Lift the Shroud

Why we need Al Jazeera English
June 7, 2011

For most of the last decade, when Americans heard mention of Al Jazeera, the Arabic language Qatar-based satellite news channel, they didn’t hear anything good. The station was saddled with prejudices based on that prefix; in 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the insinuation explicit, tagging the network as “a mouthpiece of al Qaeda.” The station was considered so toxic that at that year’s Democratic convention, when John Kerry worked to assure voters of his anti-terrorist mettle, Al Jazeera was forbidden to hang its banner.

So when, under Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera announced plans to start an independently managed English-language service—and to establish a broadcast center in Washington, DC—the move was “greeted in the United States with something approaching horror,” wrote Spencer Ackerman in a New Republic piece. Cable providers did not take it; to this day, if you don’t live in Washington DC, northern Ohio, or Burlington, Vermont, your system doesn’t carry Al Jazeera English.

Burlington’s city-owned cable network made it available shortly after its 2006 launch. “We were certainly squeamish about it at first, given its reputation in the United States,” Tim Nulty, then the director of Burlington Telecom, told The Associated Press. “But if you look at it, it looks like BBC. I think it’s more mainstream and more objective than CNN.”

Not everyone agreed with Nulty, and the station was dropped in 2008. After protests in favor and opposition, it was restored. Even then, in the famously progressive college town, there was brief talk of a ballot measure to banish it again.

David Marash is a former Nightline reporter who, as AJE’s biggest American hire, was once something of a US spokesperson for the channel. He quit after being eased out of the anchor chair in 2008, telling CJR that while he thought their coverage of the southern hemisphere was peerless, he had grown disappointed over decreasing editorial independence and sometimes-“execrable” coverage of America. But now, three years later, Marash told Lawrence Pintak, author of this issue’s cover story, that the network is “the model of television news coverage.” Pintak, a former CBS Middle East correspondent who taught journalism in Cairo, reports that in hundreds of interactions with the channel’s 550-plus journalists, he’s never heard a complaint about skewed coverage.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Of course, private cable systems are under no obligation to carry any particular channel, and your mileage as it comes to AJE may vary. But to the staffers at the network, the reason for their American blackout is plain—the channel has never been able to overcome a base hostility, an unease about its Arab sister network’s journalism. The cable conglomerates blocking the door insist the issue is limited space and funds. We suspect the real reason is fear of protests, based on tenuous guilt by association, from those motivated by racism and Islamophobia.

No matter its explanation, there’s something self-defeating about this state of affairs; we are a country that badly needs more information and perspective on the rest of the globe. As a wave of popular unrest and reform sweeps across the Arab world, the network has proven its mettle, and its contribution would be all the more valuable as fragile gains solidify or evaporate.

And people are hungry for it: as crowds filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, some 1.6 million US viewers streamed AJE online. That so many so easily bypassed the cable distributors suggests these gatekeepers’ coming obsolescence, and along with it, their ability to so dramatically shape America’s television diet. But that day, if it comes, is some way off. The complications of the world mean we really shouldn’t wait any longer to make this vital channel available on our television sets. It’s time to lift the shroud, and time to see another angle on the world beyond our shores.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.