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I Want My AJE

By
May 15, 2008

Al Jazeera English’s only bureau in the western hemisphere occupies five floors of a nondescript office building on Washington, D.C.’s K Street. The lobby is drab — just a hallway and two elevators. There is no sign on the door, no gold symbol affixed on the wall. In fact, the name Al Jazeera does not appear anywhere. If you didn’t know better, you might think the building was home to dentist’s offices or mid-level lobbying firms, instead of the most controversial news channel in the world.

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Preparation of the news at Al-Jazeera studios in Doha, Qatar. Photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo via Flickr

To get upstairs, a non-employee must have an escort, and on a cold day last spring, mine was Lauren McCollough. McCullough works for Brown Lloyd James, the public relations firm that represents the Qatar-based channel in what has proven — and might have been expected — to be the hostile territory of the United States.

McCullough and I stepped into the elevator and she swiped a keycard through a security pad. Only those with electronic access can get off on the Al Jazeera English floors. Upstairs, the elevator opened revealing a glass door in which the channel’s logo, Arabic script in the shape of a flame, was etched. Al Jazeera means “the island” or “the peninsula” and refers to the shape of the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar where the channel was founded. Behind the glass was a small desk where Dora, the receptionist, sat beneath two flat-screen televisions, one showing Al Jazeera English, the other showing Al Jazeera Arabic.

Dora and I had never met in person, but we’d spoken over the phone several times. When I told her my name she said, “You’ve been calling.”

Unless you live in Burlington, Vt., or Northeast Ohio, the only way to see Al Jazeera is on YouTube, or by paying for either a subscription broadband service or a satellite dish.

I had been trying to arrange an interview with members of AJE’s editorial board and American marketing and distribution departments for nearly three months. A few weeks earlier, after weeks of unreturned phone calls — to the D.C. bureau, the channel’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar, and to Brown Lloyd James — I decided to show up at the office. The security guard stopped me and called Dora from his phone in the lobby.

“I’d like to set up an interview,” I said. “Can I come up and make an appointment?”

“No,” said Dora. “You have to have an appointment to come up. Call Brown Lloyd James.”

“But I’m right downstairs,” I pleaded.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “You have to have an appointment.”

Three weeks later, McCullough called and said she’d set up an interview with William Stebbins, the D.C. bureau chief.

“Great,” I said. “Can I get a tour after the interview?”

“Oh, I think it’s better you do it on the phone,” she said.

I took what I could get, and when I got Stebbins on the phone, I asked about whether the reporters and producers, many of whom have left jobs at places like CNN and the BBC to come work for the fledgling station, are disappointed that not a single major cable or satellite network in the United States has agreed to carry the channel. Comcast, Charter, Time Warner, Dish Network and DirecTV all passed.

“We’re fairly sure our programming is of interest,” said Stebbins, side-stepping a bit. “We knew that we’d be forced to look for non-traditional means of distribution.”

Indeed. Though approximately 120 million homes from Jerusalem to Jakarta to Germany tune in to AJE every day, the station has been all but shut out of the U.S. market. Unless you live in Burlington, Vt., or Northeast Ohio, where two local cable networks defied the industry by adding the channel to their line-ups, the only way to see the channel’s programming is on YouTube, or by paying for either a subscription broadband service or a satellite dish from French company GlobeCast. In Washington, D.C., a tiny satellite company called Washington Cable has the channel available, but so far, its customers — several government agencies, as well as a small number of apartment complexes, including the famed Watergate — don’t want it.

“We’re trying to interest the government agencies,” says CEO Perry Klein. “On a trial basis, they like what they see, but they don’t want to sign up for it.”

According to Stebbins, AJE reached out to “key media people” and politicians in the run-up to the November 2006 launch, but met with a “reserved response.”

Though spokespeople from TimeWarner, Comcast, and News Corp (which owns DirecTV) refused to speak in any detail about their decision not to carry the channel, those with knowledge of the industry say AJE never had a chance on U.S. soil.

The channel was founded in 1996 by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, a small, oil-rich American ally on the Persian Gulf. Though sponsored by the Qatari government, in its early years the channel was considered by some western observers to be a beacon for democracy in the highly censored world of state-controlled Arabic media. In 1999, John Burns of the New York Times called Al Jazeera “hard-hitting” and “revolutionary.” In his book Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West, journalist Hugh Miles writes that Al Jazeera drew ire from across the Middle East for, among other things, allowing Israelis to appear on-air:

“This was a major departure from anything done before and was truly shocking for the Arab public,” wrote Miles. “Many Arabs had never seen an Israeli speak before.”

