Neil Macdonald: Al Jazeera America, test case for an open society

Having paid almost $500 million for Al Gore's Current TV, Qatar-owned Al Jazeera English news channel is making one more push for a toehold in the U.S. cable market. It is going to be a hard sell, Neil Macdonald writes.

Most Westerners have no idea where N'Djamena is. Al Jazeera English operates a news bureau there (it's the capital of Chad).

AJE also has correspondents in Juba, Diyarbakir, Harare, Khartoum, Nouakchott, Skopje, and about 65 other cities, including a North American metropolis all but ignored by big U.S. media: Toronto.

The network, owned and operated by the Emirate of Qatar, no longer has anything to prove about the quality of its journalism. It has won all sorts of prestigious awards and broken all sorts of stories.

It is now in 80 million homes worldwide, and is known in our business as the outfit that's always in places nobody else covers.

Late last year, for example, as the rest of the English-language media were concentrating on the crisis in Egypt, AJE's Nazanine Moshiri was travelling with the M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, broadcasting live several times a day.

That sort of thing has made the network a must-watch for agencies like the U.S. State Department, especially as Western networks and newspapers scale back, closing their foreign bureaus wholesale.

But Americans with enough savvy to seek out AJE must do so on the internet. Because after more than six years of operation, the network remains effectively locked out of the American cable TV market.

Last week, after the announcement that AJE had bought Al Gore's Current TV (for something like $500 million), and with it access to as many as 40 million American homes, Time Warner immediately announced it was dropping Current from its cable roster.

The move was reminiscent of the Comcast decision not to carry AJE here when the network first launched in 2006.

It's been a pattern. The country that, in the name of free speech, allows flag-burning, Ku Klux Klan marches and protests at military funerals by religious zealots hoisting "God hates fags" placards decided years ago that AJE represents the kind of speech it simply cannot tolerate.

"It's insane that a country as important and as vibrant and diverse as the United States would have such a banana republic approach to news and information," says Tony Burman, the former CBC editor in chief who spent years as AJE's managing director, trying to win cable TV carriage in the U.S. market.

"The fear-mongering has been surreal."


AJE is widely available in Canada, albeit way up the dial on most cable outlets, and recently did a deal with Virgin Media in the U.K., which means it can be found on almost all the main British TV platforms.

But from its inception, the network has faced a powerful self-interested corporate pushback here in the U.S.

Employees of the English-language satellite news channel AJE, in the control room in Doha, Qatar. Now it has a toehold in the big U.S. market. (Fadi Al-Assaad / Reuters)

After the Current TV sale was announced last week, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly fulminated about such an asset going to "an anti-American network."

Religious and political forces opposed it, too.

Just as Canadian ambassadors spent years battling false rumours that the 9/11 attackers entered the U.S. from Canada, Burman spent much of his time here debunking ridiculous stories about AJE airing beheadings of American soldiers by al-Qaeda.

The Bush administration, in particular, painted AJE and its Arabic-language parent, Al Jazeera, as little more than puppets for Osama bin Laden.

That's always seemed a bit odd, given that Qatar has largely aligned itself with Washington's agenda of reform in the Arab world.

Though it is true that Al Jazeera's Arabic-language mother ship has at times been a journalistic embarrassment.

In 2008, Arabic Al Jazeera's Beirut bureau actually threw an on-air party for Samir Kuntar after his release by Israel in a prisoner swap. Kuntar, a self-styled freedom fighter from Lebanon, killed an Israeli man in front of his daughter in 1979, then bashed the little girl's skull in with a rock.

The fact that Osama bin Laden chose the Arabic-language Al Jazeera for his first post-9/11 interview didn't help the network's image here in the U.S. either.

(Ironically, Al Jazeera chose not to broadcast the interview, which amounted to little more than a sermon by bin Laden. Excerpts finally ran on CNN after al-Qaeda released its copy of the video, but Al Jazeera took the blame for airing it.)

Al Jazeera English, though, is nothing like its Arabic sister network. Its standards and judgment are in line with Western journalistic tradition, although, like Fox News Channel and other cable networks here, AJE doesn't bother hiding its political bias.

AJE is suspicious of American militarism, dubious about globalization and overtly sympathetic to poorer nations.

Robert D. Kaplan of the Atlantic magazine, an authority on international security, calls this a "middle of the road, developing world viewpoint."

It is also plainly pro-Palestinian, which has made AJE the target of one of Washington's more powerful interest groups.

Storming the U.S. market

"I think the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. works overtime to demean and defame Al Jazeera," says Burman. "And I think that they, in concert with some of the political forces, have basically persuaded many of the cable companies that there will be a backlash from viewers if they dare carry Al Jazeera."

That has not been the case in the handful of small markets where Burman managed to get Al Jazeera English on the air: Washington, DC; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vermont. In fact, in Vermont, there was a pro-AJE backlash against the network's detractors.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a leader, many say, with the strategic vision and wealth to be a player in the Middle East. (Wissam Nassar / Reuters)

Burman, and many others here, believe that Al Jazeera English, with its vast network of correspondents reporting from places that most Western news outlets simply ignore, could only be a welcome change from the incessant yammering of the cable-TV talking-head echo chamber.

So the network plows ahead. Time Warner may have dropped it, but Verizon and others still carry Current TV, which AJE intends to reinvent as "Al Jazeera America," expanding its coverage and staff in this country.

It's a big, costly move, and in their offices AJE journalists are arguing over the best way to storm the American market.

Slogans are being drawn up, marketing schemes hatched.

An old colleague of mine (there are no end of Canadians at AJE) thinks the key is to consciously look and sound as starkly different as possible from the rest of the American pack.

"I'd put up a picture of [reality star] Kim Kardashian," he said, "with a voiceover saying 'Take a look at her. Because this is the last time you will ever see her on this station. Welcome to Al Jazeera.'"

That's a pitch I'd buy.