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Is Al Jazeera the next PBS?

Coming to America

It took Dave Marash about four years as a Washington anchor to become disgusted with the pandering, the triviality, and the sensationalism of TV news. Marash was a paragon of seriousness, as his bearded chin and intense eyes announced to even casual viewers of WRC-TV, Washington's local NBC affiliate, and, by 1989, he was fed up. Eight months before the FBI would discover Mayor Marion Barry smoking crack in the Vista International Hotel, Marash concluded in frustration to The Washington Post that scandal-mongering had created "an infatuation with what the mayor may or may not put up his nose rather than how he spends his day--the administration of his damn government, which is a shambles." So, in June, he left WRC for arguably the most serious show in network journalism: ABC's "Nightline." It was a perfect match: There, Marash would spend 16 years reporting on human rights abuses in Burma, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and aids in Zimbabwe. "Nightline" was a place where Marash could spotlight America's working poor in the midst of the stock market boom and conclude earnestly, "For those near the bottom, this is a world of constantly threatening hunger and recurring poverty." It's that sort of gravitas Marash intends to bring to his next job: Washington anchor for the new, English-language version of Al Jazeera.

It's safe to say most Americans don't exactly associate Al Jazeera with Marash's brand of journalistic integrity. If anything, they associate it with the vile demagoguery of on-air personalities like Youssef Al Qaradawi, a wizened sheik who hosts an opinion show called "Sharia and Life," which he has used as a platform to defend suicide bombings against Israelis and attacks on Americans in Iraq. (To wit: "[A]ll Iraqis should stand together in one rank to resist the occupation…. Others should also help [the insurgency] with funds and weapons, in spirit through prayers, and in any way possible.") In September, a Spanish court actually convicted one of Al Jazeera's most enterprising reporters of collaborating with Al Qaeda, and one of its cameramen has spent the last four years in Guantánamo Bay, bolstering the American perception that Al Jazeera is little more than a megaphone for Osama bin Laden. (Al Jazeera insists that its staffers have been railroaded.) That may be why, as the Daily Mirror reported in November, President Bush toyed with the idea of bombing Al Jazeera's Doha headquarters--an accusation that would have had all the credibility of the U.K. scandal sheet that aired it, had the United States not also (accidentally, of course) bombed Al Jazeera's bureaus in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So it's hardly surprising that Al Jazeera's decision to launch an English-language broadcast has been greeted in the United States with something approaching horror. In fact, although Al Jazeera International (AJI) is scheduled to begin broadcasting at the end of the spring, not a single U.S. cable or satellite provider has yet agreed to carry it. But its reporters and managers stress that the network intends to be a wholly different sort of enterprise--they're not that Al Jazeera. Far from ardent sermons on the application of Islamic law in everyday life delivered by clerics in keffiyehs, Al Jazeera's international sibling plans to present a cosmopolitan, Jim Lehrer-esque vision of TV news--a goal that has many of the channel's Arab loyalists feeling betrayed. Indeed, Marash doesn't see his joining AJI as a departure from his work at "Nightline," but rather as an extension of it. He and his AJI colleagues--the channel has recruited heavies like BBC eminence David Frost and Riz Khan of CNN--lament the superficiality of the mainstream press and ask: When was the last time you were treated to a nuanced, lengthy broadcast on, say, Latin America? "What I'm striving for," Marash explains, "is news at the speed of thought."

That might gain you plaudits at the Columbia School of Journalism, but the experiment is bound to have political fallout. The viewership that Marash describes is going to be wealthy, elite, and, in all probability, liberal. And, if liberals think they're politically marginalized now as being soft on terrorism, just imagine if they begin stuffing their latest issue of The New York Review of Books into a tote bag from Al Jazeera International. What happens when liberal pundits start appearing on an offshoot of what a staffer once lamented is considered "Al Jazeera, comma, Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece, comma"?

Al Jazeera's first decade has been an unbelievable success. Begun in 1996 as a nonhydrocarbon investment in the future by the young emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the satellite channel quickly earned a reputation for airing perspectives that went far beyond what Middle Eastern information ministries considered acceptable. On chat shows like the wildly popular "Opposite Direction," the predominant viewpoint is far more likely to be theocratic than liberal. But Al Jazeera created a space where Arabs could argue heatedly about their prevailing social, political, and religious order instead of having their opinions repressed. Hosni Mubarak paid the network the ultimate backhanded compliment during a tour of its cramped studios in 2000 by exclaiming, "All this trouble from a matchbox like this!" It's estimated that Al Jazeera has as many as 50 million daily viewers in what, before it appeared on the scene, was among the most moribund media cultures on the planet.

