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With 'Rightly,' Al-Jazeera Targets Conservative Audience In New Online Platform

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The divisions that have threatened to split the Republican Party after the former president's election defeat and his second impeachment trial are also becoming visible in the media outlets that cater to conservatives. Where Fox News was once the undisputed favorite of the right, there is now competition for that title. And just last week, there is a new entry in that fight. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-financed media giant, launched a new online platform targeting an American conservative audience. It is called "Rightly." And NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik is here with us now to tell us more about it.

David, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

MARTIN: First, just tell us what we know about this new Al Jazeera platform.

FOLKENFLIK: Not much. It started with a new show from a host - a conservative commentator named Steven Kent. It's an interview-based show. And the outlet is being led by Scott Norvell, who's been a Fox News commentator and who also helped to edit and run a news site called Heat Street that appeared for a couple of years from another outfit controlled by the Murdoch family, and that's News Corp, its sort of publishing side. And their claim is that they want to reach out to conservatives to figure out where the direction should go. It seems to be aimed not at Never Trumpers, but not at the kinds of people necessarily who were baying for blood at the base of the Hill of Congress just a month and a half ago.

MARTIN: Well, I think one of the reasons that this is eye-catching is that, you know, Al Jazeera, until recently, had a cable TV news channel for the U.S., Al Jazeera America, that, first of all, had a lot of resistance kind of getting picked up by sort of cable systems around the country. So there was when - they had a lot of difficulty getting interviews with certain, you know, right-leaning figures, No. 2.

And No. 3, a lot of the center of gravity of that channel didn't seem to be focused on conservatives. I mean, like their initial sort of branding or outreach, if I could call it that, was based on, you know, kind of like The Guardian, which is, we're going to report stories that the other media outlets aren't reporting - like, that kind of thing, if that makes sense. So it just seems like a surprise. Do you agree?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's baffling. Al Jazeera America didn't work here for the reasons you described. Al Jazeera English still exists and has reporters around the country. And AJ+ has, you know, certainly got a decent footprint digitally. What they always promised was to hold a mirror up to America in a way that corporate media in America was disinclined to do, perhaps because all of the faults of America were baked into American corporate structures, including its corporate media. This seems like it's in some ways some sort of realpolitik play by doing something much more explicitly conservative, explicitly ideological for an audience that may be extremely reluctant to absorb whatever they have to say, given the source of it.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, as an ideological play, you know, some journalists inside Al Jazeera wrote a letter to management objecting to this new platform, saying it would tarnish the network's brand. And the letter also said that, quote, "the media in the U.S. is already polarized." That's a quote. And that this new platform wouldn't be a solution but rather a deepening of the problem. So what has been the reaction more broadly to this?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, I've talked to a few people inside Al Jazeera and some former Al Jazeera people, and they are even more confounded than I am about it, you know, in part because it's explicitly ideological, in part because that ideology is explicitly on the right, and in part because it's based on - at least from the outset, appears to be based on conversation and interviews rather than on reporting.

You know, this appears to be really - we don't know fully what form it will take, but at the moment to be done as conversation. You know, the podcast world has supplemented that enormously. Like, I'm not sure what it is that they're value added will be, which is not to say it couldn't be wonderful. You know, one of the things that people have been critical of Fox and other news outlets on the right for is for the contentious nature of its tone and for its unwillingness to accept criticism or information that cuts against what they have to say. You know, we really haven't seen this outfit play out yet. We've got to give them a little bit of time to show that they're able to do something constructive and interesting here. But so far, it does seem to be a puzzlement.

MARTIN: So just a few months ago, when President Trump didn't like how Fox News reported on his election, basically refusing to go along with his falsehoods, he very publicly and those around him started very publicly catering to this even more conservative One America News Network. And you can imagine kind of the fraction of the audience these outlets are playing to getting narrower and narrower. Do you think that that's what's inevitable here?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, look; even before the Trump years, a senior Fox News executive said to me, look; at our best moments, we're getting 3, 4 million viewers in primetime on our top-rated shows. And that's, you know, less than 2% of the nation. One, 1 1/2% of the country is watching. And yet it had an outsized influence on that. To be successful in cable is to narrowcast. It's to identify a large, small, discernible audience and to hold on to as much of it as possible. And I do think that the more entrants there are, the more it weakens Fox's hold and the more that the narrowcast becomes increasingly splintered.

MARTIN: That was NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "THE LAST MAVERICK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.