Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Let Al Jazeera English Speak

The Boston Globe ran this under the headline "News without the nonsense" on 20 November 2007, and I was very happy to see it get picked up elsewhere in the US and around the world in the following weeks. Today, April 2011, I think everything I wrote is still spot on: AJE does a great job. Unfortunately, while many Americans watch it online, many cable companies are still reluctant to carry it.

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It is probably the world's best-funded television news operation, and it has a team of experienced professional reporters. Yet after a full year on air, Al Jazeera English remains unavailable to most Americans.

Given constant public criticism about the media in the United States, in particular the decline in television news standards, it is surprising that Al Jazeera English has had such a hard time breaking into the market. But cable is king in the United States, and most cable providers have been reluctant to take on the new station.

Some of their reasons are understandable. There is competition for bandwidth among a variety of companies, from shopping channels to sports channels to special-interest networks. Cable companies cannot carry everything.

However, the implicit assumption that there is not a strong enough market for international news is faulty. Sure, serious reporting from Africa or the Middle East is never going to be as popular as escapist entertainment and fluff news about film stars. But Al Jazeera English would get significant viewership from among the large number of Americans disgusted with the seemingly bottomless dumbing-down of American TV news over the past decade or so.

Al Jazeera English would offer a healthy challenge to American television news outlets, pressuring them to invest in their international coverage once again so they can run more world news more consistently. Most foreign news-gathering operations have been shrinking, and news outlets have been closing their overseas bureaus, but Al Jazeera English has set out on the opposite course. It has 20 bureaus worldwide, and the network overall - that is, together with the Arabic channel, which broadcasts entirely different programs - has 60, including 12 in Africa and 10 in the Middle East.

Such a field presence is exceptional in the world today, perhaps second only to the BBC, and it is a key factor in being able to provide top-quality reporting. When news breaks, those with boots on the ground can report instantly on location with an understanding that comes from being familiar with the local situation.

Al Jazeera English's reporters are a professional team as well: seasoned journalists from 45 nations, head-hunted from the likes of ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, and NBC. Even before viewing their headquarter studios in Doha, Qatar, last month, I have been meeting with them since long before they went on air, and I am always impressed by their professionalism, their interest in covering forgotten conflicts, and the budget they have at their disposal to do so.

One of their editors told me that, in his decades of news experience, he never had the kind of resources he does now, but he and his colleagues realize this opportunity also saddles them with a great responsibility: If they cannot get television news right with this amount of money and such top staff, then perhaps no one can. They know this is the best chance they are ever going to have in their careers to do the kind of journalism they have always wanted to do, and they are taking the integrity of their project seriously.

These testimonies about the station's professionalism may now be swaying American cable providers to bring Al Jazeera English into their mix. The hurdle for some is a lingering fear of a public relations backlash - that some customers might get agitated by their cable company offering a channel whose sister station in Arabic has a reputation for being anti-American. Although such notions about Al Jazeera English can only be held by people who have never watched it, unfortunately there will always be too many of those in America as long as the channel does not reach people's homes.

Interestingly, the US government does not seem to share the worries of the cable companies. The administration engages with Al Jazeera English, and key officials such as Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and former White House press secretary Tony Snow have given interviews to the station. If it is worthwhile enough for them to spend their time giving interviews to Al Jazeera English, no one could seriously argue that the American public should not watch it.


Andrew Stroehlein is Director of Media and Information at the International Crisis Group.

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