That has never been enough. As early as 1998, Al Jazeera execs began toying with the idea of going global. But it was only after September 11 made Al Jazeera the most important news organization on earth--no other network had a Kabul bureau, let alone a post-attack interview with bin Laden--that expanding to an English-language format appeared realistic. By 2002, many at the network had concluded that broadcasting in English was nothing less than an obligation rooted in Al Jazeera's original mission as "the first channel in the history of broadcasting to tell the Arabic and Islamic perspective to the Western people," as one proud London bureau staffer put it to author Hugh Miles. But expansion also became a corporate imperative: As both a media and an Arab phenomenon, Al Jazeera felt it ought to be the equal of CNN and the BBC, both of which have strong international presences. Last year, it announced the hiring of top management and news staff for an English-language spinoff and ambitiously promised to launch in 2006.

As soon as planning for the new channel started, however, it became clear how brand expansion and brand integrity can pull in, well, opposite directions. Al Jazeera's mission might have dictated that AJI simply be an English language version of the original--a translation that presented the United States and Europe with an unadulterated view of the Arab world. Indeed, many Arab journalists I spoke with at Al Jazeera's 2004 world media forum in Doha emphasized to me their desire to "talk back" to Western media about the Middle East. Al Jazeera's then-communications director, Jihad Ali Ballout, confidently promised me that "the content will be the same" as in Arabic. But the interest of the global corporation that Al Jazeera had become was another matter. In interviews with AJI staffers--and in their promotional materials--a conspicuously recurring subject is Al Jazeera's ranking as the fifth most recognizable brand in the world. To many at Al Jazeera, the best way of growing the brand and increasing its prestige is to pursue an international audience. "We are trying to reposition Al Jazeera as a global channel and not a pan-Arab channel," Marketing Director Ali Mohammed Kamal told The Times of London in November 2002. "A lot of people watch the BBC or CNN as a credible source of news. We are trying to dent this credibility and relaunch as a more international channel."

That means Al Jazeera International will bear little resemblance to its parent network. "Al Jazeera in Arabic--obviously it's a service by, for, and of Arabic speakers, mostly a Muslim and mostly a Middle Eastern audience. It reflects their point of view," Marash explains from the conference room of 1627 K Street, where, on the fourth floor, AJI's studios are still under construction. "Al Jazeera International's structure and composition is independent. In terms of staff, and editorially, we're independent from them. We're an English-language news service with a global audience--a broader palate, a broader mandate, and a more diverse clientele." Over the course of 24 hours, AJI will broadcast from four hubs around the world ("semi-autonomous republics," in one AJI staffer's phrase): from Kuala Lumpur for four hours, Doha for eleven, London for five, and Washington for four, according to current planning. Each hub will view the events of the day "with the assumptions and culture of their regional bases." For example, on the morning of our interview, The Washington Post ran a front-page story about a new poll reporting rising American hostility toward Muslims. AJI's four different hubs would present a story like that in terms of its implications for the Pacific Rim or the Persian Gulf or transatlantic unity, as well as explain the U.S. perspective, thereby aspiring to give "a 24-hour-day kaleidoscope of views." To the enthusiastic Marash, it's a paradigm shift: the creation of the world's first truly cosmopolitan media landscape, the town square of a global village that's open, accessible, and yet familiar to any English speaker, "rather than Turner's God's-eye view or Murdoch's Fox/Sky national view of the world. That is the mission."

If that sounds high-minded--even a little pretentious--Marash and his colleagues offer no apologies. Al Jazeera's calling card is to aggressively challenge the cultural assumptions of their rivals about the Arab world. AJI's will be to challenge their competitors' intellect. "I want to slow things down from the traditional pace of cable news and provide more depth, more nuance, more sophistication. I want to do fewer stories," Marash says. For AJI Washington's hourlong broadcast at 7 p.m., Marash envisions up to three central stories, each reported for five to seven minutes and then amplified by expert interviews and discussion: "It'll be news as if it mattered, to give an understanding of complex events. … We want to slow down and intensify what we do." Joanne Levine, the Washington bureau's executive producer for programming and a fellow "Nightline" refugee, intends to make long-form documentaries a central aspect of AJI's Americas lineup--far from the chat-show format that forms the backbone of Al Jazeera or the often superficial foreign affairs coverage offered by their Western competitors. "We're striving for good storytelling," she says, "not to be deliberately provocative for a show's sake." Levine is the rare TV journalist whose eyes widen as she promises, "We're going to own Latin America. When was the last time you saw a good, in-depth story on Latin America, other than on [Hugo] Chávez?"

