As Mideast roils, Al Jazeera finds its 'CNN moment'

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — What a difference the chain of Middle East uprisings — and a change of presidents in the White House — has made for Al Jazeera.

The Qatar-based pan-Arab television network was pilloried not long ago by many in Washington as the official house organ for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists because it aired their anti-American statements. Lately, however, it's become the go-to network for the White House, Congress, Embassy Row, and Washington intelligentsia seeking reliable coverage of what's happening in Middle East hot spots.

Al Jazeera's constant, compelling, and often raw as-it-happens coverage of the uprisings earned it the scorn of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other besieged rulers in the region who've felt the network's hot lights, but it's rapidly earning high praise in the U.S.

"Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month. "You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which . . . is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners."

Clinton isn't alone in that assessment. Many media analysts and political experts believe that Al Jazeera is in the midst of a "CNN Moment," as its coverage of the Middle East uprisings is catapulting it into U.S. prominence much as CNN's round-the-clock coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War did for it. That's when the Atlanta-based 24-hour news network shed its early image as an amateurish "Chicken Noodle News" outfit and became recognized as a well-respected news operation.

"The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt could be called Al Jazeera revolutions," said Dave Marash, a veteran broadcast journalist who reported for years on ABC's "Nightline." He was hired by Al Jazeera English in 2006, but quit two years later over disagreements with management. "In many ways, they have owned the story because they have complete coverage of the region. There's no question it's winning acceptance in America."

The network is using its growing recognition to renew its effort to get Al Jazeera English on more U.S. cable systems. For now, Al Jazeera English is available on cable only in Washington, Toledo, Ohio and Burlington, Vt.

"I think what we've seen is a sea change in recent months in the U.S.," Al Anstey, Al Jazeera English's managing director, told McClatchy from Doha, Qatar. "We've seen an exponential increase in viewership and demand. I quote with delight Hillary Clinton's comments in the Senate Foreign Relations hearings."

The network has had discussions with Cablevision, Dish Network, Time Warner Cable, and, most recently, Comcast, about being included in their cable offerings, Anstey said.

Anstey personally lugged four boxes with 13,000 supportive emails last month to Comcast's Philadelphia headquarters to help persuade the nation's largest cable provider to add Al Jazeera English to its offerings.

"It's a question of when, not if," Anstey said of Al Jazeera becoming widely available on U.S. cable TV.

When the uprisings first began, Los Angeles's KCET, a public television station, decided to move the half-hour Al Jazeera English newscasts its was airing on its digital channel, MHZ Worldview, to its regular channel. Station officials said the newscasts have been thriving ever since.

Between Feb. 7 and March 4, the 6:30 p.m. Al Jazeera English broadcast alone increased by 450 percent, drawing about 100,000 viewers, according to Bret Marcus, the station's senior vice president and chief content officer.

"They're doing incredibly well," Marcus said. "Al Jazeera traditionally had a reputation for bias. But of all the emails we've gotten, only one has been negative."

Television viewers can also watch the newscasts daily on Link TV, an independent broadcaster primarily available on DirecTV and Dish satellite systems. Otherwise, U.S. residents can watch Al Jazeera English live only on their computers.

Viewing limitations, however, haven't prevented Al Jazeera from earning praise for its coverage.

"Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite news network, showed global media how to cover a people's uprising — by getting right into the thick of things and keeping the cameras running, both witnessing and propelling events," the Columbia Journalism Review wrote in its March/April issue.

Sometimes it gets too close to the action. Al Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan Al Jaber, a Qatar native, was killed earlier this month when the car he was traveling in came under fire in Libya near the rebel-held city of Benghazi. Tuesday, Al Jazeera officials said 20 armed men broke into their Yemen bureau on Monday, ransacked it and seized broadcasting equipment.

Some media analysts say Al Jazeera's ascension can also be linked to the decline of international coverage by U.S. cable and network news in recent years. As ratings declined, TV outlets shuttered their foreign bureaus to save money, relying instead on video purchased from foreign media outlets or freelancers.

"American networks have abdicated their commitment to international news," said Frank Sesno, the director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs and CNN's former Washington bureau chief. "When you look at Al Jazeera English, it has acquitted itself well in this process and it's been recognized."

Today's recognition is a far cry from the disdainful view of Al Jazeera during George W. Bush's presidency. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fumed that Al Jazeera aired "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable" reports about U.S. military actions in Iraq. Then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters in 2004 that "people have suggested that it would be a good thing if the reporting were accurate on Al Jazeera, and if it were not slanted in ways that it appears to be."

The administration distrusted the network for airing video messages from bin Laden. The feeling was mutual: Al Jazeera executives accused the U.S. military of deliberate missile attacks on their offices in Kabul and Baghdad in 2003.

"Doha (the network's home) legitimately or illegitimately had a bone in its throat against the U.S., and that affected domestic coverage" Marash said.

Marash said Al Jazeera English's domestic coverage has improved. The Obama administration appears to have noticed and has made top officials available to the network for interviews.

Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that American exposure on the network is critical because it has become a crucial opinion-shaper in the Middle East.

"And like it or hate it, it is really effective," she said.

But it's not without flaws. The State Department's 2009 human rights report suggested that the government-funded network doesn't cover its own backyard as aggressively as the rest of the Middle East, and rarely criticizes Qatar's ruling Al Thani family.

"Al Jazeera and the government claimed the channel was independent and free of government influence, but the government exercised editorial and programmatic control of the channel through funding and selection of station management," the report said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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