NEW YORK – While not as heavily debated as it was during the invasion of Iraq, the name Al Jazeera still carries plenty of unsavory associations in the United States. The international news network, coming soon to America, aims to change all that.
Arab-language Al Jazeera claims to be an objective and balanced voice from the Middle East, but is often viewed in the United States as the conduit du jour for terrorists who want to spread their message or issue threats. Most communiqués from Al Qaeda's fugitive leaders, principal among them Usama bin Laden, are usually received by Al Jazeera first.
"We don't control the release of the Usama bin Laden tapes. Al Jazeera does, or seems to," Vice President Dick Cheney said last January. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused the network of lying and getting "advance notice" of attacks from terrorists.
Videotapes showing hostages at the mercy of masked terrorists are often given to Al Jazeera first. While the network has never shown a hostage being beheaded or killed, the frequency with which Al Jazeera exclusively receives the tapes has led to the popular misperception that on-air beheadings are commonplace.
That background may explain why the network's English-language offshoot, Al Jazeera International, is having trouble taking off.
The network, which has pushed back its launch date several times this year, now says it expects to enter 40 million homes worldwide by September at the earliest. AJI has already signed with satellite distributor BSkyB, which is partly owned by FOXNews.com's parent company, News Corporation.
AJI estimates that about 1 million American homes will receive the channel — provided it is able to ink a U.S. cable or satellite TV carriage deal. While communications director Lindsay Oliver insists the network "will be available to subscribers at launch," no agreements have been announced, which is unusual so close to a scheduled debut.
"On the one hand, everyone is frustrated. We would like to have been getting on the air in May as originally planned. We would like to be getting ready to rehearse in studio, but that's not happening," said Dave Marash, Al Jazeera International's Washington anchor.
Whether the slow-going negotiations are due to pocketbooks or corporate politics or some combination of both is difficult to say. AJI is not part of a major media conglomerate, and will be funded largely by its wealthy benefactor, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, at least initially.
"Any network and particularly any independent network is going to have a lot of difficulty getting carriage. If they were owned by News Corporation, that would be a different matter," said Bruce Leichtman of industry research firm Leichtman Research Group.
"If you wanted to create a new news channel, you'd be crazy to think you could do it by cable or satellite TV. That game is over. The future of news is broadband," Leichtman said.
While independent, Al Jazeera is a monster of a brand outside the United States. The network shocked the advertising industry last year when, in a poll conducted by the online magazine Brandchannel, Al Jazeera came out the No. 5 "brand with the most global impact," behind Apple, Google, Starbucks and Ikea.
But in the United States, Al Jazeera is still most closely associated with images of masked gunmen. Some AJI staffers admit to having had their own concerns before joining the fledgling network.
"I can tell you one thing we won't be using is the term 'martyr.' Because when I was hired, that was the question I had," AJI producer Kristin Saloomey said, referring to terrorists' use of the word to describe suicide bombers.
AJI promises to be the first truly global 24-hour news network. Its headquarters will be in Doha, Qatar, where its Arabic-language sister network is based, and it will have three other broadcast centers in London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as well as bureaus in Venezuela and Argentina. Unlike other networks of an international bent, like the BBC and CNN International, each of its four independently operated broadcast centers will split up the air each day.
The network is anticipated not just for the heat surrounding its name but also for its impressive roster of talent. Nigel Parsons, formerly of the BBC and AP Television Network is now AJI's managing director; David Frost, a veteran BBC journalist, will be a correspondent; Marash joined AJI after leaving ABC's "Nightline"; and Mark Seddon, former editor of the U.K.'s Tribune magazine, is a United Nations correspondent.
Josh Rushing, a former Marine spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Doha who liaised with Al Jazeera and other foreign media during the Iraq war, has also signed on as a correspondent. Rushing quit the Marines following controversy arising from his star turn in 2004's "Control Room," a well-received documentary about Al Jazeera.
"Al Jazeera Arabic, I have said in the past, has been biased [against] Americans," Rushing said on FOX News last October. "I think they're a maturing network. Editorial decisions they were making three years ago they're not making today."
But, Rushing added, "We should be very clear: I'm not joining the Arabic-language Al Jazeera. I'm joining the English-language Al Jazeera."
Rushing's new colleagues have also made that point, with one comparing the two networks' relationship to that of "The Simpsons" and "The O'Reilly Factor," both children of News Corp. on separate networks. But critics say trying to draw a distinction between the two channels is more akin to claiming Hamas the Palestinian political party and Hamas the terrorist group are separate entities.
Accuracy in Media, the conservative media watchdog, lists on its Web site StopAlJazeera.org evidence that it says proves the network is in bed with terrorists. Among the charges: Al Jazeera has had on its payroll a cameraman who has been detained at Guantanamo Naval Base since 2002 and a reporter who was sentenced to seven years in a Spanish prison for providing support to Al Qaeda. The reporter insists he is innocent; Al Jazeera has stood by both men.
"Plus, we have documentary evidence that the first managing director of Al Jazeera was either getting paid by the Saddam Hussein regime, but was certainly under orders from Saddam Hussein and his son," said Cliff Kincaid, editor for Accuracy in Media.