Of course, the question presumes that a viewer even knows who Chávez is. But those who don't aren't really the sort AJI is interested in attracting. Nigel Parsons, AJI's Doha-based managing director, and other AJI executives have stated that their true target audience is the millions of Muslims worldwide who don't speak Arabic--perhaps as a way of lowering expectations for AJI's U.S. performance--but Marash and Levine believe that there's an unserved news audience in the United States that's lying in wait for something like AJI. What Fox News did for gun owners and evangelicals who felt culturally alienated and politically marginalized by CNN, AJI hopes to do for English professors and software developers disgusted by both networks. "A lot of people are dissatisfied with the so-called mainstream media, and they'll sample us," Marash predicts. Like who? "When you're abroad, you buy and read The International Herald Tribune. Here, you read The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times. You're a regular reader of The New Republic. Probably the same itch that makes you exercise your brain on dense, serious news organs will make you watch us."

That audience is boutique, elite, and, in all likelihood, politically liberal. Marash contends that the operative factor leading a viewer to check out AJI is disgust with the press, which cuts across ideological affiliation. "I think a lot of the Fox News audience is our audience. Anyone with a lot of dissatisfaction with the present will sample us," if for no other reason than what Marash calls "bear-baiting"--that is, sampling a network perceived to be anti-American in order to get offended. But, under Marash and Levine's intended direction, AJI will eschew the inflammatory Al Jazeera style for a more textured, if relatively soporific, tone. Anyone tuning in to jeer at a defense of suicide bombers is going to be disappointed. Accordingly, Hugh Miles writes in his recent biography of the network that Al Jazeera staffers consider their best opportunity in the United States to be filling "a vacancy at the liberal end of the [media] spectrum." Marash doesn't exactly disagree. "We'll get some of the same audience that Air America gets," he says. "Left of center, but dissatisfied with the [media] status quo."

To call this a dream come true for the right might be an understatement. In 2004, Al Jazeera wasn't even allowed to hang its banner at the Democratic National Convention for fear of invoking any attack-ad-ready association between Democrats and the controversial news channel. Now, AJI risks putting both itself and the liberals who'd watch its fare or appear on its shows in an arguably more precarious cultural position: carrying all the taint of a perceived association with terrorism--however groundless--along with an editorial vision that's unapologetically elite and cosmopolitan. Even if AJI's quality control is as high as Marash and Levine suggest, AJI is unlikely to escape a toxic political stigma that liberals really don't want associated with them. Indeed, Marash's rarified defense of Al Jazeera proper is catnip for the right: "[Al Jazeera's] idea is that an argument is only defeated by a better argument. Hate speech is matched with moderate views," he enthuses. "The real philosophy of Al Jazeera in Arabic is that the best disinfectant is sunlight. … That's not only the right choice, but it's the traditional choice of American journalism."

That may be, but already conservatives are treating AJI's high-profile Western hires as Islamofascist quislings. When AJI was in talks with Frost to sign him for one of its shows, Fox News's John Gibson sneered, "That's a little like one of the royal family consorting with the [July 7 London] bombers, isn't it?" Marash, who used to work with Bill O'Reilly in local news in New York City, appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" in January only to have his segment premised with O'Reilly's note to viewers, "As you may know, the television network Al Jazeera has a close-knit relationship with Al Qaeda and other Islamic terror outfits." While Marash held his own against his former colleague--O'Reilly ended by offering what passed for an olive branch: "Maybe you can clean that place up"--his AJI confederate Josh Rushing wasn't as lucky against Sean Hannity. Claiming bewilderment over how Rushing "in good conscience could work for a network like this," an indignant Hannity demanded Rushing affirm that "we're the greatest country on earth." (He did.) And, after Rushing extended an invitation to the Fox host to appear on AJI, Hannity spewed, "I have no intention of going on Al Jazeera, period, to put American troops in jeopardy."

In short, liberals who just want to see a good, in-depth story on Latin America are in for a barrage of accusations that they share news-watching habits with Osama bin Laden. Rushing offers a good case in point. In 2003, he was a Marine lieutenant and U.S. Central Command public affairs officer responsible for handling Al Jazeera's reporters in Doha during the invasion of Iraq. Viewers of Control Room, Jehane Noujaim's 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera, saw Rushing's perspective about the network evolve from wariness to understanding to sympathy--an evolution that ultimately led Rushing out of the military and into a new career with AJI. As much as Rushing believes that AJI will spur the "dissipation of the controversial part of the brand," during his hiring talks with Parsons, he worried that an American audience would never accept AJI's association with Al Jazeera, which would overshadow any quality journalism the new network produces. "We were having lunch, and I said, 'You know, we should really consider just changing the name of the network. It's just such a powerful thing here in America, even if what they believe about it isn't true,'" Rushing recalls. Rushing now says it would have been a horrible idea--"you look disingenuous, like you're trying to hide something"--but he had a point. When he appeared on "Hannity & Colmes," the show ran an image of him in his Marine uniform with the caption: traitor?

