Syrian citizens gather at the scene of a car bomb explosion in the residential al-Tadhamon neighborhood in Damascus.
  • AP Photo/SANA
  • Syrian citizens gather at the scene of a car bomb explosion in the residential al-Tadhamon neighborhood in Damascus.

Since Al Jazeera America launched a little more than a month ago, I’ve watched fitfully, usually while lying on the floor in the morning doing stretching exercises. I think I’d have noticed if AJA was bringing something special to the coverage all the cable news channels were giving the debate over chemical warfare in Syria and what the U.S. should do about, but maybe not. Maybe that was all in prime time.

Apparently it wasn’t.

According to “How Al Jazeera America Tackled the Crisis Over Syria,” a report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, AJA covered the “Syrian crisis” like the other cable news channels, not like a story you’d think it was born to own. Its focus was on whether the U.S. should respond militarily, and like CNN and the others, the message it most frequently conveyed was yes, the U.S. should.

That’s not what most Americans were saying, but it reflects who cable news was talking to. “President Obama or members of his administration showed up in 66% of Al Jazeera America stories,” reported Pew, exceeding even CNN (59 percent). “Syrian sources were cited in 26% of Al Jazeera America stories and 24% on CNN. On both channels, congressional representatives were sources in 16% of the stories.”

And “despite having access to more than 60 international Al Jazeera network bureaus, about three-quarters (76%) of Al Jazeera America stories originated from Washington, D.C., or New York City”—again higher even than CNN (71 percent). It was a performance that makes me wonder if AJA even trusts the news it gets from Al Jazeera’s international bureaus, a thought that I doubt that the channel intended to put into our heads.

Founded in 1996 in Qatar and still based there, AJA was in a unique position to examine America’s dilemma in a context that some viewers would surely have welcomed. It didn’t. Said Pew, “The idea that the U.S. and its allies don’t understand the complexities of the Middle East, for example, was negligible on Al Jazeera America (0%) as was the case on most cable news channels. (It did register in 1% of the CNN stories).” Yet that’s surely a commonly held view on the Arab Street; it’s common enough even in the U.S., where it’s invoked to justify our getting out and staying out.

Said Pew, “The daunting idea that there are no good options for the U.S. in this crisis appeared in 4% of the new channel’s stories compared with 5% on Fox News, 6% on CNN and 21% on MSNBC.” But that was the nub of the dilemma, surely clear to lucid observers in Doha, and of great help in understanding why Obama grabbed the fig leaf Vladimir Putin offered him: what alternative did he ever have that was any better?

What were they saying about American credibility in Damascus and Tehran? Al Jazeera America might have told us, but maybe it still felt too new and suspect to dare put that kind of a spin on its news; it wouldn’t want to marginalize itself as a news source that’s exotic and suspicious. But when a story comes along that’s right in its wheelhouse, and yet it bends over backwards not to give us coverage that’s different and better . . . Then why should we watch it at all?