The Qatar-based TV news network Al Jazeera is quickly becoming one of the world’s most important international news outlets. Since launching its English-language affiliate, Al Jazeera English (AJE), in 2006, the network has extended its reach into 250 million homes in more than 100 countries (Arab Media and Society, Spring/11).
In the United States, though, AJE is nearly blacked out, only available in a few markets, including Toledo, Ohio; Burlington, Vermont; Washington, D.C.; and, most recently, New York City.
Cable operators have given various reasons for why they’ve shut out AJE: a lack of interest in the network, a lack of cable bandwidth or, as one cable industry consultant put it (New York Times, 8/1/11), “It’s all about leverage in this business, and they don’t have any.”
Slowly, at least among the political elite, that perception may be changing.
Al Jazeera reports from a distinctly non-Western position. Around 80 percent of its stories cover the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia, double that of CNN and the BBC, according to Toward Freedom (6/5/09).
During wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, American reporters remained embedded with U.S. forces, rarely leaving a soldier’s side and producing stories from the American soldier/protector perspective. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, used non-embedded reporters, covering the cost of war from the point of view of the truly voiceless: civilians caught in the crossfire.
In April 2004, during the offensive in Fallujah, no journalists were allowed to travel with U.S. forces, resulting in stories that relied on official U.S. statements. CNN (4/10/04) quoted an unnamed witness who “described Fallujah as a ‘ghost town’ dominated by fighting and evacuated by residents.” Al Jazeera (4/10/09) covered the U.S. offensive from inside the city, reporting stories of women and children being killed trying to escape, and bodies lying in the streets for days because snipers made retrieving them too dangerous.
During the George W. Bush administration, Al Jazeera was labeled a propaganda outlet for Osama bin Laden for its replaying of Al-Qaeda videos and gruesome scenes of civilian causalities, but the network has survived even that dubious American label (Washington Post, 11/23/05).
It also survived direct bombing by American forces, twice. Al Jazeera was bombed by U.S. forces in Kabul (Guardian, 11/17/01) and Baghdad (Guardian, 11/23/05), even after giving the location of its offices to U.S. officials; the latter attack resulted in the death of an Al Jazeera cameraman. The Pentagon denied that the attack was deliberate and later rejected reports that Bush and Tony Blair discussed bombing the main Al Jazeera buildings in Doha (Guardian, 11/23/05).
Since then, U.S. officials have slowly backed off from claims that Al Jazeera is a terrorist megaphone. In 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that the United States is losing the “information war” to Al Jazeera (ABCNews.com, 3/2/11):
This viewership has been driven primarily by livestreaming of AJE over the Web, especially during the popular uprising in Egypt. As Jeremy Scahill put it in the Nation (1/31/11), “If it weren’t for Al Jazeera, much of the unfolding Egyptian revolution would never have been televised.” For Al Jazeera, the Arab spring was a crack in the door to American audiences.
When the uprising began, traffic to the AJE site increased by 2,500 percent, with more than 1.6 million of the 4 million viewers coming from the United States (New York Times, 1/31/11). Prominent American journalists at outlets like MSNBC (2/7/11) and ABC News (1/30/11) praised Al Jazeera’s coverage, even as those outlets scrambled to get reporters covering Egypt. For U.S. media, it was impossible to compete with meaningful analysis and reporting by an outlet that had had reporters on the ground for years.
It seems, however, that AJE is fighting an uphill battle to turn their moment into a broader audience. Unlike CNN, AJE faces an American audience with little direct exposure to the network and a general distrust of the culture associated with the network.
A University of Michigan study published by Arab Media and Society (Spring/11) put the struggle into perspective. Researchers showed participants a short news segment produced by AJE highlighting peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. One group saw the original clip, while another viewed the clip with the AJE markings replaced with CNN International (CNNI) tags. The subjects were then asked questions about the trustworthiness and perceived bias of the outlet and their likelihood to watch it, along with questions determining the viewers’ political affiliation and prejudice against Arab-Americans.
The study found that viewers who watched the AJE clip with the CNN International tag had a boosted perception of CNNI after watching the clip, compared with no change in perception of AJE when the original markers were shown. Participants considered AJE less trustworthy than CNNI and also reported a lower likelihood to watch AJE when compared to CNNI.
The study’s authors concluded that exposure to AJE reporting “probably did not heighten mistrust against Arab-Americans. The more likely scenario is that mistrust of Arab-Americans in general led to negative perceptions of AJE.”
The study’s findings don’t doom the network. While cable viewers may perceive the network as biased toward Arabs, making it harder for AJE to secure a deal with cable carriers, the phenomena may inadvertently push AJE to the forefront of modern news by forcing it to distribute on the Internet through YouTube, AJE.net and Twitter. The network now offers its content through a Creative Commons license, allowing it to reach a diverse group of U.S. viewers through other media, bolstering the Al Jazeera brand while redefining how news is disseminated.
The network has also increasingly reached out to individuals to lobby cable providers. The “Demand Al Jazeera English” campaign has resulted in 70,000 emails, according to its website. The leverage acquired by a broad grassroots campaign could be enough to force cable providers into taking the network seriously. A campaign like the one launched by AJE nationally has already kept the station on air on a local scale in Burlington.
When Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss learned that AJE was being dropped from Burlington Telecom, the municipally owned cable network, he determined that the citizens of Burlington should first have a chance to comment. After hundreds of letters and emails were sent to Burlington Telecom and multiple contentious public forums were held, AJE’s contract was extended. According to the Burlington Free Press (6/19/08), many of those that wrote letters opposing Al Jazeera admitted they had never actually seen the network.
Al Jazeera will continue to be the outlet best-positioned to cover the Middle East, and the networks’ Creative Commons license will get more Al Jazeera stories onto American networks. This will result in more exposure for the network to those who believe it’s biased and anti-American, but haven’t watched its programming. Only direct exposure has the potential to change preconceived anti-Arab sentiments and position the U.S. public to better understand how it views the rest of the world—and, perhaps more importantly, how the rest of the world views them.
The Qatar Connection
Al Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, a U.S.-allied Mideastern monarchy that provides the network with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief (Time, 2/22/11) maintains that this funding “is an investment that enhances the prestige of their country,” and does not influence the organization’s editorial decisions or undermine its journalistic independence.
Even so, a recent U.S. diplomatic release by WikiLeaks (10/20/05) indicates that Al Jazeera’s news director bowed to American pressure and altered coverage of the Iraq War, including withholding pictures of children injured by U.S. forces. The director resigned shortly after the cable’s release (New York Times, 11/20/11).
Al Jazeera has been criticized for going easy on regimes allied with Qatar, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The GCC recently sent troops into Bahrain to “maintain order and security” (Al Arabiya, 3/15/11). These troops, mostly Saudis, are protecting the reigning royal family as doctors are imprisoned for treating protesters shot by security forces (Guardian, 11/29/11). According to a report in Aslan Media (5/30/11), “As Qatar attempts to play a more influential role in the Middle East it needs Saudi support to become a regional leader. For this to work, Qatar needed to keep Al Jazeera away from Bahrain.”