On the other hand, Al Jazeera has seen its bureaus shuttered or broadcasts banned across the Arab world. For instance, the Sudanese government closed down Al Jazeera's Khartoum bureau over the network's coverage of the Darfur crisis, and Bahrain won't allow the network to open an office there because of what it calls its "suspicious" — in other words, biased — coverage of Israel.
"We believe [Al Jazeera] is suspect and represents the Zionist side in the region," former Bahraini Information Minister Nabil al-Hamr was quoted as saying. "We will not deal with this channel because we object to its coverage of current affairs. It is a channel penetrated by Zionists."
Focus on America, Focus America on the World
"As far as format is concerned, the highlights are going to be fewer stories done at more depth and length," Marash said. "The principal story selection is going to be international stories, stories whose impact or empathetic connection go beyond national borders, or just darn good stories."
Surveys of journalists regularly show that a common complaint among them is lack of time or resources to cover stories more deeply and with context. Journalists also bemoan the dearth of international news in the United States, a product of tighter budgets that force news organizations to pare back on foreign bureaus.
"'Nightline' was unique in that it existed on a higher plane of intellectual ambitions and reporting depths than anything else in America and [on] English-language television. We think among the news channels there is a similar void at the top," Marash said. "Nightline" regularly comes in third in its time slot against network competitors "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show With David Letterman."
Critics of U.S. cable news often complain that the networks devote too much coverage to prurient crimes and celebrities' bizarre behavior. Journalists as disparate as PBS' Gwen Ifill and conservative commentator Michelle Malkin have similarly decried "missing white woman" or "missing pretty girl" syndrome. AJI contends that a market exists for more news that is less sensational.
"People in the media say people aren't really interested in the news or in stories from the developing world or what have you, [but] I don't believe that," Seddon said. "I think when Al Jazeera International comes to America, people will switch it on because they've heard of it, and they'll be pleasantly surprised."
It's a safe bet that AJI is particularly keen on conquering the U.S. market, which would be a coup for Al Jazeera and Qatar's al-Thani, one of the region's most democratically minded rulers and a staunch ally of Washington, D.C. While cognizant of the risk to their reputations, AJI's reporters are confident Americans can be won over.
"We think that the audience for top-notch product is commercially viable," Marash said. "It may take us a while to prove it ... my guess is the Washington bureau will be their loss leader for a while.
"Instead of coming at you with one point of view, whether that point of view is personal and national-centered or more stand-off and objective, we're going to give you every day at least four different points of view. We will package events and prioritize them from a regional perspective," he added.
AJI is likely to share in Al Jazeera's runaway popularity outside the United States. The network counts 40 million viewers in the Middle East and elsewhere, and about 300,000 viewers in the United States via Dish Network, the only U.S. carrier that offers it.
On top of that, most major foreign news networks have one or two American bureaus, from which a handful of stories are produced. AJI plans to beam out hours of coverage from the United States into other countries, including into the Arab world, with the imprimatur of a trusted news source.
Seddon, who until last year was an elected member of the National Executive Committee of Britain's Labor Party, said he believes the United States stands to benefit from AJI's coverage.
"I'm struck by the fact that there's a lot of negative reporting, in Europe, for instance, about America. A lot of it focuses on the administration or some sort of hackneyed views of Americans that a lot of Europeans have. But we've been out and about doing stories here, which I think will provide people with a very different idea of America in the rest of the world, so they don't get the impression that everything that happens here is bad. I think there's a real want for that," he said.
While anti-Americanism has been on the rise since the Iraq war, many people in other countries are hungry for knowledge about the United States, said Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize winner who specializes in international media at the Michigan State University School of Journalism.
"They have stereotypes about Americans but they know a whole lot more about us than we know about, say, Canada or England," Freedman said. "Even people who don't like the United States or distrust this country ... most of them think there are things here they would love to share."
Cari Eggspuehler, a former special assistant in the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, is at the forefront of a new business movement to revamp "Brand America."
"When it comes to the way America perceives the world, we've seen especially in the last few years a retreat from the world," Eggspuehler said. She is now executive director of Business for Diplomatic Action, a brain trust of business, politics and media professionals collaborating with the likes of Pepsi, McDonald's and Exxon to turn back the tide of global anti-Americanism.
"Part of the problem is the attitude that we don’t need the rest of the world. We can't afford to do that economically, but a lot of that is not really well known," Eggspuehler said. "If you ask most Americans, they'll say it doesn’t matter what Germans think about us. But they are our third largest trading partner. They own many American brands and companies."
The Bush administration has also begun to acknowledge that Brand America is in trouble, especially in the Arabic-speaking world. Longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes was brought out of hiatus last year to run the State Department's Arab world PR operation, and the State Department reportedly has assigned an official to confer with the network every day. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are among the U.S. officials who have appeared on Al Jazeera.
U.S. officials would be smart to engage AJI when it finally does launch, say those concerned with America's image abroad.
"By ignoring the rest of the world, it does create ill will," Freedman said. "There are a whole lot more places with a whole lot more people who aren't in the United States than who are. Economically, diplomatically, politically and culturally, we need many of those people."