In US, a Cold Welcome for
Al Jazeera International
By Issandr El Amrani

In March 2006, a Dubai company’s attempted acquisition of several US ports proved a major embarrassment for President Bush after both Democrats and Republicans protested that it endangered US security. In light of the anti-Arab racism exposed by the incident, it seems unlikely that many Americans will welcome the new English-language channel Al Jazeera International (AJI) into their homes.

Before the channel can even think about competing with any US network, AJI faces the more immediate challenge of simply getting on the air in America. Determined constituencies already are agitating against the network, the cable distributors that will carry it, and its potential advertisers. In early April 2006, the United American Committee (UAC), an organization that describes its goal as “the unity of all Americans against the threats of Islamic extremism which face our nation,” announced that it would organize a protest in against the planned US launch of AJI on April 30, 2006. Said Lee Kaplan, a member of UAC’s executive committee: "It's as if Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister for Hitler, were to have set up a station in America during WWII." Once AJI launches, the UAC has called for non-stop protests to take place in front of the channel’s Washington, DC, studio, asking supporters to write to their local cable company to threaten to cancel their subscriptions if their bouquets include AJI.

The UAC’s press release on the planned protests continues:

The UAC realizes that the American government can not, nor should make any law to prohibit Al Jazeera from broadcasting in America, but feels that it is the duty of the American people to let the network know that they are not welcome in the United States, and to send a message to any cable providers not to carry Al Jazeera's planned American station which the UAC feels broadcasts propaganda sympathetic to the enemies of the US.

United American Committee member Robert Sandoval reacts to the news of Al Jazeera America (sic) and the UAC's planned protest; "I support a free media, and do not wish for the government to interfere, but when that media is planning on broadcasting to my children messages from our enemies and videos of beheadings, it's the peoples right to stand up against it."

One of the most common fears among Al Jazeera’s American detractors (most of whom don’t seem to realize that the Arabic channel already is available in the US to 200,000 viewers on the Dish Network, a cable operator) is that AJI might carry secret messages to Al Qaeda operatives poised to carry out a new terror attack as AJI broadcasts the latest Osama bin Laden videotape. This, despite the fact that anyone in America could see segments in heavy rotation on US and other networks anyway, though, admittedly, Al Jazeera probably runs the longest excerpts from these videotapes.

While the virulence of the UAC’s opposition to the Al Jazeera brand may be unusual, it reflects a widespread suspicion of Al Jazeera among ordinary Americans. Despite the nuanced approaches taken by many articles, books, and even more recently (if relatively) the Bush Administration, negative views of Al Jazeera continue to proliferate, especially among conservatives.

These views are echoed frequently on conservative blogs, including some of the most popular Web sites in America, which routinely refer to Al Jazeera as “Jihad TV” or “The Osama Channel.” These monikers are likely to stick to the new channel. Already the general perception that Al Jazeera is anti-American, or worse, pro-Al Qaeda, has been used to attack some of the TV news stars it recruited.

Even some of these recruits seem to have had doubts about the channel that wanted to hire them. Interviewed by The Guardian, Sir David Frost, the avuncular former BBC broadcaster who was snapped up by AJI to present a London-based talk show, admitted that he had consulted with contacts “in Whitehall and Washington” to confirm that Al Jazeera was not involved in terrorism. Two other high-profile AJI hires, former CNN International interviewer Riz Khan, and Dave Marash of ABC’s current affairs show Nightline, felt compelled to write op-eds in American newspapers titled: “Why I’m Joining Al Jazeera.” Meanwhile, Fox News dubbed former Marine Captain Josh Rushing, made famous by the documentary film Control Room, a “traitor” for joining the channel. Veteran broadcaster Ted Koppel, also of Nightline, was quoted by The Washington Post as defending a lunch he had with AJI executives (whose offer to join the station he declined): “Come on! I routinely meet with some of the nastiest people in the world … I meet with terrorists, I meet with murderers behind bars.”

In Search of Identity?

Because of the reluctance of AJI officials to provide journalists with behind-the-scenes access to the evolving channel, it is difficult to tell what AJI will be like once it airs. The foremost question many people’s minds is how much will Al Jazeera International be like Al Jazeera?

AJI’s senior management is ambiguous about what the relationship will be with the Arabic channel. Nigel Parsons, AJI’s managing director, says that the two channels will co-locate when possible and share information. But the collaboration is not likely to go much further., The Arabic channel’s broadcasters will not be crossing over to the new channel although several speak fluent English. Only Hassan Ibrahim, formerly a senior producer at Al Jazeera, will cross over in a thus-far undefined capacity. AJI’s leading on-screen talents are personalities who have already met some success in other international news stations—indeed, in the case of Frost and Khan, broadcasters who are closely associated with the images of their former stations, the BBC and CNN respectively.

