Al Jazeera Faces Critical Credibility Test Over Peyton Manning Doping Claim

Al Jazeera America Broadcast Room - H 2013
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If doping scandal doc 'The Dark Side' is fatally flawed, it could further damage the reputation of the Qatar-based media organization.

In an effort to build an audience — and credibility — Al Jazeera America has staked its reputation on deep dive investigations and topics that mainstream TV news divisions have largely abandoned amid shrinking news budgets.

And The Dark Side fit squarely in that wheelhouse. It was an undercover probe about doping in sports that fingered several high-profile current athletes including the Denver Bronco's superstar quarterback Peyton Manning. But now AJAM finds itself on the hot seat as the sources of some of the allegations have begun to recant amid furious denials from the athletes.

"The allegation that I would do something like that is complete garbage and is totally made up," Manning told ESPN. "It never happened. Never. I really can’t believe somebody would put something like this on the air. Whoever said this is making stuff up."

Other athletes fingered in the documentary include the Chicago Cubs' Taylor Teagarden (who was actually caught on camera talking about his fear of getting caught using banned substances), Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, Washington Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman and Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. They also deny the allegations.

Al Jazeera had British hurdler Liam Collins go undercover as part of the report about performance-enhancing drugs. He secretly recorded Charlie Sly, a former student pharmacy intern at Indiana's Guyer Institute of Molecular Medicine that allegedly supplied the drugs to Manning and others. Sly maintains that he dropped Manning's name as a way of smoking out Collins. 

"When I realized Al Jazeera was using a secret taping and Collins as a so-called investigative reporter, I was baffled," Sly told ESPN. "I cannot believe that can happen. That’s why I recanted the story. It wasn’t true, and I was trying to pull one over on Collins to see if he had any idea of what he was talking about. I was trying to determine whether this guy [Collins] was legitimate or just trying to steal some knowledge about the business.”

Meanwhile, the founder of Indianapolis clinic, Dr. Dale Guyer, said that Sly (who worked at the institute as an unpaid student intern) did not actually work at the clinic until two years after Manning was being treated there in 2011 for a neck injury.

The Al Jazeera reporter behind the piece, Deborah Davies, has defended her work. During an interview on MSNBC on Monday, Davies insisted: "He's not answering the allegation that is in the program."

Certainly Al Jazeera is used to controversy — and angering the powerful. But in establishing an outpost in America a little over two years ago, the Qatar-based company was entering not just a crowed U.S. cable news market, but one that had already peaked.

"Its decision to try to establish itself as a 24-hour cable channel in this day and age always seemed misbegotten," notes news analyst Andrew Tyndall. "It was such a 1990s thing to do. Nowadays, a video news brand with ambitions to break through the clutter does not need to staff up for a 24-hour presence and fight for cable channel slots. It produces eye-catching exclusive reports and distributes them via streaming video rather than via cable operators."

Indeed, Al Jazeera spent a lot of money to launch AJAM: $500 million alone to buy out Al Gore's Current TV and convert it into New York-based AJAM. But lately, the network has made headlines for internal strife; several female executives left AJAM, with multiple employees filing lawsuits alleging sexism and anti-Semitism. The staff unrest led CEO Ehab Al Shihabi to step down earlier this year. 

But AJAM has all the while produced some ambitious journalism. The network earlier this month was awarded the prestigious Alfred I. duPont Award from Columbia University for excellence in broadcast and investigative journalism for the six-part documentary series, Hard Earned, about working class American trying to get by. But eyeballs have not followed. The network draws only about 30,000 viewers a night.

Of course that could change with The Dark Side (ratings for the Sunday premiere of the program will be available Tuesday). "A single sensational documentary can make a breakthrough in a way that hours and hours of programing cannot," adds Tyndall. "Yet, if they are relying on content that turns out to be fatally flawed, defamatory and un-fact-checked, then the downside of attempting to develop sensational content is just as low as the potential upside is high."