August 22, 2006

Al Jazeera’s Global Gamble

In late June, almost a year after the announcement that the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera was launching an English language edition called Al Jazeera International (AJI), AJI executive producer of programming for the Americas, Joanne Levine, authored an impassioned op-ed column in the Washington Post.

Levine spoke of AJI reporters in North Dakota whose mere presence triggered the interest of law enforcement authorities. She complained that her news organization couldn’t get liability insurance and was having difficulty finding anyone to distribute its programming in the U.S. She also wrote that many people were simply declining to be interviewed by AJI reporters.

“Each incident shrouded in bigotry,” Levine concluded, “has served to convince me ever more that the United States needs an outlet like Al Jazeera International, offering a wider panorama of views.”1

In some circles, the name Al Jazeera stirs up strong reactions, conjuring up Osama bin Ladin videos, raging anti-American sentiment in the Mideast, and allegations of journalistic tilt. (During the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, the network suspended regular programming to show continuous video of the victims of the Israeli attack in Qana.)And since its emergence as a powerful global news force — it was Al Jazeera that provided the world with the first images of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 – the network has endured an accusation-filled history with the Bush administration. (See the “timeline” of Al Jazeera/U.S. tensions.)

Not surprisingly, last year’s announcement that Al Jazeera was planning an English-language channel generated intense interest and in some quarters, anger. Soon, there were announcements about the roster of well-known personalities in the AJI fold – veteran British talk host and interviewer David Frost, former “Nightline” correspondent Dave Marash (AJI also made a highly publicized overture to Ted Koppel) and Josh Rushing, the ex-Marine best known as a lead character in the critically acclaimed 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera called Control Room.

But the road to launching AJI was strewn with potholes. Initial projections for a debut in the first half of 2006 proved overly optimistic as word spread of the network’s difficulties in finding satellite or cable distributors. In the meantime, a potential rival, the BBC World Channel, got a toehold in the New York market this spring. In June, an AP story on AJI’s embryonic operation began by declaring that “the English-language Al Jazeera International TV network faces enough hurdles to make Olympic champion Edwin Moses tremble.”2

Despite all this, AJI officials insist they will soon launch an ambitious operation that could include more than 400 employees from more than 40 ethnic backgrounds staffing more than 30 worldwide bureaus attached to four main broadcast centers in Doha, Qatar; Kuala Lumpur Malaysia; London; and Washington, D.C. Yet since the delay, much of this has been shrouded in doubt and confusion.

To try and separate myth from fact and to get a sense of what AJI is still planning, the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Mark Jurkowitz sat down with AJI commercial director Lindsey Oliver, who is responsible for marketing and distribution, in AJI’s Washington offices. (Washington bureau chief Will Stebbins joined the conversation later. And Oliver responded to one question via email after the interview was completed. The interview below is an edited transcript of those discussions.)

While remaining circumspect about some of the details of distribution and programming, and insisting the problems are purely technical, not political, the AJI executives outlined the network’s editorial philosophy, described the obstacles to getting on the air, and explained its relationship with the Arab version of Al Jazeera. Put simply, AJI seems to be operating with the idea that Americans are ready for a different view of world events that includes a focus on underreported regions of the globe and provides a diverse set of perspectives.

(Research assistant Jessica Goldings helped produce the interview transcript and the Al Jazeera timeline.)

Q: The launch of Al Jazeera International [has] been delayed, but there was no formal launch date given as far as I could tell. What’s your best guesstimate now as to when the operation will actually start?

Oliver: You’re right; we were hoping that it would be on air before now. And because we set ourselves a schedule….of late spring early summer, and we found the technology, the connectivity wasn’t ready for then, it might not surprise you that we’re not going to give other dates now.

It’s a shame that it wasn’t ready then, but I think this is such an ambitious project that we’re doing—connecting four broadcast centers in four different time zones in high definition so that they can talk to each other constantly…When it’s ready it will be fantastic, but there’s no point in trying to fire it up and get it on air before it is ready. So I think various people have been quoted as saying an autumn [launch] date…It could be before fourth quarter but it certainly won’t be after the fourth quarter.

Q: The biggest single obstacle…has it been simply connecting the four centers and making that work or is it the distribution issue? Is it a combination?

Oliver: No, it’s not a combination. It’s absolutely the technical challenges that we face…This channel is going to be available to people all over the world. Quite frankly, we would launch if we had zero households in the U.S.—that’s not going to happen…So no, it’s been purely the technology. This is something that hasn’t been done before. I personally think it’s going to be fabulous when it’s all up and running, when you have Kuala Lumpur speaking to, arguing with, debating with, discussing with Washington and London, and Doha all at the same time and getting these views from different parts of the world.

