Its overall success led the network to launch an English language subsidiary in 2006. Al-Jazeera English—first called Al-Jazeera International, but later rebranded—emerged under challenging circumstances. It lured a number of Western broadcasting icons, including Sir David Frost and Riz Khan, in an effort to win the confidence of English-speaking audiences. During the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza conflict, Al Jazeera and Iran’s Press TV were the only two English-language networks with reporters in both Gaza and Israel, giving it a leg up over other Western media. Then in 2011, the Arab Spring provided a significant opportunity for Al Jazeera to access and own coverage of the various uprisings, thanks in large part to the deep pockets of its benefactor, the Qatari government. Its English-language arm managed to maintain a respectable level of objectivity, despite the increasingly active role of the Qatari government in uprisings in Libya and Syria, something that has heavily slanted the coverage of Al Jazeera Arabic. Al Jazeera English’s award-winning coverage of the Arab revolutions earned it a new level of legitimacy among Western audiences, prompting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 to note:
You may not agree with [Al-Jazeera], but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and 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.
Al Jazeera English reaches 250 million households in 130 countries, but North American remains a place with potential for tremendous growth; officials with the company say that its English-language website receives some 50 percent of its daily traffic from the United States and Canada.
Al Jazeera isn’t completely new to the United States. In fact, a small handful of cable providers have been showing the network’s English-language broadcast, including Buckeye Cable in Toledo, OH, and Burlington Telecom in Burlington, VT. It’s the story of Burlington that may provide some insight into the battle that lay ahead for this network that many Americans have, for so long, loved to hate.
In 2007, Burlington Telecom, a small, publicly owned fiber optic network, opted to include Al Jazeera in its program rundown as airing it was in accordance with the Cable TV Channel Carriage Policy, the guidelines dictating the station’s right to carry certain programs. Executives with the cable provider noted that the decision was driven almost entirely by competitive edge. “We thought, here’s an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from our main competitor,” Richard Donnelly, sales and marketing manager of Burlington Telecom, told Salon.com last year. “But I’m not naïve. I knew there would be controversy.”
Indeed, complaints began to pour in from local opposition groups, as well as from national media watchdog Accuracy in Media and other groups that regard the channel as anti-American, and pressure began to mount to drop Al Jazeera. When the network bowed to pressure, it sparked outrage among an even greater number of local residents in this liberal New England city. The city’s mayor declared the issue the subject of a town hall meeting. After two public meetings, an oversight committee decided that Burlington Telecom should continue to offer Al Jazeera as part of certain cable packages.
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Although several foreign news networks can already be viewed in the United States on cable, from the BBC, to China’s CCTV, this is the first time an international broadcaster has taken over an American one (News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch is a naturalized American, though his company began as an Australian firm). But some analysts dismiss the purchase as just another reality of an increasingly globalized world, noting that the role of the Chinese government in the American economy, for example, is profound. Many questions remain about Al Jazeera’s American enterprise at this juncture, including whether the Qatari government will seek heavy involvement in its content, as well as about the news executives who will become the architects of this new network. “There is an enormous interest in Qatar to have a greater presence in the US, and having that blackout is very harmful to that interest,” says Everette Dennis, dean of the Qatar campus of Northwestern University, on the fact that Al Jazeera is mostly unavailable to viewers here.