Al-Jazeera English: Why one channel can make a world of difference

Al-Jazeera English: Why one channel can make a world of difference

The summer of 2001 was a low point for TV news, what with wall-to-wall coverage of a missing Washington, D.C., intern and shark attacks.

Then came 9/11. In an instant, the American media’s gaze turned beyond our borders in a way it hadn’t since World War II — a shift especially noticeable on television. For a while, viewers ate it up.

Since then, of course, cable news — like Robert De Niro’s character in “Awakenings” — has reverted to its pre-9/11 state. Meanwhile, a new wave of international news channels has sprung up to expand viewers’ horizons.

We just can’t watch any of them here.

One of these upstarts has a familiar-sounding name: Al-Jazeera English. Launched last fall by the same oil-rich emirate of Qatar that runs the Arabic Al-Jazeera, it was offered free to cable companies across America. Exactly one took up the offer — a tiny carrier in Vermont serving fewer than 2,000 households.

Even at no charge, it seemed, adding Al-Jazeera English wasn’t worth the potential backlash from customers who consider Al-Jazeera the official network of Osama bin Laden and every nut job with a jihad to declare against the West.

I’ve been monitoring the new channel for several months over the Internet, paying $6 a month to watch a video stream supplied by Real Networks. And I am convinced it is the most important English-language cable channel to come along since Fox News.

It’s everything our cable news isn’t: global, meaty, consequential and compelling in the best sense of the word. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“I’m sitting in the Ambassador Hotel in Arab East Jerusalem glued to the TV,” veteran Chicago City Hall reporter Ray Hanania wrote on his blog during a recent trip. “I’m watching the Al-Jazeera English-language satellite news station report things about the world that we never hear about in America. It’s amazing.”

I called Reese Schonfeld, the first president of CNN. Still going strong after 50 years in the business, the ageless Schonfeld is active as a consultant and writer. He’s also an occasional guest on Fox News Channel and an Iraq War supporter. He had sampled Al-Jazeera English online, and I wanted to know what he thought.

“It’s a legitimate news service,” he said. “They’ve told me things I never knew before, which surprised me. Their reports are much longer than American news reports. They pick their stories carefully. They’re as straight and narrow as Fox is.”

You may not agree with Schonfeld’s last assessment, but this much is undeniable: Fox’s critics haven’t done a thing to dent its growth. By contrast, the minuscule opposition to Al-Jazeera English has effectively kept it off American cable and satellite systems, even as our allies scoop it up. (It’s in about 80 million homes worldwide and already a success in Israel, Pakistan and Germany.)

Since its launch, only a few U.S. cable operators have signed up, the largest being Block Communications, which serves Toledo, Ohio, and its large Arab-American population. “After our announcement, 50 to 100 people called to express their displeasure,” said Tom Dawson, a spokesman for Block. “But we’ve always told them, ‘It’s not on yet. Don’t criticize it until you see it.’s”

That’s what Tim Nulty said, too. He runs the Vermont system that was the first to offer Al-Jazeera English on cable, and he got an earful from people who had their minds made up about it, sight unseen. So he turned it on in his lobby and invited people to come down and check it out. End of controversy.

“The channel sells itself,” Nulty said.

As far as interest here, there isn’t any, according to representatives at Time Warner Cable and Comcast. However, both said that may have more to do with Al-Jazeera English being brand new. Fox News Channel got a tremendous amount of buzz after it launched in late 1996, yet it wasn’t added to all local cable systems until 1999.

It’s not impossible to see Al-Jazeera English on TV in Kansas City. Walk into the Jerusalem Bakery on Westport Road most days and the flat screen in the dining area will probably be tuned to the channel. Owner Farid Azzeh pulls it in from Globecast, a specialty satellite-TV maker. It’s free once you buy the Globecast dish (about $200).

So what will you see on Al-Jazeera English? A well-produced, straightforward, mostly British-accented mix of live news and documentaries from around the world. The channel’s high-tech studios, graphics and theme music will remind some viewers of the BBC newscasts that air locally on public TV and BBC America. Indeed, many of the reporters hired for the new channel have BBC on their resumes.

Here were the stories on a recent midday update: news of the Fatah party pulling out of the ruling Palestinian coalition; early results from the Labor Party vote in Israel; video supplied to Al-Jazeera by the Muslim Brotherhood, purporting to show ballot-stuffing going on in Egypt; and stories about a cease-fire by a Kurdish separatist group, U.N. peacekeepers in Turkey and the deadly heat wave sweeping India and Pakistan.

That afternoon most American news outlets limited their foreign news to stories of destruction: fighting in Gaza and bombings in Baghdad.

Nigel Parsons, the general manager of Al-Jazeera English, hired reporters who have local roots and speak the language. He’s as devoted to covering Latin America and Africa as he is the Middle East and the G-8.

“I think there is the perception in the developing world that finally, here is an alternative, if you like, to the Western-dominated news agenda,” Parsons said in a phone interview from Doha, Qatar. “Perceptions are very important.”

Others who have watched Al-Jazeera Channel see something less virtuous.

Louis Wittig, who writes for The Weekly Standard, said he noted “a distinctly pro-Arab bias” when he watched the channel. “It was quite a slanted perspective, but it was delivered with the tone of a BBC program. It wasn’t the over-the-top language that you might have expected. It’s a little creepy because it looks and sounds so familiar,” he said.

“Al-Jazeera English really is presenting another perspective. The question is whether it’s a fair perspective.” Wittig added, however, “I was surprised how little time they actually spend on the Middle East.”

Indeed, the channel’s news day is divided among four news hubs; only one of them, Doha, Qatar, is in the Middle East. The other three anchor desks are in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (home to 20 million English-speaking Muslims), London and Washington, D.C.

In Washington co-anchor Dave Marash — who for years was Ted Koppel’s go-to guy, parachuting into countless hotspots for “Nightline” — has his own twist on his current employer’s approach to news. “Before Al-Jazeera English, all English language television news was ‘direct current,’ with a single flow from the authorities in North America and Western Europe to the rest of the world,” Marash told me recently. “What Al-Jazeera English does is introduce the concept of ‘alternating current.’ My role obviously is to be a First World guy reporting a Washington perspective, but the majority of our time is spent getting the opposite perspective from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.”

Marash is proud of the scoops his network gets and the time it devotes to major stories. On the day we talked, a member of the U.S. joint chiefs had come into the studio. Under questioning from Marash, the official confirmed that American gunships were giving cover to Ethiopian troops and private contractors as they drove the radical Islamist government out of the Somalian capital of Mogadishu. I searched the news wires and found no earlier verification of America’s role. Marash knows people inside the Pentagon and the State Department watch, because Al-Jazeera English is carried inside those buildings. But editors at the wire services don’t watch as much. It frustrates Marash when they don’t pick up his exclusives.

“But I gotta tell you, Aaron, I don’t think it’s going to last,” he said. “We have had more than enough hits on the Web site to demonstrate to any cable system operator that there is a market for this news channel.”

It’s true: You can get a good helping of Al-Jazeera English online these days. The network struck a deal with YouTube and now has a substantial presence on that video-sharing site. Mostly what you see there are its long-form programs, including “Listening Post,” which might be the best media-critique program in English anywhere.

But until everyday Americans can sit down, turn on their TVs and watch Al-Jazeera English, most of them will have no clue that one channel can make a world of difference.