Q: What’s the potential audience reach of the network? Where will it ultimately be available?

Oliver: Well I would say everywhere, frankly. That sounds rather ambitious, but my target, that I actually set myself when we started just over a year ago, was to have 40 million households through contract deals at the time of launch… This is worldwide—that’s never been done before. And I’m very pleased to say that we’re going to hit that figure.

Q: Where are the 40 million households going to be?

Oliver: Well, everywhere in the world where English is spoken, frankly. I can give you some examples. We haven’t actually announced many deals yet…But I can tell you that we have many million households committed to us in Germany, France, UK, Scandinavia. We have parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and many more…And of course in all of those areas cable and satellite capacities are severely constrained, so you do a deal with whichever carrier seems to be most appropriate. In order to fill in the gaps, at the outset, we’ll also be on the internet, which is going to be fairly radical for a news channel.

Q: What about the issue of carriage in the U.S.? What can you say at this point?

Oliver: Well, I can say the U.S. we always expected to be a tough market, and it hasn’t disappointed us (laugh)…It’s taken us about a year, I think, for us to go and speak to cable and satellite operators…about what this channel is and what it’s not. And it’s not something you can do just in one glib lunch or meeting. This is a channel and a brand that tends to inspire very strong feelings…And so, when you have your initial meetings with people you have to be ready to expect a lot of different reactions. To some people…they really think it’s a great thing. Other people are very skeptical…Other people are frankly concerned and frightened that you may be supporting something they don’t want to see supported.

I’ve had countless meetings with cable and satellite operators in the U.S., but I have to say that the tone of the meetings is now completely different from what it was a year ago. You know we are absolutely open about who we are and what we’re trying to do, and that openness I think has become appreciated by the cable operators and the more they hear about and the more they understand what we’re trying to do…the more they’re realizing that this is a channel they ought to have within their bouquet…I can’t give you any names I’m afraid, which is a little frustrating…But we will have carriage on major cable and satellite operators at launch in the U.S.

Q: I read the Joanne Levine piece in the Washington Post…and she described some of the sort of institutional resistance, particularly in this country. I assume that was an accurate assessment.

Oliver: Yes, there is a skepticism a lot of the time, or there has been—much less now. But, for me, that’s part of the challenge of what we’re trying to do here. We are expecting our channel to challenge people’s preconceptions; often I think they’re misconceptions, about all sorts of things throughout the world…I’ve never been treated anything but politely and frankly, I would rather somebody came out and told me what their real feelings are and what their interest is…than if they glossed over and politely ignored those issues, because these are issues that we have to deal with. As business, as a news network, we must deal with these misconceptions in certain markets that are there about Al Jazeera, and I’ve always found it fascinating talking to operators and other people in the industry there and I’ve usually found it extremely rewarding once I get into the conversation and they have the chance to talk to me and I have the chance to talk to them.

Q: Let me ask you about the editorial philosophy…Are you primarily an international news channel? I know from your media kit that there is plenty of sports and entertainment programming. How do you describe yourselves?

Oliver: We are the first international news channel in the English language to come and to be based from the Middle East looking out. Now what does that mean? What it means is that our coverage and our understanding of Middle East issues is second to none. At the same time, we’re broadening that. I mean, Al Jazeera in Arabic language has been very famous for a long time as being the expert with the access to issues and people, etc. in the Middle East. What we’re doing is taking that expertise, broadening that and taking it to other areas of the world that are also underreported. That’s why we have a bureau in Asia, in Kuala Lumpur. We have one in Europe and we have one here in Washington. Now London and Washington aren’t necessarily what I would describe as underreported areas of the world, but what they’re covering are the whole of these time zones that they’re situated in. So for instance, Will’s team here in Washington is not just covering Washington, the U.S.—it’s covering the whole of the American continent.

What we aim to do is to provide an insight into alternative points of view and news that’s going on in parts of the world that tends to be underreported. For instance, we’ll be very strong in Africa, our coverage of Africa, our coverage of South America, of course extremely strong in the Middle East… It’s always interesting to hear what the other side is saying, but you want to feel that you’re being heard in return, and that there is an exchange—a dialogue—rather than just sitting and receiving information… So not only will we take the western viewpoint into the Middle East—which I think is very important—we will also be taking the viewpoint of these other areas back into the places into the west where they don’t get a lot of coverage at the moment.

