Thursday, April 14, 2011

In America, Al Jazeera English creates space for a coup in broadcast news

Valentine’s Day may have passed several weeks ago but Al Jazeera English is still feeling the love, courtesy of the network’s groundbreaking coverage of the Egyptian revolution.

A typical example from the dozens of mainstream media’s valentines to the Qatar-based TV station: “Millions across the world, including many first-time viewers in the U.S., have marveled in recent weeks at Al Jazeera English's impressive coverage from the front lines of the protests currently shaking the Middle East,” wrote Ishaan Tharoor, in a TIME magazine article.

The article’s title “Why the US needs Al-Jazeera” revealed how much U.S. attitudes may have changed since Al Jazeera English’s launch in 2006.

Though mainstream media covered its startup, almost no TV viewers in America could watch Al Jazeera English five years ago (few can see it on cable even today). At the time of its launch, cable companies told the channel they had no space to carry it – and their viewers were unlikely to watch it anyway. Al Jazeera English’s defenders charged the cable firms were simply being cowardly, fearful of the Bush administration’s frigid relations with the Al-Jazeera Arabic channel, which the administration implied was being used by terrorists as a propaganda tool.

“There were political concerns about its image, founded or otherwise, that it was hostile to the U.S.,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director at Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “That may still exist even after Egypt.”

The channel’s managers are hoping that’s no longer the case. And it does appear that Al Jazeera English’s reputation– particularly for solid, in-depth reporting from remote parts of the globe – had grown substantially even before Egypt. So had the understanding that, while Al Jazeera Arabic and its English counterpart are both financed by the government of Qatar, the English programming is distinctly different in content – and sometimes in tone.

“Al Jazeera English is a world news leader now,” said David Marash, an American journalist who joined the network as an anchor in 2006 and left two years later over “irreconcilable editorial differences.” Despite the unhappy separation, Marash said he continues to get his news from the channel because “Al Jazeera English has more reporters in more places than anyone else.”

But has Al Jazeera English evolved into the most respected international news channel not seen on American cable TV?

There are still just three places where it’s available on cable: Washington, D.C., Toledo, Ohio, and Burlington, Vermont. And it’s not at all certain whether AJE’s riveting, round-the-clock coverage of the Egyptian revolution will open the way to new markets, though its management is scrambling now to make that happen.

A “Demand Al Jazeera” campaign has emphasized the favorable reviews of the Egypt coverage on NPR, in The New York Times and elsewhere. The channel’s Facebook page advertised public meetings aimed at sparking grass roots demands to cable companies.

“Call and write to your cable companies. Make as much noise as possible,” pleaded Sophia Quershi from AJE’s communications team at one such meeting in Manhattan. “Be as bold and aggressive as you can.”

It was a strong message to a tiny audience. One of the 15 or so participants asked Quereshi whether getting rid of the name “Al Jazeera” might help the channel get more cable access. Qureshi said there were some initial discussions about the possibility of a name change, but added that it’s not really an option.

Another audience member, noting allegations that the Bush administration in 2006 had urged cable operators like Comcast not to carry Al-Jazeera English, asked, “Is the Obama administration trying to resist AJE getting greater access in America?”

“There are no signs of Obama saying no to us,” replied Qureshi. “Obama hasn’t given us an interview yet. But that’s different,” she said smiling.

Whatever reasons Comcast may have had earlier for not carrying Al Jazeera English, the cable operator has confirmed that it met with the channel in late February. AJE insiders say the current surge in interest and 40,000 e-mails of support they have received should make it difficult for Comcast and other cable operators to deny the demand for AJE in America.

If that happens, “CNN and other American networks will have to rethink their product,” warned Marash. “When it comes to television journalism, there is simply no other network that does it as well as Al Jazeera English.”

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