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Al Jazeera English looks at news through a different lens

The 20-month-old channel expands its global audience but barely penetrates US market.

By Sean J. MillerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 2008

Al Jazeera English's anchor Shihab Rattansi. Washington is one of four broadcast centers the English-speaking channel operates worldwide.

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Paul McKinney wants the story. Now. All afternoon, Mr. McKinney, an executive producer in the Washington broadcast center of Al Jazeera English (AJE), has been hoping to air a report about a captured rebel computer in Colombia.

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The laptop, seized by the Colombian military, is purported to carry information linking leftist guerrillas in Colombia with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez – which, if true, could provide perfect ammunition for critics of Washington's chief antagonist in the region. Yet when AJE finally airs the story, it goes to considerable lengths to reach the other side, too. In a live interview with a Chávez supporter in Caracas, AJE anchor Ghida Fakhry asks the woman: Could the laptop be part of a US "smear" campaign against Mr. Chávez? Certainly, replies the Chávez supporter. Ms. Fakhry continues: "Do you make much of the fact the US has activated its fourth fleet in Latin America?"

The questioning might strike some in the US as typical of the tone of an Arab-owned news organization: seeing sinister US motives, or the CIA, behind every bush and computer byte. But producers at AJE would argue that it's just the kind of tough, truthful reporting that other American news outlets don't do – and should.

Almost two years after AJE launched a global news service, a different editorial voice is rippling out over the English-speaking airwaves – one that is rapidly gaining listeners overseas but goes almost unnoticed in the US.

AJE now reaches 113 million homes around the world – almost half of what CNN International does, which has been around for 23 years. But the network can only be seen in two small US cable markets – one in northwest Ohio and another in Burlington, Vt. All of which raises a fundamental question: Will America ever be ready for the more aggressive – critics say biased – style of AJE? "The political environment in the US is not very conducive to Al Jazeera English penetrating the market," says Marwan Kraidy, an Arab media specialist at the University of Pennsylvania.

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AJE's broadcast center occupies four floors of a nondescript building in downtown Washington. Its newsroom is typical: Editors and producers sit at rows of computers in an open area sandwiched between a small control room and a soundstage cordoned off by black curtains. The anchor desk shimmers like a glass saucer at the center of the soundstage.