Al-Jazeera’s invisible U.S. launch

December 11, 2006

For an imperial power, the United States is an insular place. We have troops in dozens of countries, we’re fighting two foreign wars, and our government and corporations shape the lives of billions of people abroad. Yet when it comes to hearing from the rest of the world, we listen only to ourselves.

If it’s beach volleyball, grilling, gardening or garage rehabilitation, my mega-channel satellite TV brings me direct coverage from knowledgeable experts. But if it’s intelligence from that vast world out there, what I get is third-hand, from U.S. reporters hearing from U.S.-approved sources (“Western diplomats”) so their U.S. news organizations can talk to me from New York, Washington or Atlanta. On Sunday mornings, when I want perspective, I watch the authorized news talk shows, and once again hear from more U.S. commentators whose knee-jerk response to events elsewhere, no matter how momentous, is to consider their impact on GOP prospects in ’08 and the price Americans pay at the pump.

If we did see the world – and ourselves – through the eyes of people in the Middle East, Africa or Asia we would probably find the experience unfamiliar, unsettling and even infuriating. Above all, though, it would be illuminating.

But we won’t have that chance. Many of you don’t know this, since coverage from our media has been sparse, but last month Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language TV network, launched a worldwide news service in English. Al Jazeera English (AJE) recruited numerous U.S. and British broadcasters, including BBC interviewer David Frost and ABC’s Dave Marash. From 30 bureaus worldwide and four studios in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, and in Malaysia, London and Washington, AJE began reaching out to 70 million to 80 million households in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland and Australia.

Not here, though. And considering Al-Jazeera’s unique standing as the world’s only non-Western global broadcast news operation, that’s a pity.

AJE has been negotiating with U.S. cable and satellite companies over what broadcasters call “carriage” – channel space – since at least early this year. It reportedly got an offer from industry leader Comcast, with 24 million households, but only for greater Detroit, which has a large Arabic population, and only as a paid add-on. Discussions with cable operators Time Warner and Cox Communications have gone nowhere, as have talks with Rupert Murdoch’s DirecTV and EchoStar.

There may be business reasons for that. AJE wants to stream its programming via the Internet, which cable companies resist. Too, cable owners like to carry networks in which they have ownership interest, using their industrial muscle in a dubious practice that regulators tolerate. Plus, their systems don’t have a lot of spare channels rattling around, so startup networks often go begging.

But it’s impossible to ignore the unacknowledged role played by Al-Jazeera’s reputation for coverage reviled by U.S. leaders as slanted in favor of terrorism, suicide bombing and insurgency. Outgoing defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld described Al-Jazeera as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable,” and U.S. warplanes bombed its Baghdad bureau, accidentally of course. At one time or another, Al-Jazeera has irritated governments from Morocco to Iraq enough to get its bureaus shut down and its reporters expelled.

But it’s a real news operation. Al-Jazeera is funded by the leader of Qatar, perhaps the most reliably pro-U.S. regime in the entire region. It was founded in 1996 with the help of a cadre of BBC newspeople rescued from a British-Saudi broadcasting partnership that the Saudis scuttled over a documentary about the execution of an Arabian princess. In a region where information ministries have a stranglehold over news, Al-Jazeera brought Western standards of journalistic independence.

Is it also irretrievably anti-American? I don’t know. I do know the same people who complain about its bias complain just as loudly about the bias of CNN, ABC, CBS and The New York Times. Al-Jazeera did run a lot of pictures of war dead during the ’03 invasion, when U.S. networks deemed such images unpatriotic. As AJE’s Riz Kahn, formerly with CNN and the BBC, told the Washington Post, U.S. news tends “to show the missiles taking off. Al-Jazeera shows them landing.”

Last month’s English launch sounded innocuous enough. Opening day included coverage of the Congo elections, UN initiatives on AIDS, Chinese youth who drive too fast, gas shortages in Zimbabwe, a little-known tribe in the Brazilian Amazon and the situation in Darfur.

AJE will face powerful pressures to customize its offerings in ways that its new audiences find palatable, and you won’t hear loose talk about “martyrs” and “American aggression.” But still, it’s committed to coverage tilted toward the Third World, and the notion that the U.S. public couldn’t handle what its reporters have to say is insulting to us. Indeed, it’s a perspective we ignore at our peril.

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