Al Jazeera America launches with Nashville bureau, familiar faces 

Call Me Al

Call Me Al

Shrinking staffs and diminished coverage are affecting news organizations across America, some regrettably close to home. But one major player is actually stepping up to expand its reach, increase its boots on the ground, and devote more resources to in-depth reporting both around the world and here in Nashville.

Meet the newest addition to our media landscape, Al Jazeera America.

On cable, carried locally by Uverse and Comcast, AJAM will occupy the space once held by Al Gore's Current TV. The former vice president and Inconvenient Truther, along with his business partners, sold the cable channel — plus access to 40 million to 50 million homes — to Al Jazeera at the end of last year. Next week, the Middle Eastern news giant, which is financed by the Qatari government, will shut off Current and switch on its new American news network.

When Al Jazeera America launches 2 p.m. Aug. 20, the network will have been working on the ground in Tennessee for weeks. Nashville is home to one of 12 AJAM bureaus around the country, and the local team, led by former WSMV weekend anchor Jonathan Martin, has already been on the hustle. The network has been producing "pilot" broadcasts for weeks, with reporting from various bureaus. They're only seen internally, but they're otherwise just like the real thing. The goal is to have a running start when Al Jazeera America flips on the switch.    

"When you're doing a 24-hour network, you can't just rehearse once a day," Martin tells the Scene. "You have to rehearse 10 or 12 shows a day, because you're going to be doing that much news. We have been doing stories, and we are going as if we are on air. There's no holding back."

When President Barack Obama visited Chattanooga last month to detail a new jobs plan, Martin covered the event and filed a report. He did the same on Friday when four former Vanderbilt players were indicted on rape charges. If AJAM had been on the air, he tells the Scene, it would have been the first national network to report on the story.

Having worked his way through the ranks at WSMV for six years, from morning reporter to weekend anchor, Martin says he was looking for new opportunities when he got a call earlier this year from his agent, who said AJAM had expressed an interest in him. The new network had not been on his radar, he says, and at the time, with much of the name talent yet to be hired and the organization's plans for the channel still largely unknown, it wasn't exactly clear what he was being asked to join.

Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that the words Al Jazeera — literally translated as "The Island" and meant to refer to the Arabian Peninsula — mean different things to different people. The network has won awards for its reporting, and is held in high regard in some journalistic circles for its unmatched coverage of the Arab Spring protests. Others, however, may forever see the network that frequently aired Osama bin Laden's video messages as a mouthpiece for terrorists. Former President George W. Bush's defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, had a particular disdain for the network's reporting on the Iraq War — which might only affirm one's previously held view, either way.

Martin says he didn't have a negative perception of Al Jazeera before he flew to New York to meet with the higher-ups, but he did want to learn more about their vision for AJAM. He found out they wanted to build an American network for American viewers, he says, and "they wanted someone in Nashville to bring out news from Middle America, from regular everyday Nashvillians and Tennesseans."

"They wanted to be in places that the other networks are not," he explains. "For example, Nashville, New Orleans, Detroit — places that are respected cities, people know about them, there's stuff going on, but there's no one on the ground every day."

Based in an office on Church Street, Martin and his team will cover Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and Georgia. They'll also split coverage in Alabama with correspondents based in New Orleans. The Nashville bureau will likely be staffed by four to six people on a regular basis, including Martin, a producer, a photographer and several freelancers. (A freelance correspondent, for instance, recently covered a Trayvon Martin rally in Atlanta while Jonathan Martin was on assignment here.)

Nashville's ties to Al Jazeera's American arm have been there from the beginning. After all, Gore is a part-time local. Having a bureau in town means that if they can find the channel on their dial, Nashvillians might be more likely to recognize the stories and locales on a national broadcast. And earlier this month, another connection emerged with the announcement that John Seigenthaler will join the network as its prime-time evening news anchor in New York.

A former weekend anchor of NBC Nightly News, Seigenthaler spent most of the '80s at WSMV, and has spent the past several years working with his family's Nashville-based firm, Seigenthaler Public Relations, as CEO of its operations in New York. He tells the Scene that he had no intention of getting back into broadcasting until AJAM came calling.

"For someone who spent 27 years of his life in journalism," he says, "the opportunity to come to work at a network that's committed to in-depth, objective investigative journalism and has the resources to do so is a dream come true."

Seigenthaler says he jumped at the chance to join a news organization that is expanding as others are shrinking. And while some national media observers have noted the number of longtime network veterans taking high-level jobs at AJAM — including NBC's Mike Viqueira, CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Joie Chen, and MSNBC's David Shuster — as a sign that the network might be more of the same, he says the new outlet will distinguish itself from infotainment.

"It seems that there's a trend in the country to turn toward tabloid journalism," Seigenthaler says. "That's the opposite of what Al Jazeera America is going to be about."

Last week, a crew from the network's headquarters in New York came to Nashville, where Martin says they spent 10 hours shooting footage for AJAM's first hour of programming. It's a documentary, of sorts, on building a news network from the ground up, with perspectives from would-be viewers of the polarizing outlet. The network's first story, in other words, will be the story of Al Jazeera America — and Nashville figures to play a big part in it.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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