Stebbins (entering the discussion) : I think what’s going to distinguish us from the rest is that we’re not going to be your standard cable news channel. We will have a great variety of programming. We will be informative. We will be a source for breaking news. We will have half-hour bulletins on the hour, but we will also have longer format programming. Every hour will consist of a half-hour block of news, but in the second block will be longer format, and a lot of these programs in that second half hour will be commissioned pieces. So each broadcast center…will be combing its region looking for original voices from that region.

Q: Since you talked about all those conversations you had with people who may initially have reservations, what do you say to people…who automatically link you with the Arab satellite channel?

Oliver: Certain things are very easy to knock down. [When people say] something like “I know you, you’re the one that’s shown bin Laden on TV,” what I always point out to them is that we will show whatever is newsworthy. I mean the Arabic channel does and so will the international channel. And frankly, it is a matter of considerable curiosity in the world as to whether Osama bin Laden is alive, what he’s saying—this doesn’t necessarily mean you support somebody or you don’t support somebody.

And that takes us on to the [question] of “Are we part of the same group as Al Jazeera Arabic Channel?” Absolutely, we are. And frankly we’re very proud of our heritage. I find that I spend most of my time explaining what we’re not and helping to get over misconceptions about what the Al Jazeera Arabic channel is…Yes, there are parts of the world, and America is certainly included in them, where there is a concern of skepticism sometimes, particularly around cable operators who have a wide range of subscribers and are very careful not to offend anyone… But, as I said earlier, generally they have been reassured and we’re in the midst of feverish negotiations right now, which fortunately will bring the channel on air in the U.S.

Q: How do you respond specifically to allegations that Al Jazeera is an outlet for anti-American sentiment or propaganda?

Oliver: Al Jazeera is a news channel and as such it is by definition not pro or against any country and least of all an outlet for anti-American sentiment or propaganda. Al Jazeera hosts American analysts, commentators, and guests on a regular basis to ensure that they have balanced representation in their reports. They’ve built their reputation on being independent, impartial, and unprejudiced and you can see that reflected on the screen in their news and current affairs programming. Their very vision, mission, and code of ethics clearly articulate that they look at issues from all sides. Inevitably some of their reports and programmers do challenge the official version of events. But they make no apology for that. One of the key roles of the journalist in society has been to challenge, to look carefully at all sides of an issue and present these points of view so that the audience can decide for themselves.”

Q: We [Americans] have been criticized [for] being uninterested in events in the world that don’t seem to directly affect us…But I guess what you seem to be saying is that you don’t think that’s anything inherent in the American news consumer.

Oliver: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I think it’s a vicious circle. You can’t be interested in something that you know nothing about. And so if information and good news coverage of the rest of the world isn’t very available to you, it’s not surprising that you’re not going to have a great interest…I think there’s an awful lot going on that does both directly and indirectly affect people in the States that they just don’t know about.

Stebbins: I think we’ve begun from the premise that geography and culture inevitably affects one’s outlook and affects one’s perception of world events. And if one reports strictly from a single national context, that’s clearly going to affect the way one reports. So what we’ve done is we’ve established these broadcast centers in four different parts of the world. So we’re going to offer news from four distinct cultural perspectives to avoid this variation—that we’ll be giving a complete picture.

Q: Have you conceptualized everything you’re going to do out of [the Washington Center] at this point?

Stebbins: Well we’ve been running a lot of exercises…stories that have a bit of shelf life. So we’ve had crews in Haiti, we’ve had crews up in Canada, we’ve had crews in Latin America and Central America, and…we’ve had crews in Texas and along the border. So we’ve been producing stories that have some shelf life. Stories that we know will be issues that people want to deal with, editorial themes that we will be dealing with fairly regularly.

Q: Anything else you want to mention?

Stebbins: In terms of official attitudes towards Al Jazeera, there’s certainly been a sea change in the U.S.. I think it can be dated with the appointment of Karen Hughes, the undersecretary of public affairs. There’s clearly a recognition that there’s a certain urgency that the U.S. needs to communicate to certain parts of the world that it’s having a hard time doing. And that you need to communicate across a legitimate platform, no matter what the message…And we’ve been using our time off air to establish relations with places like the Pentagon and the Whitehouse… and there’s certainly a recognition there that we might be very valuable to them.”

Footnotes

1. “Al-Jazeera, as Amerian as Apple Pie,” Washington Post, June 25, 2006.

2. “Al-Jazeera TV delays its debut in English,” Associated Press, June 11, 2006