While visiting Al Jazeera studios in February 2006, this reporter was surprised to hear that the two stations’ staff had never been introduced to each other. This, despite the fact that AJI had moved into the Arabic channel’s old newsroom, only a corridor away from the new open-plan studio where Al Jazeera broadcasts its news and talk shows. Staff from the Arabic channel said contact between the two seems to have been minimized on purpose.

These staff members cannot say anything for certain, however, as they have been kept in the dark about the evolution of AJI. Many worry that the new channel could hurt the reputation of its predecessor if it strays too far from the original Al Jazeera’s editorial line. Several of Al Jazeera’s Arab staff members with whom this reporter spoke have expressed concern about how they are being kept in the dark about the evolution of AJI. Rumors that AJI staff have salaries that are two or three times higher than their Al Jazeera counterparts have not helped engender much goodwill either. “I am worried about identity,” says Samir Al Khader, program editor for Al Jazeera. AJI “doesn’t have an Arab identity; it should represent the new face of the Arab world. CNN is American, BBC is British. Why can’t we have an Arab channel?” Another prominent Al Jazeera personality puts it more bluntly: “If the channel has a different editorial policy, it will be a disaster.”

Others seem to share this suspicion that AJI will be, from an Arab perspective, a foreign product. They point to the fact that Parsons and most of senior management come from a Western commercial television background that is a far cry from the groundbreaking, ideologically engaged, and risk-taking Al Jazeera. Most of the production and on-screen staff is Western, with a particularly high proportion of Britons.

Despite assurances by Parsons that AJI is “not trying to be another CNN, BBC, or Sky News,” these people still worry that it might not be enough like the original Al Jazeera. Parsons has already stated that on the most controversial topics it will have to deal with, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, AJI will not follow Al Jazeera’s lead. For instance, AJI will not be using the word “martyr” to refer to suicide bombers. “Different terms have different meanings in different languages,” Parsons says. “Suicide in itself carries a moral judgement in Arabic that does not exist in other languages.”

Non-Arab experts on the channel also believe AJI’s identity could have an impact on how the original channel is perceived. “If AJI deviates from the line of Al Jazeera, it will be Al Jazeera that pays the price,” says Hugh Miles, a British journalist and the author of Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World.

One worry is that if AJI does not assert a strong identity like its Arabic-language sister, the channel will fail to draw viewers, particularly in the West, where there already is an abundance of choice for news channels. “It looks to me like they want a slightly third world or Arab BBC,” observes Marc Lynch, an associate professor of Political Science at Williams College in Massachussets and the author of Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today. Lynch, one of the most prominent defenders of Al Jazeera in US academia, believes that AJI would be better off producing an English-language version of the original. “The world does not need another BBC,” he says, whereas “a kind of (anti-)Fox News with attitude would fill a niche.”

Getting to the Market

Until it launches, it is difficult to say which road AJI will take—one faithful to the spirit of the original, one that situates itself within the political and cultural references of Westerners or something else altogether. Meanwhile, the primary issue is whether Americans will be able to see it at all.

As AJI entered in negotiations with US cable companies, there were reports that it was having difficulties finding partners. Its launch date, originally scheduled for early 2005, has been postponed several times and as of the publication of this article the launch had been pushed back to September 2006 “for technical reasons.” And AJI still does not have a US carrier.

The problem is not merely the brand’s controversial reputation. Many consider AJI’s international news product a hard sell in the already tight American cable market, where speciality channels dedicated to reality TV shows are likely to generate much more profit than an all-news lineup.

Thankfully for AJI, there is a world beyond the American cable market. The channel’s executives say they believe they can reach an estimated 30 to 40 million viewers internationally soon after launch, and then could simply focus on the rest of the world where satellite dishes are more frequently used than in the US. The channel has the luxury of being able to launch without an American foothold, focusing instead on the international English-speaking market. As AJI executives frequently boast, the channel is under no pressure to generate profits immediately and can count for the time being on the largesse of the Emir of Qatar.

If so, AJI’s real competitors are the satellite networks that are internationalized versions of home-grown channels, such as CNN International and BBC World (both of which are substantially different in both content and editorial lines than their mother channels). AJI’s conscious effort to offer a view of current events that is not Western-centric by dividing the 24-hour news cycle around four broadcast centers in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London, and Washington should further differentiate its content from what is available on mainstream US news channels.

Issandr El Amrani is a Moroccan-American Cairo-based freelance journalist. His work has appeared in The Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Salon.com, Bidoun, The Daily Star, Middle East International, and elsewhere. He is the former editor of the Cairo Times and managing editor of Cairo magazine.

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Copyright 2006 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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