Miles also points to provocative talk show topics such as “Are Hezbollah resistance or terrorists?” and guests ranging from Hamas members to Syrian feminists to Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi.

But any American love for the channel was lost on September 11, 2001. Suddenly, Al Jazeera was accused of being a mouthpiece for the enemy for airing video of Osama bin Laden and showing graphic images of injured and dead American servicemen. (Ironically, when Burns wrote about Al Jazeera two years earlier he noted that the channel had been accused by some in the Arab world of being “a mouthpiece for American ideas.”)

“Al Jazeera airs Osama bin Laden’s videos,” says John Dunbar, a former fellow at the Center for Public Integrity who studied media. “It is seen, fairly or not, as an outlet for terrorists.”

Donald Rumsfeld called the channel “vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable.” On November 13, 2001, during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, a U.S. missile destroyed Al Jazeera’s offices in Kabul. And in November 2005, Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper reported that in an April 2004 meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair, President George W. Bush floated the possibility of bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar. The Bush administration has denied such a conversation took place.

When, in 2005, word spread that the channel was planning an English-language version that it hoped to air in the U.S., opponents sprung into action. Chris Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C., led the charge. He launched www.stopaljazeera.com and produced a 20-minute documentary called “Terror Television: The Rise of Al Jazeera and the Hate America Media.”

“The case could be made that Al Jazeera could be functioning as a global terrorist entity,” said Kincaid. As evidence, on his website and on various televised interviews, Kincaid brought up the cases of Taysir Allouni, a former Al Jazeera Arabic reporter who was convicted by a Spanish court of aiding Al Qaeda, and of Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, a former Al Jazeera managing editor who was replaced in the wake of a report saying Iraqi agents were working for the channel.

Kincaid also takes issue with the fact that AJE is primarily funded not through advertising dollars, but by the Emir of Qatar.

“I’d like to see more international coverage on American news stations,” he said. “But you can’t fix that problem by relying on a foreign government and its TV channel.”

Kincaid said he doesn’t think Al Jazeera English should be banned from American airways, but his campaign against the channel was aggressive and far-reaching — though not completely successful.

TURNING ON

The word came from on high. In late November 2006, Patrick Deville, the general manager of Ohio’s Buckeye Cable System, got a call from the parent company’s chairman, Allan Block, asking him to look into the English-language version of Al Jazeera.

“The feeling was that it’s a good thing to expand your knowledge,” said Deville. So Deville did a Google search, looking for a number to call for Al Jazeera English’s distribution department. He couldn’t find any contact information in the U.S. so he called the main number in Qatar. A few weeks later, Catherine Rasenberger, of Rasenberger Media in New York, called on behalf of the company. Deville asked if Buckeye could aim their satellite to Al Jazeera’s receiving dishes and put the station on a private network so staff and officials could watch it and decide whether they’d like to add the channel.

Deville admits that he had preconceived notions about the channel, but that they were mostly wiped away after several hours of viewing.

“It was pretty harmless,” said Deville. In fact, the first program he saw when he turned it on was an hour-long documentary about golfer Colin Montgomerie. “The look and feel is very British. The pieces are longer and it doesn’t move as fast as CNN or Fox. There are religious discussions, but you don’t get the sense that it’s tilted toward Islam. Some people think American news channels like CNN are tilted toward a Christianity and Jewish perspective.”

“Honestly,” admitted Deville, “It was somewhat boring.”

Buckeye serves approximately 150,000 people in northwest Ohio, which Block spokesman Tom Dawson says is home to a “sizeable” Middle Eastern population. The company’s headquarters are fifty miles from Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the largest concentrations of people of Middle Eastern descent in the country.

“We try to provide as much news and information as we can to the widest possible audience,” Dawson said, pointing out that Buckeye carries several Hispanic and Chinese channels. “We try to give viewers diversity.”

Asked if the company did any market research, polling customers about whether they’d like to see the channel or would be opposed to it, Deville laughs.

“No, we just did it.”

On March 9, 2007, two days before AJE launched on Buckeye, the Sandusky Register ran a front page article about the addition: “Al Jazeera to broadcast on Buckeye Cable.”

