cover story

English Lesson

The moment has arrived for Al Jazeera English, except in the US
May 5, 2011

[This is a sidebar article to the May/June 2011 cover story, “Breathing Room: Toward a new Arab media,” which you can read here.]

Back in November 2008, I skewered Al Jazeera English’s live coverage of election night in the US in an article for “It was a bit like watching a local college TV station try to compete with the big boys,” I wrote, somewhat brutally. “No matter how hard they try, it’s just not the real thing.”

But with the Egyptian revolution, Al Jazeera English has come of age. The channel’s 24/7 coverage had no English-language rival.

Even Hillary Clinton noticed. “Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news,” the Secretary of State told a Senate panel in March. “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.”

That was music to the ears of Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English. He leads a team of more than 550 journalists in thirty bureaus worldwide, supplemented by another forty bureaus operated by Al Jazeera Arabic. “It comes down to the core strength, which is eyewitness reporting,” says Anstey, a British national who has worked for CBS News and Sky News.

The words “Al Jazeera” in the name are both a strength and an Achilles heel for Al Jazeera English, or AJE, which was founded in 2006, a decade after the Arabic channel. The name Al Jazeera opens doors across the Middle East and beyond. A quarter of a billion homes around the world have access to AJE. India is among the latest to pick up the service.

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But so far the name and its associations have prevented the channel from penetrating the US market. Many Americans see Al Jazeera as foreign at best and a mouthpiece for al Qaeda at worst. The crux of the problem in getting cable and satellite clearance is that providers have seen little upside and a big downside to carrying AJE. Not much demand—i.e., profit—but a near-certainty of pushback from conservative and pro-Israel camps in the form of letters, bad publicity, and potential boycotts.

Only viewers in Washington, DC; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vermont—the three locations where a service provider offers AJE—could watch the channel’s Tunisia and Egypt coverage on TV. The rest had to go to the web. And they did that in droves. Web traffic for the channel went through the roof after the start of the January 25 uprising in Egypt, at 10 million minutes a day, almost half from the US.

With that spike, AJE launched a renewed “Demand Al Jazeera” campaign to rally viewer support, running full-page newspaper ads and flying top executives to the US for meetings with leading distributors.

“We need to address the misconceptions about what Al Jazeera stands for,” says Anstey, “and that is dispelled the minute anyone watches us.”

Indeed, aside from less focus on US and European news, Al Jazeera English feels much like its main rivals, BBC World television and CNN International (a parallel CNN operation rarely seen in the US). While Al Jazeera Arabic proudly wears its Arab identity on its sleeve, Al Jazeera English is arguably the closest thing to borderless journalism in the world today. Its staff is the media equivalent of the UN, many of them refugees from Western television channels. Name the country and it is probably represented in the AJE newsroom.

Ayman Mohyeldin, an Egyptian-American reporter who anchored much of AJE’s coverage from Cairo, says the difference between the English and the Arabic channels is tied to their respective audiences. “The Arab viewer doesn’t want just news, they want something a little bit more polemic,” explains Mohyeldin. “They want to feel they have someone who is fighting on their behalf.” AJE’s tone is different, he says, because it is speaking to the whole world.

ABC News veteran Dave Marash worked as an anchor in Washington, DC, for Al Jazeera English when it launched. After he left, he criticized what he felt was the channel’s “stereotypical and shallow” coverage of the US. Today, he says, it has matured. Although he is troubled by the lack of “vigor and airtime” AJE has given the Bahrain story, Marash still agrees with Clinton that AJE is putting the American networks to shame. “I think that just as ten years ago CNN was the role model, and thirty years ago it was the BBC, today AJE is the model of television news coverage,” he says.

The fact that Bahrain largely dropped off AJE’s news lineup in early April was not lost on some AJE insiders. But Anstey insists it reflects nothing more than the press of events elsewhere.

Indeed, in hundreds of conversations with AJE executives and staff since its launch, I have rarely heard anyone complaining of an unseen hand skewing coverage. And the political skew that colors some stories on Al Jazeera Arabic seems largely absent from Al Jazeera English.

The likely reason: the emir of Qatar is a savvy guy. He wants Al Jazeera English to do for him on a global scale what Al Jazeera Arabic has done for him in the region: make him a player. If Al Jazeera English is seen as a mouthpiece, his money will have been wasted.

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.