Al Jazeera English Looks at News through a Different Lens

By Miller, Sean J | The Christian Science Monitor, July 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

Al Jazeera English Looks at News through a Different Lens


Miller, Sean J, The Christian Science Monitor


Paul McKinney wants the story. Now. All afternoon, Mr. McKinney, an executive producer in the Washington broadcast center of Al Jazeera English (AJE), has been hoping to air a report about a captured rebel computer in Colombia.

The laptop, seized by the Colombian military, is purported to carry information linking leftist guerrillas in Colombia with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - which, if true, could provide perfect ammunition for critics of Washington's chief antagonist in the region. Yet when AJE finally airs the story, it goes to considerable lengths to reach the other side, too. In a live interview with a Chavez supporter in Caracas, AJE anchor Ghida Fakhry asks the woman: Could the laptop be part of a US "smear" campaign against Mr. Chavez? Certainly, replies the Chavez supporter. Ms. Fakhry continues: "Do you make much of the fact the US has activated its fourth fleet in Latin America?"

The questioning might strike some in the US as typical of the tone of an Arab-owned news organization: seeing sinister US motives, or the CIA, behind every bush and computer byte. But producers at AJE would argue that it's just the kind of tough, truthful reporting that other American news outlets don't do - and should.

Almost two years after AJE launched a global news service, a different editorial voice is rippling out over the English-speaking airwaves - one that is rapidly gaining listeners overseas but goes almost unnoticed in the US.

AJE now reaches 113 million homes around the world - almost half of what CNN International does, which has been around for 23 years. But the network can only be seen in two small US cable markets - one in northwest Ohio and another in Burlington, Vt. All of which raises a fundamental question: Will America ever be ready for the more aggressive - critics say biased - style of AJE? "The political environment in the US is not very conducive to Al Jazeera English penetrating the market," says Marwan Kraidy, an Arab media specialist at the University of Pennsylvania.

* * *

AJE's broadcast center occupies four floors of a nondescript building in downtown Washington. Its newsroom is typical: Editors and producers sit at rows of computers in an open area sandwiched between a small control room and a soundstage cordoned off by black curtains. The anchor desk shimmers like a glass saucer at the center of the soundstage.

The staff is something of a mini-UN: It includes Americans, Canadians, Britons, as well as Colombians and Lebanese. Mr. McKinney is a former Scottish TV journalist, as is evident from his brogue.

AJE operates independently of Al Jazeera Arabic, maintaining its own bureaus, journalists, and production staff - as well as broadcast centers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Doha, Qatar; London; and Washington. Each center is responsible for part of the channel's 24-hour broadcast and has "regional authority" when it comes to making editorial decisions. "That's the dramatic change that Al Jazeera English represents," says Will Stebbins, the Washington bureau chief, of the local decisionmaking.

At the top, AJE is governed by a team of news executives. But overall, a board of directors and code of ethics govern both the Arabic channel and AJE. The two channels do put reporters on each other's broadcasts.

AJE decidedly doesn't target an American audience with stories, which may be one reason it doesn't have much of one. Producers say stories have to reach a certain "threshold" of interest or importance - to have as much curiosity for someone in Islamabad as in Iowa. "It's about broadcasting to a world audience," says McKinney.

Even when it does do a US-based story, it isn't always the standard fare you might see on other channels. "What we didn't cover is the marine who murdered his pregnant girlfriend," says Mr. Stebbins. "We didn't touch the Mormon ranch . …

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