Within minutes, the paper’s online bulletin board came alive with readers weighing in on the decision. At first, most of the posts were passionate disavowals:

“The fact that Buckeye Cable would even consider adding a Middle East network to American TV is disgusting. I don’t want it in my house. It will be blocked.”—All American

“I’m canceling if these assholes…run Al Jazeera”—Zipperhead

“Al Jazeera is the major mouthpiece for terrorists. Al Jazeera has not only lent material support to the terrorists organizations but financial backing as well.”—Tony55

But after a while, cooler heads appeared.

“I’ve served in the Middle East twice and watched the Al Jazeera broadcasts. The network is not evil, it’s actually similar to CNN. Al Jazeera provides freedom of the press to the Middle East.”—Nick

Unlike Buckeye Cable, which made its decision to carry AJE based on the whim of its owner, Burlington Telecom, a small, publicly owned fiber optic network that launched as an alternative to Comcast in February 2005, came to the channel from a purely business perspective.

The decision-makers reacted positively to AJE’s content, but refused to, as they saw it, go out on a limb for the channel.

Richard Donnelly, sales and marketing manager of Burlington Telecom, said that company officials read that Al Jazeera was launching an English language channel in some of the “industry rags,” but what caught their attention was an article that reported that negotiations between Comcast and AJE had broken down.

“We thought, here’s an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from our main competitor,” said Donnelly. Like Deville, Donnelly called the channel’s distribution department in Qatar and asked if they’d be interested in showing on “a small network in Burlington, Vermont.” They previewed the channel for a few weeks in the office, then negotiated a contract.

“It was a market-based decision,” said Donnelly. “But I’m not naïve. I knew there would be controversy.”

In an effort to educate their customer base about the news product, Burlington Telecom invited people to come into their offices in groups to watch the channel and discuss their reactions.

“Personally,” said Donnelly, “I don’t think it’s such a big deal. It’s intense news, but my God, we’re heavily involved in that part of the world. It’s part of our future.”

Buckeye’s Block says he saw Al Jazeera English as the perfect opportunity to spur dialogue.

Donnelly agrees: “I think they’re doing a service to the western world. And really, what are we afraid of?”

Donnelly poses an interesting question. Since when are Americans fearful of the marketplace of ideas?

“Right now, CNN gives us world news from a U.S. perspective and the BBC gives us world news from an English perspective,” says Rasenberger, who worked on American distribution deals for AJE. “This channel gives us world news from a truly global perspective.”

Rasenberger says that she has helped distribute several potentially incendiary projects, including two gay channels, but AJE was by far the most controversial network she’s ever taken on. When she pitched the channel to the major cable providers, she says the decision-makers reacted positively to the content, but refused to, as they saw it, go out on a limb for the channel. They’d been contacted by Kincaid’s group, and were worried about backlash.

“They’d say, ‘We personally might watch it, but we can’t risk picketers,’” recalls Rasenberger. “Shame on us for being so parochial and afraid of controversy.”

But prejudice wasn’t the only problem. Rasenberger says that the management of AJE didn’t seem to understand the complexity of the American cable market, and underestimated the effort and expense of getting on the air.

Rasenberger says her pleas for more people and resources to market the channel “fell on deaf ears.”

Nigel Parsons, AJE’s managing director, disagrees. “We never thought the USA would be an easy market, nor do we think the answer to breaking into it is to throw money at it unnecessarily,” Parsons wrote in an email from Doha. “All foreign news channels find this market difficult.”

Parsons also points out that even if they can’t see the channel on their televisions, almost half of the visitors to AJE’s website are American, and almost half the YouTube downloads of the channel’s programming come from the U.S.

“The mood towards us in the USA has changed immeasurably in the last 3 years, from one of hostility to a willingness to engage,” wrote Parsons. “We remain confident that the patient approach is the right one. We are in this for the long haul.”

But setbacks abound. On March 21, the channel’s only American anchor, former Nightline reporter Dave Marash, quit. Marash discussed his departure from AJE in Newsweek. He praised the network’s wide-ranging and thoughtful international coverage, but said he felt that while great energy was expended to have reporting from abroad be done by those intimately familiar with the area they were reporting on, “that standard was breached and condescended to uniquely when it came to North America, and specifically the United States.”

Though there was organized conservative opposition to the channel, left-leaning groups, such as Fairness and Accuracy in Media, who often complain about the shallow, entertainment-focused news coverage on cable, have been all-but silent

Still, in an editorial titled “TV news creates ignorant Americans” published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on April 12, Marash hailed his former employer for its comprehensive coverage of the ongoing conflicts in Somalia.

