Why We Can't Compare Israel's New I24 Channel to Al Jazeera — Yet
Last month, i24, a new 24-hour news agency, began broadcasting from Israel’s Mediterranean shore in three languages, Hebrew not among them.
This was not an oversight. By broadcasting in English, Arabic, and French (a language spoken by roughly half a million Jews living in France and in parts of the Middle East), i24 News is seeking to provide an alternative to existing 24-hour news channels. Peter Melloul, a former French diplomat who now serves as the company's CEO, explained in an article in Tablet magazine that he hopes viewers "will see how we cover the 70% of international news, and if they can trust that, then they will also trust how we cover Israeli news." He's talking, in part, about competing with news agencies like CNN and the BBC.
For Middle East news, specifically, Al Jazeera is the name that comes most readily to mind. But there are three major differences between i24 and Al Jazeera.
1. When Al Jazeera was founded, it had a clear market niche to fill. It was launched in the aftermath of BBC shutting down its Arabic language operations, and there was a clear opening for a well-funded Arabic language television news service. The same cannot be said about English language news programming. BBC, CNN, Sky News, MSNBC, Fox News, and others, all provide 24-hour news services. Now, one could certainly argue that i24 can win over a significant share of the market with high quality programming and a unique tone, which brings me to my second point.
2. Al Jazeera has built up a reputation for consistent, high quality content. This is particularly true when it comes to covering events in the Middle East and other areas of the world where other news agencies haven’t invested in maintaining a significant presence. With all of the controversies surrounding their coverage, Al Jazeera has earned a reputation, especially within the news industry itself, for solid reporting. And rightfully so: While Al Jazeera has been criticized by Israel and a number of western nations, its employees have also been booted from Bahrain, the West Bank, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries at various points. If Al Jazeera journalists are agitators, they are at least equal opportunity about it.
All of this is not to say that i24 News is a lesser organization, or that the two agencies are equal. It’s way, way too early to tell. Until we see how i24 reports on controversial events (particularly involving Israel), trying to assess their reliability as a news organization is impossible.
3. I24 isn’t bankrolled by the Israeli government. The channel’s funding comes from Patrick Drahi, a French-Israeli media magnate. Vivienne Walt wrote for Fortune, "[Al Jazeera] is wholly owned and financed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by minuscule Qatar." I’m not arguing that this makes Al Jazeera a mouthpiece for the Qatari government — there’s not much evidence to suggest that it is. However, it is naïve to think that a news agency’s revenue source has no impact on what stories they choose to cover, where they invest resources, the columnists they employ, and the content they produce. The person "pulling the strings" for i24 is not a representative of the Israeli government. For Al Jazeera, it is the Qatari government.
It’s too early to tell what i24 will end up being. Looking at their coverage of the recent Israeli air force strike in Lebanon side-by-side with Al Jazeera’s, they’re similar with some subtle differences. i24 places more emphasis on the number of rockets fired from Lebanon and reports that one of the rockets caused damage; Al Jazeera mentions that an Israeli drone was reported flying over Lebanon the day before the initial rocket attacks, which i24 does not, and characterizes the damage in Israel as "light" and suggests it might have been caused by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system rather than the Lebanese rockets themselves.
i24 News has one task before it at the moment: To provide consistent, high quality news coverage. That mission has nothing to do with Israel, Palestine, or anything else besides journalistic integrity. Viewers will determine whether or not they succeed in that.