In Arabic in English in D.C.: Up to a Point, Al Jazeera English Looks like Your Cable News. Past That Point, It Doesn't. Not That You Can See It, Anyway

By McKelvey, Tara | The American Prospect, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

In Arabic in English in D.C.: Up to a Point, Al Jazeera English Looks like Your Cable News. Past That Point, It Doesn't. Not That You Can See It, Anyway


McKelvey, Tara, The American Prospect


AL JAZEERA HAS BEEN CALLED "THE terrorist network," a "beheadings channel," and "a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden." Yet there was Dave Marash, 64, Al Jazeera's improbable anchor, sitting at his computer in a seventh-floor corner office in its K Street location, surrounded by mementos from his work as an Emmy-award--winning Nightline correspondent--a William Gaddis novel on a shelf, an Eva Cassidy plaque on a wall, and a Ghanan akuaba'a fertility doll on top of bookshelf.

It's a radical career move. Currently neither his old friends from ABC, nor anybody else, can watch him on television in the United States. His new employer, Al Jazeera English, launched its channel on November 15 out of Washington--but only on the Web. How did his friends react when they heard the news?

"The overwhelming majority said, 'That's Marash,'" he says with a grin. Wearing a red tie and wire-rimmed glasses on a recent Friday morning, he enthusiastically described the channel's "absolutely, state-of-the-art" production quality and its "four regional news bases" in Washington, London, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Doha, Qatar, hometown of its financial backer, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the emir of Qatar.

The goal, at least according to promotional spots, is "[t]o challenge the mainstream media." In some ways, the station has. Even without airing in the United States, it has gained radical-chic allure. In early December, cameramen from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart filmed a segment in the station's K Street building. Playwright Eve (Vagina Monologues) Ensler, wearing red-framed glasses and sitting in an empty theater, will appear in an upcoming Aljazeera Everywoman, a weekly magazine show. And Benetton and Diesel are described as potential advertisers, according to an April 2006 article in Fast Company.

"Right now Al Jazeera is the new frontier," proclaims an advertisement on the channel. Behind the hyperbolic, go-boldly language, though, is a news-gathering organization that is trying to be taken seriously. The channel broadcasts live and worldwide 16 hours a day, focusing heavily on the developing world. According to promotional material, it hopes to provide "accurate, impartial and objective news for a global audience from a grass-roots level" and to become "the channel of reference for Middle East news."

The grass-roots part is key. Al Jazeera English offers an ambitious--perhaps quixotic--approach to news, placing an emphasis on ordinary people. Marash says his hero is foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist who has spent decades writing about political issues in African and Latin American countries from the perspective of low-level bureaucrats, former servants, and nomads. "CNN doesn't go for the little man," explains Hugh Miles, a Cairo-based journalist and author of a book, Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. "It shows Minister A meeting Minister B and talking about an important issue. Al Jazeera produces shows about an ambulance driver in Gaza and a gold miner in the Congo."

BUT IS THE CHANNEL'S PERSPECTIVE new or skewed? Probably both. It is too early to judge how accurate its news coverage will be over a sustained period, yet there are clues. In many ways, its newsroom would seem familiar to any Western journalist. The staff of about 140 was hired away from CNN, NBC, CBS, and other U.S. stations, including someone from Fox News Channel, according to Washington bureau chief Will Stebbins, himself a former Associated Press Television News executive. Their workspace is bustling and chaotic. Old copies of BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal were piled on a table the Friday afternoon that I visited, and the yellow-and-black carpet was partly held together with masking tape. The back of the room was heavy with the scent of bagels, and a producer-type, a man in sideburns and frayed jeans with Dinosaur Jr. wallpaper on his desktop, was shouting into his telephone, "You are a visionary! …

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