American conservatives might consider AJI's Western hires borderline traitors. But a more genuine--and vitriolic--reaction against AJI has come not from those who hate Al Jazeera but from those who love it. AJI has spent months attempting to placate Westerners wary of inviting bin Laden TV into their living rooms, filling the newspapers with reassuring quotes about AJI's professionalism and gravitas. Frost told The New York Times Magazine in February, "When viewers watch Al Jazeera International, they will be closer to watching CNN." Westerners might react with disbelief, but, in the Arab world, quotes like Frost's have been considered AJI's dead-serious statement of intent. That, in turn, has prompted tension that AJI will jeopardize the Al Jazeera they know and trust. Even as Al Jazeera has reaped criticism in the Middle East for airing the region's dirty social and political laundry, many of its millions of viewers consider it an authentic reflection of Arab identity--"not just a TV station," Managing Director Wadah Khanfar once told the Guardian, but "something people are very attached to."

To them, the prospect that AJI--led by a team heavy with Westerners--would reinvent the Al Jazeera brand strikes some as another example of the West besieging the Middle East. The first Al Jazeera world media forum featured Arab, South Asian, and African journalists lining up in front of the microphones in the ballroom of the InterContinental Doha to genuflect before Al Jazeera's representatives, whom they praised as paragons of an authentic Third World press. According to attendees, this year's forum, in February, was marked by anxiety over whether AJI will be just another Western news network. A new blog, Friends of Al Jazeera, has launched a relentless and often scurrilous counterattack on AJI's Western management as "mediocre people who have lied about their importance at the BBC and CNN on their CVs swanning around the Ritz," according to one recent post. The site's bloggers, who simply refer to themselves as "a group of media activists from around the world"--and who didn't return my e-mails seeking comment--also aren't above sliming AJI staffers as "Israel-apologists." Al Jazeera staffers may not be as caustic, but their skepticism of AJI is no less intense. "There is a widespread feeling that they are going to be Al Jazeera only in name, judging by the attitudes of some of its anchors and officials," explains one prominent Al Jazeera journalist. "Sadly, some of them give you the impression that they want to disown Al Jazeera." The dismay among Al Jazeera's Arab staff is so great that, last month, the company's chairman, Sheik Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, tapped Khanfar to "improve integration" between the networks. (Neither Khanfar, Parsons, nor other top AJI brass granted me an interview.)

Arabs aren't the only ones who want AJI to reflect Al Jazeera. In a recently published book titled Voices of the New Arab Public, Williams College Professor Marc Lynch argues that Al Jazeera has constructively shattered the prevailing Arab political consensus, with its freewheeling and often inflammatory guests presenting viewers every day with televised examples of how democratization can mean both deliverance and demagoguery. He traveled to Doha for the February forum and pleaded his case to Parsons directly that the world needed to see and hear the same debate that Al Jazeera frames for the Arab world. "I told Nigel, look, you can't run away from the controversy. You're Al Jazeera--controversy finds you. It doesn't matter how many times you hire people like David Frost," Lynch says.

Lynch would prefer something closer to a direct translation of Al Jazeera's Arabic content into English: "That would be great. It would infuriate a lot of people." After the initial shock of watching an intense septuagenarian preacher like Qaradawi deliver strict religious instructions for day-to-day living, however, Lynch anticipates a far more important secondary shock: one over "how similar the debates are to the arguments here: What does democracy mean? What is Al Qaeda?" In February, for example, a Syrian-born Californian named Wafa Sultan contended on Al Jazeera to an outraged cleric that Islam was a backward religion. A clip of the debate, subtitled in English, circulated around the Internet, attracting overwhelming praise from right-wing blogs--one wrote that Sultan "did the unthinkable: She appeared on Arab television and condemned Islam"--and resulted in a front-page New York Times profile. To Lynch, however, seeing people surprised that Al Jazeera would air an incendiary exchange between a secularist and an Islamist was nothing short of bizarre--that's what Al Jazeera does all the time. ("Just the other day, I had exactly the same kind of experience," Lynch quipped on his blog, Abu Aardvark. "I was watching TV, and I couldn't believe my eyes, and I said 'wow, did you just see LeBron James dunk? A dunk! In the NBA! Can you believe it?'")

Such misunderstandings show that, even as the United States adopts democratization of the Middle East as a core aspect of its strategy for the war on terrorism, the people allegedly being democratized remain an abstraction, or worse. That's why, says Lynch, "even a toned-down Al Jazeera would be useful. A lot of Americans respond to fantasies of what the Arab press is. … It's not just presenting the extremists. There's a whole world out there. Let them talk about the things that matter." That's what Marash and Levine have attempted for their entire careers, and it's why they went to AJI. Too bad they risk being viewed as cultural bloodsuckers by the Arab world, terrorist sympathizers by the American right, and a potential albatross by the American left. Marash may have escaped the sensationalism of local TV news, but he may be about to experience something much more professionally painful.

This article originally ran in the May 1, 2006, issue of the magazine.