Marash wrote: “If it’s been ‘market forces’ that have kept Al Jazeera/English from an American audience-fears that it would have no audience, or that it would be ‘terror TV’—it is time to readjust to reality. If it’s been political pressure that has kept Al Jazeera/English off America’s cable and satellite servers, it’s time to reject such literal ‘know-nothing-ism.’”

Marash’s departure, not surprisingly, was a boon to naysayers like AIM’s Kincaid, who issued a press release hailing the move as having “vindicated” the group’s anti-AJE stance.

For all the hoopla surrounding the launch, one year later, Buckeye Cable’s Dawson says the community response to the channel has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I literally get stopped in the street by people who tell me they really like ‘that Al Jazeera,’” says Dawson. “They say it’s nice to have a fresh perspective on world news.”

Indeed, it’s nice to have world news at all. Since 2006, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun have all closed their foreign bureaus. When news organizations do send reporters abroad, they are rarely able to move about freely. On December 19, 2007, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a survey of reporters working in Iraq that illustrated how removed our press corps is from the lives of the people they report on. Eighty-two percent of the reporters surveyed have minimal to no knowledge of Arabic, and 86 percent work within about three miles of the Green Zone. Perhaps because of these constraints, 62 percent of the surveyed reporters rated coverage of the lives of ordinary Iraqis as only fair to poor. In addition, though a major aspect of the “story” that is the Iraq war is the story of Iraqi terrorists and insurgents, 63 percent of journalists reported that access to insurgents was “nearly impossible.”

American government employees and diplomats are among the select few with access to AJE on their televisions. According to spokesman Lt. Col. Todd M. Vician, the channel is available on the Pentagon’s closed-circuit cable system to senior Department of Defense leadership and “select public affairs offices.”

“AJE is one of several networks we view to better understand the media environment regarding issues important to DoD and its leaders,” Vician wrote in an email.

TUNING IN

A few days after chatting with Stebbins, McCullough called and asked if I’d like a tour of the D.C. bureau. Though she didn’t say it, I assumed my interview with Stebbins revealed me to be somehow “safe.” Media attention from U.S. journalists has been scarce since the launch, and though there was organized conservative opposition to the channel, left-leaning groups, such as Fairness and Accuracy in Media, who often complain about the shallow, entertainment-focused news coverage on cable, have been all but silent, making no push to highlight the potential benefits of AJE’s international coverage and non-Western perspective.

And so AJE has hunkered down in D.C. The protesters who picketed outside the offices at the launch are long gone, as are the excoriations on Fox News. Occasionally, an editorial will appear praising the channel – in July 2007, the Kansas City Star columnist Aaron Barnhart called AJE “global, meaty, consequential and compelling.” But so far, there have been no new carriage agreements, though Stebbins says discussions with major cable companies are ongoing.

My tour began on the 11th floor where a few of the D.C. bureau’s approximately 200 staff members sat in cubicles, clicking away on computers. Just like in any other newsroom, family photos and cut out cartoons were tacked to the cloth cubicle walls. Brendan Conner, the sports correspondent, had a soccer ball balanced on the top of his cubicle wall and a sign that read, “Seize the Day.”

Conner spent 20 years as a sports broadcaster and news anchor in Toronto, working for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. In the summer of 2006, while he was out on a grueling labor dispute, Conner sent a resume and some copies of his work to Doha. The new job meant he’d be leaving his “wonderful home and native land,” but Conner says he was excited to be involved in an upstart.

“There’s a frontier, pioneering aspect to it,” said Conner, who co-hosts the channel’s twice-weekly half-hour sports program, Sportworld. His colleagues are based in London, Doha, and Kuala Lumpur. Conner said he comes up with the ideas for the pieces he’ll do—from the world series of cricket in the Caribbean, to a snapshot of ice hockey in Edmonton—then pitches them to “the British bosses in Doha,” who usually approve.

“I always ask myself, ‘Does it play in Kuala Lumpur?’” he said. According to Conner, so far, the Al Jazeera English audience is heavily Muslim, but in the West, it’s an audience that’s “intellectually inquiring enough to seek a non-Western perspective.”

Upstairs is the bureau’s television studio. There is a single sound stage divided into two small sets, both with sleek glass desks and elegant backdrops. The main set, where co-anchors (formerly Marash and Ghida Fakhry, now Fakhry and former CNN International host Shihab Rattansi) deliver three half-hour newscasts each evening, features a floor-to ceiling image of the U.S. Capitol at night. Barely fifteen feet away is Riz Khan’s desk. Kahn, formerly of the BBC and CNN, hosts a daily half-hour talk show. On the wall are black and white abstractions of Kahn’s face.

