Irony alert: Al Gore sues Al Jazeera for fraud

Honesty, it’s difficult to know where to begin tracking the irony in this story. Al Gore launched Current TV in large part on the financial and political basis of his global-warming crusade and entrepreneurship, which predictably went nowhere even with high-profile headliners like Keith Olbermann. Gore then improbably convinced Al Jazeera — which is owned by the royal family of the oil-pumping emirate of Qatar — that the channel was worth a half-billion dollars on the basis of its penetration into cable and satellite-TV systems in the US. That deal, by the way, got cinched only after Gore began accusing some of those cable and satellite system operators of bigotry for threatening to drop Current TV’s slots if the deal went through — which would have cost Gore a $100 million payday.

Fast forward eighteen months, when Al Jazeera America is no more a household name than was Current TV before the sale. According to Gore, they’ve balked at making payments on the bloated cheeseburger he sold them, so Gore is suing them … for fraud:

Former Vice President Al Gore has filed a lawsuit against the Middle Eastern media group Al Jazeera, accusing it of fraud and breach of contract in its $500 million purchase of Mr. Gore’s Current TV cable channel.

The dispute centers on Al Jazeera’s refusal to turn over “tens of millions of dollars” remaining in an escrow account and still owed to the selling shareholders of Current TV, according to a statement from David Boies, the lawyer representing Mr. Gore and a Current TV co-owner, Joel Hyatt, who are suing on behalf of all the selling shareholders.

“Al Jazeera America wants to give itself a discount on the purchase price that was agreed to nearly two years ago,” Mr. Boies said. “We are asking the court to order Al Jazeera America to stop wrongfully withholding the escrow funds that belong to Current’s former shareholders.”

Well, if anyone knows about fraud, it’s Al Gore. After all, he’s the same man who took the half-billion-dollar deal from the Qataris while claiming not to be a hypocrite about climate change by drenching himself in oil money. He shouldn’t be surprised at the sudden refusal by AJA to pay the overpriced bill for the bill of goods Gore sold them. After all, as a wise man once intoned: “There’s no such thing as ethical oil.” Unless they’re stuffing the proceeds into your pocket, of course.

But Gore isn’t the only practitioner of irony in this tale of woe. AJA, which styles itself as a news outlet, wants the court proceedings to remain under seal:

The complaint has been filed under seal at the request of Al Jazeera, though Gore and Hyatt have filed a motion seeking to unseal it.

“We do not believe that our complaint should be sealed,” Boies said. “However, despite being a news organization, Al Jazeera America has said that the full complaint should be kept from the public file.  We have therefore filed the complaint under seal until the Court can resolve this issue. We expect that the Court will reject Al Jazeera America’s argument.”

That’s a hell of a news instinct, Al Jazeera! Even this, though, reflects back on Gore. Recall that Gore accused the cable and satellite providers of being bigots for even considering the idea of dropping Current TV from their line-ups if the sale went through. How did Gore make that argument? He insisted that AJ “has obviously long since established itself as a really distinguished and effective news gathering organization.” Don’t forget that the context of those remarks to Matt Lauer was Gore’s accusation in his book that other news outlets had sold out to Big Oil … an accusation before Big Oil came knocking on Gore’s door, of course.

All that said, AJ should pay the price agreed for Current TV, unless it has better evidence of fraud. When the deal went through, the New York Times estimated the clearance for Current TV at upward of 40 million homes in the US; today’s estimate puts it at over 60 million. Even if, as the NYT’s report yesterday notes, AJA “has been slow to develop an audience,” that has nothing to do with the deal for Current TV, which was entirely about access — access that Al Jazeera couldn’t get on its own, thanks to the lack of interest in news from the Qatari perspective in the US. “Slow” is right, but a better word might be “retreating”; they’re getting only 17,000 viewers a night during prime time this year. Compare that to what Current TV did with Olbermann two years earlier:

Executives at MSNBC had no public reaction on Friday to Mr. Olbermann’s departure from another channel. But Nielsen ratings demonstrate that Mr. Olbermann was not able to recreate his success there.

In his 40 weeks on Current TV, he had an average of 177,000 viewers at 8 p.m., down from the roughly one million that he had each night on MSNBC. Just 57,000 of those viewers on any given night were between the ages of 25 and 54, the coveted advertising demographic for cable news. Still, Mr. Olbermann ranked as the highest-rated program on Current.

Olbermann got more than three times the viewers in the demo as AJA gets overall now — and that was considered a failure. If nothing else, this proves that it wasn’t bigotry that kept Al Jazeera off of US cable and satellite systems before the Current TV sale.

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