Al Jazeera English looks at news through a different lens

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

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

WASHINGTON - 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.

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.

• • •

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.

The staff is something of a mini-UN: It includes Americans, Canadians, Britons, as well as Colombians and Lebanese. Mr. McKinney is a former Scottish TV journalist, as is evident from his brogue.

AJE operates independently of Al Jazeera Arabic, maintaining its own bureaus, journalists, and production staff – as well as broadcast centers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Doha, Qatar; London; and Washington. Each center is responsible for part of the channel's 24-hour broadcast and has "regional authority" when it comes to making editorial decisions. "That's the dramatic change that Al Jazeera English represents," says Will Stebbins, the Washington bureau chief, of the local decisionmaking.

At the top, AJE is governed by a team of news executives. But overall, a board of directors and code of ethics govern both the Arabic channel and AJE. The two channels do put reporters on each other's broadcasts.

AJE decidedly doesn't target an American audience with stories, which may be one reason it doesn't have much of one. Producers say stories have to reach a certain "threshold" of interest or importance – to have as much curiosity for someone in Islamabad as in Iowa. "It's about broadcasting to a world audience," says McKinney.

Even when it does do a US-based story, it isn't always the standard fare you might see on other channels. "What we didn't cover is the marine who murdered his pregnant girlfriend," says Mr. Stebbins. "We didn't touch the Mormon ranch ... story. We make an effort to reveal dimensions of the US that have not been seen before."

Stebbins was the first employee hired by the company for its North American operation before AJE's launch in November 2006. A former Associated Press broadcaster, he is not reticent to defend what he calls the "Al Jazeera tradition." "What Al Jazeera Arabic has done is really brought into the center voices that were previously marginalized in the Middle East," he says. "Nobody heard from the Egyptian opposition before Al Jazeera, nobody heard from Saudi dissidents before Al Jazeera. We're certainly trying to do the same thing in the US."

Like Al Jazeera Arabic, AJE is often criticized for being anti-American and anti-Israeli. Even some insiders have questioned the tone of its coverage. Former anchor David Marash, who quit the channel this past spring with mixed emotions, told Columbia Journalism Review that one series the channel produced on poverty in America essentially boiled down to: "Here a poor, there a poor, everywhere a poor poor."

After Mr. Marash's departure, Jeremy Young, a producer here, started to ask himself whether AJE's reporting could be considered anti-American. His conclusion: "The reason why I might have seen a story as being anti-American was because someone from a different country was [reporting] it." On the documentary-style news show "Inside USA," Mr. Young works with producers from New Zealand and Colombia. The on-air reporter is Canadian. "The network is still pretty young – it will continue to find its voice editorially," he says.

Stebbins dismisses the criticism that AJE takes an adversarial tone in its coverage of America. "What Al Jazeera certainly tries to do is reflect back to the US the effect of US policy overseas ... to actually hear people who are on the sharp end of US policy," he says.

Stebbins is frustrated that AJE isn't widely available in the US. What footprint the channel does have is largely online: Its Web page draws most of its traffic from North America.

• • •

One viewer AJE has managed to capture is the State Department. US officials know the importance of trying to shape America's image abroad. "We will never say 'no' to their interview requests," says David Foley, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. "We see it as extremely important," in part because it has an audience in the Middle East.

Mr. Foley appears regularly on AJE and knows what to expect from their interviewers. "They're much more personal and edgy in their questions" than American networks, he says, citing a recent exchange with AJE anchor Shihab Rattansi, who asked him: So, Mr. Foley, aren't you really impotent in the Middle East?

"That's not the sort of question you're going to get on CNN," Foley says.

Mr. Rattansi, a former CNN International anchor who was born in Britain, says AJE's interviews are meant to bring "power to account." "I certainly do not believe in a fun, theatrical knockabout for the sake of a nice bit of television," he says in an e-mail. "Contradictions in policy need to be pointed out; and occasionally, outrage does need to be expressed."

AJE does have its defenders. In Burlington, the publicly owned cable company recently considered dropping the channel after receiving complaints from local viewers. But many others expressed support at a series of community forums – and the company kept it.

Some AJE competitors have taken note, too. NBC News Middle East Correspondent Richard Engel says in an e-mail that the channel "is getting better," though he notes that the quality of their reports is still "inconsistent."

Stebbins, for his part, is adamant that AJE will survive. "We know there's an audience out there, and we'll get to them someday," he says.

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