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Al Jazeera Launches English Service

November 17, 2006 at 4:40 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Since its inception in 1996, Al Jazeera has grown into the top-rated news network in the Middle East and a highly influential and controversial name around the world. Broadcasting in Arabic from the small Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar — and bankrolled by its royal family — Al Jazeera reaches more than 50 million households, presenting a 24-hour mix of news and talk shows.

It has drawn censure and even been banned by some Arab governments for airing dissident views. It’s also been criticized by the Bush administration for broadcasting video messages from Osama bin Laden and coverage perceived as anti-American.

This week, after several delays, Al Jazeera has launched a hugely ambitious new effort: Al Jazeera English, a global news channel in English with an unusual rolling 24-hour rotation, anchored throughout the day in four hubs around the world, east to west, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Doha, Qatar, London, and Washington, D.C.

Nigel Parsons, who’s worked at a number of Western media organizations, is the managing director of Al Jazeera English.

NIGEL PARSONS, Managing Director, Al Jazeera English: It’s the first English-language channel based in the Middle East looking out and the first English-language channel based in the developing world looking out. I think when you start understanding that there are, you know, different ways of looking at stories and different perspectives on them, it does help, you know, bridge those gaps.

MARWAN KRAIDY, Arab Media and Public Life Project: Al Jazeera is in the company of brands like Google, like Microsoft, like Starbucks, in terms of global recognition. So they know that they can use that recognition of Al Jazeera to basically expand their reach.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marwan Kraidy is watching the new effort as director of the Arab Media and Public Life Project at American University in Washington.

MARWAN KRAIDY: It’s a way of showing an alternative point of view to what many people across the world, rightly or wrongly, perceive to be a Western point of view, perhaps best represented by the BBC and CNN.

JEFFREY BROWN: And showing it from the developing world or the non-Western world?

MARWAN KRAIDY: Absolutely, showing it from the developing world perspective. And you see that very clearly in their first day of programming.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see?

MARWAN KRAIDY: It opens with two anchors, quite young, saying…

AL JAZEERA TELEVISION ANCHOR: Day one of a new era in television news.

News reporting and anchors

JEFFREY BROWN: On its first day, news stories included a report on a woman killed in Gaza by a rocket and the election in Congo. There was also a special program called "People in Power," focusing on Iran's president.

In addition to some new faces, the network has assembled an impressive corps of news veterans from Western television, among them Sir David Frost and American journalist Dave Marash, who left ABC News' "Nightline" last year and joined the new channel as an anchor and field reporter based in Washington.

What did your friends say to you when you told them that you were going to work for Al Jazeera?

DAVE MARASH, Washington Anchor, Al Jazeera English: A lot of them said, "What?" A lot of them said, "Are you crazy?" And a lot of them, particularly after I told them what the concept was here, said, "You lucky dog."

JEFFREY BROWN: "You lucky dog," huh?

DAVE MARASH: You bet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how you felt? Why did you want to come?

DAVE MARASH: Because, after 16 years of working for "Nightline" at a really extraordinarily high level of reporting reality, I was looking for another opportunity to really do serious and detailed reporting, and Al Jazeera in English is going to allow me to do that.

We're going to slow down the pace to what I like to call the speed of thought. We're going to do fewer stories and do them at greater length. So much of today's news rolls by at such a rate that, number one, the correspondents don't really have a chance to master their material and, number two, the reports are so condensed that they become almost generic, because in reality -- and in news reality -- the devil really is in the details. We're going to take the time to give you the details.

'Mouthpiece of terrorists'

JEFFREY BROWN: But longtime critics of the original Arabic Al Jazeera will be watching carefully. American officials have repeatedly taken shots at Al Jazeera, treating it as a forum for terrorists.

JOURNALIST: But you criticized Al Jazeera before?

DONALD RUMSFELD, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense: I have.

JOURNALIST: Do you believe that...

DONALD RUMSFELD: I will do it again if you'd like. Prompt me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just last month on the campaign trail, President Bush had this to say.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Another reason why is that terrorists are trying to influence public opinion. They carry video cameras, film their atrocities, e-mail images and video clips to Middle Eastern cable networks like Al Jazeera.

JEFFREY BROWN: The reputation here in the United States is we see it when it carries the messages of Osama, and it gets a reputation for being a kind of mouthpiece for terrorists.

NIGEL PARSONS: And he is part of the story, and we have a brief, as journalists, to show all sides of every story, you know, to present all the facts. It's not a question of whether you agree or don't agree. I mean, you know, Al Jazeera shows hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of George Bush.

Reaching the Western audience

JEFFREY BROWN: Marwan Kraidy believes it's the differences of emphasis and imagery between Al Jazeera and most Western coverage that have made it controversial.

MARWAN KRAIDY: And Al Jazeera tends to focus a lot on the human dimensions of war, for instance. And what they do, they show dead bodies. They show corpses. And they believe that this is a part of a news story.

Now obviously, to their critics, this is gore, sensationalistic. Basically, focusing on dead Iraqis is interpreted as an anti-American statement, and to some extent it is. Obviously, to some extent, if you show dead Iraqis in Iraq or in Fallujah, when there was the famous battle of Fallujah, or in Afghanistan, you're implicitly criticizing the people who are firing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But seeing the new channel in the U.S. and Canada, even to critique it, will not be easy. Thus far, no major American or Canadian cable or satellite provider has agreed to carry the channel. Currently, it's most easily seen on the Internet. Marwan Kraidy believes the Arabic service's reputation, fair or unfair, has played a role.

MARWAN KRAIDY: Well, officially the cable companies are saying it's a business decision. However, I am sure that the business concerns are legitimate, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some political issues there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Al Jazeera English officials still hope to get broad distribution in the U.S., but Dave Marash is even more excited about a different worldwide audience.

DAVE MARASH: To me, the single most interesting thing about this whole adventure is our target audience, which I am told globally will be 80 percent people who speak English as a second language. And I can define them for you in one word: ambition, people whose own culture and language isn't enough. And whether it be for social or political or intellectual or romantic reasons, they reach across the barrier.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, reaching all those people is a big ambition. But with the deep pockets of its owners to back it and many critical eyes upon it, Al Jazeera English is making a big bet that it can succeed.