August 13, 2014 at 1:00 am

Al Jazeera America often misses local Middle Eastern perspective

A television cameraman takes video of the new Al Jazeera America television broadcast studio on West 34th Street in New York. (Stan Honda / Getty Images)

Dawud Walid remembers when Al Jazeera America came to Detroit.

Network employees invited Walid, executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Dearborn, and other community leaders from the Arab-American community to get to know them and explain coverage plans.

The network’s message for Walid and others?

“They said, ‘We won’t be covering you,’ ” Walid recalled. “We are here to cover the automotive industry.”

In 2013, Al Jazeera bought Current TV from former Vice President Al Gore. The network, financially backed by the government of Qatar, was renamed Al Jazeera America and is now available in nearly 60 million cable-subscribing homes.

Now, just under a year after the network launched and set up bureaus in Detroit and 11 other cities across the country, Walid is not surprised that Metro Detroiters of Middle Eastern descent are underrepresented on the channel, surprising since Dearborn has the second-highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States.

“They cover Dearborn,” Walid said, “because the Ford Motor Co. is based in Dearborn.”

That isn’t to say the Big Three is the only thing on Al Jazeera America’s radar when it comes to covering the metro area. The network, whose local bureau relies on four to six reporters and a freelancing pool, has extensively tracked the city’s bankruptcy, water shutoff and Theodore Wafer’s trial and subsequent conviction on the network and on its news website.

In April, Al Jazeera America aired an award-worthy, five-part documentary series titled “Five Days in Detroit.” In one installment, former WDIV-TV (Channel 4) reporter Bisi Onile-Ere, who is now an Al Jazeera America correspondent, focused on Detroit Police Chief James Craig and the city’s declining crime rates.

But what was missing from the series, as well as stories such as Detroit’s water shutoff, are people of Middle Eastern descent weighing in.

Numerous requests for interviews and statements from network officials went unanswered.

Warren David is president of Arab America, a website that covers its community’s diverse tastes and opinions in six media markets, including Michigan. He said Al Jazeera America is no more obligated to cover people of Middle Eastern descent than say BBC America is to cover British expatriates.

That said, David also sees it as a wasted opportunity for Al Jazeera America to have his community at its fingertips and not take advantage.

“It would be tragic if Al Jazeera America was distancing themselves from the Arab-American community,” he said. “As an Arab-owned company, they have a chance to position themselves as a key player within the American media mainstream. At the same time, they have an equally important opportunity to highlight the contributions of Arab-Americans in southeastern Michigan — filling a void left by mainstream media in the U.S.”

If Al Jazeera America were to fill that void, the news network might have higher ratings. Despite being available in 60 million homes, the network draws 17,000 prime-time viewers. It garnered 23,000 during the first week of fighting in Gaza, according to Nielsen ratings. In comparison, CNN attracts an average 453,000 while the Fox News Channel draws 1.87 million. Since its launch, Al Jazeera America has also laid off employees and cut back some of its live newscasts.

Elayne Rapping is a professor of American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She said if Al Jazeera America were to focus more on the Arab-American community in Metro Detroit and its other bureau cities, it would not only be a ratings boost but it would help distinguish the network in an already crowded cable news arena.

“I am not surprised that Al Jazeera America wants to become a mainstream network, especially in places like the Midwest, where views are more conservative than the coasts and doesn’t want to offend audiences who may have biases against Arab-Americans,” Rapping said. “However, I think it is a big mistake. Gradually the whole country — and of course the world — is becoming more and more sympathetic to the Palestinians and critical of Israel and the media are picking this up. Social media especially is responsible for the shift since people are no longer dependent on mainstream media for information.”

One story Al Jazeera America chose not to cover recently was news that the National Counterterrorism Center’s Directorate of Terrorist Identities considers Dearborn to have the second-highest number of suspected terrorists in the country. New York is No. 1.

Al Jazeera America failed to respond to questions as to why the network chose not to cover the story. The network also did not cover U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade in Dearborn bemoaning the findings days after Intercept, an online news magazine, published the confidential documents.

Such omissions don’t bother Al Jazeera America viewer and Detroiter Shaffwan Ahmed. Although he prefers to read Al Jazeera English online and wishes the network covered Dearborn more, he said the network’s Detroit bureau is beneficial.

“The big reason why I follow news outlets like Al Jazeera and a few others is because they look for stories not covered by the mainstream media,” Ahmed said.

This includes stories such as former Flint resident and ex-Marine Amir Hekmati’s controversial imprisonment in Iran.

As for the way Al Jazeera covers Detroit and not Dearborn, Ahmed said he understands that, too.

“Detroit is the more well-known city and it has a more historic significance to the United States than Dearborn,” he said. “I’m not saying Dearborn isn’t important or anything like that, but Detroit is more well-known.”

Al Jazeera America at a glance

Al Jazeera America at a glance

Launched: Aug. 20, 2013

History: Was the Current TV network, cofounded by former Vice President Al Gore. The Qatar-royal family’s Al Jazeera Media Network purchased the network for a reported $70 million.

Headquarters: In New York, with bureaus in 12 cities, including Detroit

Available on: AT&T U-verse, Comcast, DirecTV and Dish Network

Network successes (locally): The documentary series “Five Days in Detroit,” which aired in April; in-depth coverage of the city’s water shutoff and bankruptcy.

Network shortcomings (locally): Not covering Dearborn, which has the second-highest concentration of Arab Americans in the country. Not including more Arab Americans and those of Middle Eastern descent in stories on the air and online.

Ratings woes: Despite being available in 60 million homes, the news network draws 17,000 viewers in prime time. It garnered 23,000 during the first week of fighting in Gaza, according to Nielsen. In comparison, CNN attracts an average 453,000, while the Fox News Channel draws 1.87 million. Since its launch, Al Jazeera America has also laid off employees and cut back some of its live newscasts.

Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic.