Qatar launches conservative media platform in US in soft power pursuit

Rightly will be a “new US-based digital platform” with a conservative leaning.
Thursday 25/02/2021
A 2016 file picture shows people walking into the offices of Al-Jazeera America in New York City. (AFP)
A 2016 file picture shows people walking into the offices of Al-Jazeera America in New York City. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The curtain was raised this week on Qatar’s latest tool of soft power in the United States, as the small Gulf country readies to adjust its PR and media image-building strategy to a changed landscape under the new administration of US President Joe Biden.

Qatar-owned broadcaster Al-Jazeera said Tuesday it will launch a centre-right news platform in the United States, five years after shuttering a mainstream cable news broadcasting project in the US.

It announced that Rightly would be a “new US-based digital platform” with a conservative leaning.

If Al-Jazeera English’s strategy is any indication, Doha will rely on Western professionals who are likely to insist on a good margin of editorial independence for the platform. But Qatar nonetheless hopes to buttress its lobbying activities and promote its political agenda in the US through this freshly minted media operation.

The announcement made it clear that the new platform will seek to tap into the growing ethnic and religious diversity within the US political spectrum, including the right.

“We are hoping to create a platform that amplifies the voices of an array of personalities that more accurately reflects the racial, cultural and generational diversity of centre-right politics in America than existing outlets,” said Rightly editor-in-chief Scott Norvell.

Through US minorities, US-Arab relations experts see the platform as possibly bridging ties to the Muslim minority in the United States. They also view the project as well timed to promote an Islamist narrative after the arrival to the White House of new political actors who may be more receptive to this kind of narrative than those with the previous administration.

The platform will launch with a studio interview programme hosted by libertarian broadcaster Stephen Kent that will be available on social media channels on February 25, it added.

The statement did not give a date for a full launch.

The platform’s ideological slant could help soften US conservatives’ criticism of Qatar and dispel their suspicions of its ties to extremist movements.

At the same, experts says, Qatari operators in the US will be able to avoid competition with the glut of liberal media outlets in the US and tap into the country’s less represented right-wing constituencies. Norvell helped launch the right-wing Fox News in 1996.

Al-Jazeera said that Rightly would be a “new US-based digital platform that will generate content for audiences currently underrepresented in today’s media environment.”

In its new experience, Qatar will try to learn from past media ventures. Cable channel Al-Jazeera America, launched with great fanfare in 2013 by the Qatari state-backed media group, failed and was shut down in 2016.

The channel struggled to attract more than a minuscule audience.

Al-Jazeera paid some $500 million to launch the cable news operation aimed at rivaling CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

In mid-2013, the channel went live after hiring some 850 staff and opening 12 bureaus in the United States and a state-of-the art studio in New York.

The channel hired high-profile journalists from CNN and other networks and began with 14 hours of daily news programming.

No viewership figures were publicly released, but some reports said the audience was only around 30,000 for the key primetime hours.

The network maintained a news gathering operation in the United States as well as an outpost of its digital outlet AJ+, which targets millennial viewers with viral content and multimedia production.