Beside the sound stage is a production room where aids monitor other news channels—CNN, the AP Direct, Reuters—and producers prepare for the upcoming show. A bumper sticker on a mid-room pillar reads: “I’m fed up with the liberal media.”

Khan was on vacation on this particular day, so Anand Naidoo, a former CNN International anchor, was filling in. About fifteen minutes before air, James Wright, the show’s executive producer, plopped down in the second row of monitors. Wright, an Englishman, was a producer at CNN and moved to Washington in the summer of 2006 to work for the fledgling Al Jazeera English station. He told me he was happy in his new job, and took pride in the diversity of the staff, pointing out that on the Riz Khan staff alone there are an Israeli, two Palestinians, two South Asians, and one Chinese-American. The people who milled around the control room were an undeniably diverse bunch. At any given time, in just about any given area of the five floors of offices, someone seemed to be having a conversation in a language other than English. Accents—Australian, English, Lebanese, American South—abound.

This day’s show was on a play about Rachel Corrie, an American who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 when she tried to protect the home of a Palestinian family. The play, “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” was staged in London and had been scheduled to open at the New York Theatre Workshop until the theatre “indefinitely postponed” the run. The play was shut out of a theatre in Miami, as well. Corrie’s parents, Craig and Cindy, and the play’s director, Braden Abraham, were to be interviewed via satellite from Seattle, where the Corries live and where the play was currently running.

After a couple quick run-throughs, someone counted down from 10, and then we were live.

“Hello, I’m Amand Naidoo, sitting in for Riz Khan…”

Naidoo asked a few questions of the Corries and the director, and then went to the phones. The first call was from Casablanca, the second from Israel, the third from London.

Down the hall from the control room is Ghida Fakhry’s office. Fakhry co-anchors the channel’s nightly Washington broadcasts—there are three: at seven, nine and 10P.M. each weeknight—and was logging off her computer when I poked my head through the door.

“Did you see the story in the Washington Post online?” she asked, smiling, clearly thrilled at the rare publicity. “Let me print it out for you.”

Fakhry was born in Lebanon and has worked as a journalist in the Middle East and the U.S. for ten years. Her small office was tastefully decorated—a tapestry, small, colorful, African masks, a collection of cacti and candles along the windowsill. As she pulled up the news story, she chatted about an event she planned to attend later in the week with Queen Noor of Jordan.

“She’s a nice lady,” said Fakhry, taking the article out of the printer. The headline read, “Al Jazeera Big in English, Not in U.S.”

Wright was equally eager to show off a media mention.

“Did you see the piece in the Times?” he asked, swiveling around to pick up the C section. Indeed, near the bottom of the page, was the headline: “Now on YouTube: The latest news from Al Jazeera, in English.”

After nearly three months of reporting I’d only seen the channel on YouTube. And so I took my opportunity to sit at one of the cubicles and watch uninterrupted — something that only a fraction of a percentage of Americans can do.

Compared to American news channels, AJE is remarkably staid. With bureaus on four continents, and reporters based in places such as the Cote d’Ivoire, Caracas, and Gaza, AJE’s news format tends to feature long-form, on-the-ground reporting, often by area natives. Aesthetically, the channel looks nothing like the sensory assault of Fox News or MSNBC, with their constantly updated tickers, red, white and blue graphics, and endless talking-head chatter. AJE runs one headline at a time on the bottom of the screen, and the font is small, so as not to distract from the newscast. Most images are from the field, and reporters tend to use voiceovers instead of stand-ups, so that the pieces end up being about the people and places that are being reported on, as opposed to the personality and appearance of the reporter or anchor.

On the day after the Pennsylvania primary, when U.S. cable news ran nearly nonstop coverage of the democratic race for president, AJE had reports on post-election violence in Zimbabwe and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s calls for an arms embargo on the south African nation, the resumption of fuel shipments from Israel to Palestine, General David Petraeus’s promotion, an elephant rampage in India, bombings in Mosul, Iraq, and a documentary program on the veterans of the Falklands War.

At a little before 5P.M., McCullough began gathering her things. I assumed this was my cue to leave.

“Oh, you don’t have to go with me,” she said. “We make it hard to get in, but once you’re in, you can stay.”

G

Julia Dahl is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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