Saturday, September 21, 2013

NEW YORK DIARY | My Night With Jennifer Hudson at the Al Jazeera America Launch Party

Jennifer Hudson rocks Al Jazeera's launch party at Lincoln Center | Photo by RG

NEW YORK CITY | Fine. It was not an entire evening. It was a moment with Jennifer Hudson. It was memorable and spectacular though. Plus, it happened during a private party by Al Jazeera America.

Al Jazeera, one of the world's biggest media companies, started a new 24/7/365 cable  news channel in the U.S. and on Thursday September 19 threw a rockin' party at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to celebrate that launch. Out of sheer luck, I got invited to the launch party (at the very same space where I sometimes drop by to have coffee or meet with a colleague).

It was ironic, the thought that I would maybe meet the leaders of the Qatar-financed news organization. At the exact minute that Al Jazeera announced some nine months ago that it had about 104 job openings in New York, I brushed up my resume and applied to any number of positions. The network's site received a stack of 22,000 resumes and eventually hired between 400 and 500 people. Imagine new jobs in journalism! Offering living wages and old-fashioned benefits for grown-ups!

Needless to say, it was a numbers game. Nobody found the needle I left in the h.r. computer haystack.

I did relish the idea of going to @AJAM launch party, because the real strength of Al Jazeera lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists. It has the potential to break the stronghold of homogenized news and pundit noise that swamps the U.S. news market. Fox News takes up views on the right. MSNBC leans toward the left. CNN drubs us with a diet of opinion-heavy coverage.

Defining its mission distinctively will be crucial for Al Jazeera to gain a foothold in the U.S, a goal that has so far eluded the upstart network funded by the emir of Qatar. I definitely would want to be part of a true revolution where the mission is to uncover political topics, cultural issues and humanitarian stories that are profoundly overlooked by the U.S. media and internationally.

At the launch party it became clear to me that Al Jazeera means serious business. That it is hungry to win in the U.S.. And that it has fought a public-relations problem borne out of an overseas reputation and entrenched stereotypes that frequently face upstarts from Middle East countries. At the launch party, as was the case in a recent Washington Post ad which the network took out, Al Jazeera America stressed and positioned itself as a network whose mission is to offer a fresh, fact-based and unbiased approach -- to deliver objective, balanced, in-depth news reporting on stories that matter.

Dozens of small screens along one wall flashed news trailers and colorful images as I entered the Alice Tully Hall lobby. These flashing screens led to a stage where a gigantic TV emitted that familiar glow of Yves Klein blue. At first subtle matrix-like patterns flowed into place. Then the islands of Manhattan skyscrapers came into view and filled the earth's horizon. Until finally cursive Arabic calligraphy danced into place, forming the decorative logo that represents the network's name.

Photo by RG

For the first hour or so, the menu was all American. One station served comfort food, including miniature hot dogs, bacon cheeseburgers and lobster rolls. Another station had succotash and shrimp gumbo. The bar was open, and drinks poured freely.  For dessert, caterers wheeled doughnut carts through the crowd. The pastries hung from hooks along the sides of the cart. The caterers served ice cream from the middle of the cart.

It was a big, private affair. A majority of the people who attended were newly hired employees of Al Jazeera America. Sports journalist Michael Eaves and TV anchor David Shuster were both there. Denver-based correspondent Paul Beban marveled at what he called "the magic doughnut cart" ("It's like a Christmas tree only waaaay better," he tweeted). TV news producer Kim Bondy could not help but steal a selfie with her and former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brian, who by the way was sweet and charming especially to students from Columbia University.


Eventually the bigwigs had their turn. Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera’s interim CEO, came up to the podium to praise his editorial team. A five-year veteran of Al Jazeera,  Shihabi has overseen the network’s more than 70 bureaus around the globe – the largest footprint of any news gathering organization in the world. "We are here tonight to do more than just celebrate our launch," he said.

Kim Bondy, Kate O'Brian, Soledad O'Brian and David Shuster
Kate O’Brian, the new President of Al Jazeera America, has full responsibility for defining and implementing the editorial strategy and operations across the network. “Al Jazeera America has been able to demonstrate that it can and will keep its promise to views,” said O'Brian who came from ABC News. “Al Jazeera America is really trying to tell the story of Americans, stories that effect Americans,” Ms. O’Brian said in the video.

The Acting Director General of Al Jazeera Media Network, Dr. Mostefa Souag acknowledged the reputation Al Jazeera has in the U.S. "I am extremely grateful to the media that has covered Al Jazeera America so extensively over the last nine months," he said. "Those who have reported and commented on what we have been doing have demanded facts and answers. We respect, appreciate and welcome feedback and hope it will continue. Regardless of how they perceive Al Jazeera, we want you to tell us our good things and our bad things. That's the way we learn. There is still more to do."

Al Jazeera America made a string of big, splashy hires. Former "NBC Nightly News” weekend anchor John Seigenthaler, who will serve as the primetime news anchor, had his turn on the podium. He said that he was thrilled to be part of this brand new journalism. Seiganthaler was an 11-year veteran of NBC News, reporting for all of its major programs and anchoring on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC. He reported on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 London bombings and a slew of other stories for the company during those years.

Unfortunately Ali Velshi, another former CNN talent, did not show up. But he appeared on the video presentation where he contrasted Al Jazeera’s real-news approach with the current cable-news model where the focus has instead been on the anchors, the anchors’ views and the opinions of the most excitable pundits who are frequently booked on TV.

The highlight of the evening was, naturally, Jennifer Hudson. The mega-star and pop-music icon was clad in a short, tight, long-sleeved black turtleneck dress. She performed several songs to the constant snapping of cellphone pictures. My favorite was her rendition of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together."

Michael Eaves saw me dance with Jennifer Hudson
During Hudson rendition of a Whitney Houston classic song, the American Idol alum came down from the stage to dance with the audience. She mostly shimmied from one fan to another. Then she spotted me. She sidled right up to me and we danced, real up-close and personal, for what felt like a blissful 30 minutes. (I'm sure it was not that long, but you know what I mean.) I tried my best to feature her when I danced beside her. I did not want to upstage her with any tricky moves. She was the star, after all.

To my surprise and delight Hudson did not move on to the next chump. As we gyrated together, she chose to stay with me until it was time for her to turn around to walk back up the stage. While we danced, she pointed the microphone at me several times so that we took turns singing! She was nice enough to rescue me when I forgot the lyrics. A total pro!

It was a great time, a very fun and memorable evening, even though by New York standards Al Jazeera America's one-month celebration was actually pretty tame stuff. Basically a lavish cocktail party for the friendly, hard-working employees who did not dare go too crazy in front of their bosses who had something to prove to American everywhere. They were on their best behavior.

Al Jazeera America launch party | Photo by Peter Wang

Later, some people came up to me to ask if I were a plant for the occasion. Well, no. I was just a guest who was loving Jennifer Hudson's great voice and stylish vibe. I thought it was classy that the Qatari-owned network pulled out all the stops by inviting her to their swanky party at Lincoln Center.

And I thought it was very canny of them to emphasize the “America” in the new channel's title. As we all exited the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, we all walked away with a party favor that was very much on-message: an individual apple pie. --rg


HERE IS Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera’s interim CEO, explaining his vision for the network at an Aspen Institute event:

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