to impose to qualify for new loans from Europe.

In particular, Mr. Samaras, who has his eye on the next elections, did not see any reason for his party to participate. But other smaller parties also refused.

Mr. Papademos had also played a role in the delays by demanding the right to appoint some ministers, including the finance minister.

In one of the stranger twists, Mr. Papademos apparently insisted that the current finance minister, Mr. Venizelos, who will most likely run for prime minister in the next elections, step down. But Mr. Samaras, who would like to run against him, is demanding that he stay, some local news outlets have reported.

Greece’s new administration has a difficult road ahead. Its first job will be to secure the next tranche of aid, which is needed by December, Greek officials say, or the country will be unable to pay its bills.

But it must also secure approval of the loan deal, which requires that Parliament pass a new round of austerity measures, including layoffs of government workers. It also calls for permanent foreign monitoring to ensure that Greece delivers on promised structural changes, a move that many Greeks see as an affront to national sovereignty.

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Physicist Group’s Study Raises Doubts on Capturing Carbon Dioxide From Air

The concept is entirely different from capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide from power plants and other big polluters before it enters the air. Rather, the aim would be to remove the gas from the planet’s ambient air, where it exists in low concentrations everywhere.

In 2007 the British billionaire Richard Branson and Al Gore, the former vice president, created a $25 million prize for the first creator of such a technology, and millions of dollars in venture capital have since flowed to start-up companies tackling the problem.

But a new study casts serious doubts on whether such efforts will ever yield an economically viable tool for fighting global warming. The study, released on Monday by the American Physical Society, the world’s largest group of physicists, finds that while removing carbon dioxide from ambient air is technically feasible, the cost is likely to remain prohibitively high.

The report concluded it would cost at least $600 a ton to capture carbon dioxide from the air, compared with an estimated cost of about $80 a ton to capture the gas from a typical coal power plant.

The most significant hurdle is the extremely low concentrations of carbon dioxide in air, compared with the stream from a coal-fired power plant or other large emitter, said Robert H. Socolow, a Princeton physicist and a co-chairman of the report.

The flue gas from a coal plant is roughly 10 percent carbon dioxide, while carbon in the ambient air is around four-hundredths of a percentage point.

“We have to deal with our centralized power sources first,” Mr. Socolow said. “This is not an assignment for the next few decades.”

The conclusion was greeted with dismay by several leading scientists who have championed air capture as a climate change solution, however.

Wallace S. Broecker, a professor of physics at Columbia University and a pioneering climate change researcher, said it was premature to write off the technology, which was still in its infancy. “It’s something that’s so promising, it’s a crime not to explore it,” he said.

“The cost depends on how widely it’s implemented,” Dr. Broecker added. “The first computers cost a fortune, and now they cost almost nothing.”

Developing a workable system to capture and sequester carbon emissions directly from power plants is far more pressing, said Michael Desmond, a chemist and senior internal consultant at BP who served as co-chairman of the report. “You’ve got to get your entire electric infrastructure decarbonized,” Mr. Desmond said. “It’s only there where air capture starts to make sense.”

The development of carbon capture technology for power plants and other large emissions sources has made significant strides in recent years, and the federal stimulus package included billions of dollars for research and demonstration projects.

But wide-scale deployment in the United States will almost certainly require the passage of federal climate legislation setting a price for carbon dioxide emissions; such legislation failed to clear the Senate last year and is unlikely to be revived anytime soon.

Spending on carbon capture from ambient air, by contrast, has been far more modest, totaling just tens of millions of dollars. Kilimanjaro Energy, a California start-up and one of the leading developers of ambient air carbon-capture technology, for instance, has spent just over $11 million on research and development, said Nathaniel David, the firm’s president.

The idea of capturing carbon in ambient air has found some bipartisan support in the Senate, where a bill to reward researchers who develop carbon-removal technology was reintroduced last month with a Republican sponsor.

Klaus S. Lackner, a physicist and director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University’s Earth Institute who created the company’s technology, criticized the American Physical Society study as too narrowly focused, saying it had analyzed only outdated technology.

Dr. Lackner said his design, which uses a plastic that absorbs carbon dioxide when dry and releases it to the air when wet, would eventually be capable of capturing the gas for far less than $600 a ton.

“I can assure you that if I believed it would cost $600 a ton, I would have given up long ago,” he said.

Mr. David of Kilimanjaro Energy also said the report had failed to take into account the use of captured carbon dioxide as a feedstock for biofuels, like those made from algae.

“What we’re into is making fuels,” he said. “If you can grab CO2 from the atmosphere and can do it economically, you can find yourself in the midst of the fuel business.”

Mr. Desmond, a co-chairman of the report, said his group had struggled to get sufficient data from private companies engaged in research into direct air capture. In the absence of data, claims that the process could be done cheaply were almost impossible to verify, he said.

“In the big scheme of things, those numbers don’t seem credible,” he said. “That’s my concern.”

Other analysts had mixed views. In an e-mail message, Sasha Mackler, director for energy innovation at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington institute, agreed that direct air capture of carbon dioxide was probably decades away from making economic sense. But the market for alternative fuels could make the process far more profitable than forecast in the report, Mr. Mackler said.

“We are at far too early a stage to predict how this field will emerge in the years ahead,” he said. “Now is not the time to be taking options off the table.”

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