The Most Trusted Name in News?

Al Jazeera English comes to North America with a reputation—for excellent journalism

Al Jazeera

image by Carlos Cazalis / Corbis

Content Tools

To find out where to watch Al Jazeera English, visit  Utne.com/AlJazeera .

Over the past decade, the tiny desert emirate of Qatar—a bump on the rib cage of Saudi Arabia, directly across the Persian Gulf from Iran—has asserted itself on the world stage in large measure by pouring money into, of all things, journalism. Since 1996 it has been funding Al Jazeera (Arabic for “the island”), the television network that revolutionized the Arab media and is poised to do the same for the English-speaking world with Al Jazeera English, the international news channel the network launched in November 2006.

In less than four years, Al Jazeera English (AJE) has emerged as the dominant news channel covering the developing world. As the first worldwide news station to be based in the “global South,” it has an audacious mandate: to reverse the information flow that has traditionally moved from the wealthy countries of the North to the poorer countries south of the equator, and to be the “voice of the voiceless,” delivering in-depth journalism from underreported regions around the world.

With nearly 70 bureaus run by staff drawn from some 50 nations, AJE on a typical news day might report on a nomadic camel-herding tribe whose members are key rebel leaders in Darfur, a lawsuit against Chiquita alleging financing of paramilitary death squads in Colombia, the effects of the global financial crisis on Pakistani carpet weavers, and the plight of political prisoners in China. AJE broadcasts to 150 million households in more than 100 countries—with the exception, until now, of North America.

That’s where Tony Burman, the managing director of this ambitious operation, comes in. The Canadian journalist, who has the sort of face that can appear to be scowling when in fact he is deep in thought, has a lifelong passion for foreign correspondence. Hired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in the early ’70s, he eventually served as its European bureau chief, covering South America and Africa before moving into management. As head of television news, he was the kind of leader journalists were grateful to have on their side. Burman, though, became “less and less happy” with CBC’s Americanized direction and resigned in 2007. 

“When Tony left, people thought, ‘There goes the last great journalist in management,’” says Beth Haddon, an old friend and colleague of Burman’s who worked with him at CBC in the ’80s. “Tony really stood for something,” she says. “For quality journalism—that’s old-fashioned, of course—of fairness, balance, verification, public discourse.”

At CBC, Burman had a reputation for defending his journalists when their reporting raised hackles. And he didn’t mind taking controversial positions if the facts backed them up. Those qualities stand him in good stead running not only AJE’s global news coverage, but also its campaign to break into Canada and the United States, where cable and satellite carriers have been loath to associate themselves with a network that much of North America still considers Terror TV. The task of demolishing the misconceptions attached to the Al Jazeera brand is daunting. As Haddon warned Burman when he first floated the idea of leaving Toronto for Doha, the job sounded good, “but you’ll never have lunch in this town again.” Yet his move could hardly have been better timed, coming at a moment when the Western media are in a state of unparalleled crisis, undergoing the first seismic challenge to their dominance since the advent of television.

Faced with the simultaneous defection of their ad revenue and their audiences to the Internet, even towering news titans such as the Boston Globe and the New York Times are struggling, while others are perishing outright.

Foreign bureaus have been among the hardest hit by cost-cutting measures in print and television media alike. According to the Pew Research Center’s annual “State of the News Media” report, coverage of international events by American media fell by about 40 percent in 2008. Thus has a bizarre situation arisen: At the most interconnected time in history, accurate and comprehensive news of the outside world is disappearing—and with it an informed public.

 “The mainstream American networks have cut their bureaus to the bone,” Burman says at AJE’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar’s capital city. “They’re basically only in London now. Even CNN has pulled back. I remember in the ’80s when I covered events, there would be a truckload of American journalists and crews and editors, and now Al Jazeera outnumbers them all.” Moving into the vacuum left by other channels, AJE plans to open 10 new bureaus in the coming year.

Burman recently marked a victory: Al Jazeera English has finally broken into the United States. A nonprofit educational broadcaster has agreed to carry it in Washington, D.C., and 20 other American cities. The breakthrough is a watershed after years of confinement for AJE to two small areas in the United States (besides the State Department and the Pentagon), as well as online sources including AlJazeera.net/English, Livestation
.com, and YouTube. Burman’s main thrust, however, has been Canada, which he considers a critical beachhead. If AJE can get permission to broadcast there, he expects to have a far easier time with the commercial American cable carriers that have thus far shied away.

“My hope is that once people see that the sun still shines, kids still go to school, people still laugh at good jokes, and the republic holds,” he says, “they will give it a shot.”

 

Al Jazeera built its name on opposing the status quo. The first 24-hour news channel in the Arab world, it was launched by the emir of Qatar in 1996, a year after he overthrew his father while the old man was on holiday in Switzerland. The coup, which ushered in an era of liberalization in the emirate, was nothing compared with the revolution the channel would create.

The birth of Al Jazeera marked the first time in modern history that a plurality of viewpoints were included in the Arab public discourse—and there was something to outrage just about everyone. With a mandate to broadcast “the opinion and the other opinion” through a mix of news and audience-participation talk shows, the channel gave Israeli and American commentators a voice, along with religious skeptics, Islamic fundamentalists, women’s advocates, and political dissidents. The result was accusations from all quarters—that it was an instrument of the Mossad, the CIA, or, of course, al-Qaeda. As political science professor Marc Lynch, author of Voices of the New Arab Public, has said, the channel provided “a relentless criticism of the status quo, of political repression, of economic stagnation.” It pried the stranglehold on information from the hands of state leaders and allowed formerly heretical views to enter the living rooms and coffee shops of the Arab public, forcing their politicians to, as Lynch puts it, “at least think about what will play well on Al Jazeera.”

By contrast with AJE’s bright new premises, the Arabic channel’s headquarters are spare—nothing more than a series of high-end trailers with stained industrial carpeting and the scent of coffee laced with cardamom floating through the hallways. On this particular afternoon, Wadah Khanfar, the 40-year-old director general of the network, has been contending with two new sources of outrage: Egypt, which is claiming that the “state of Al Jazeera” is plotting to overthrow its government, and Sudan, where an adviser to the president wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes has stated that Al Jazeera is too “stupid” to understand the concept of national interest.

For Khanfar, an imposing figure who clearly relishes the role of the muckraker, it’s just another ordinary day. Seated in his office next to the newsroom, where a beautiful woman with blown-out hair and TV makeup is preparing to anchor a segment, he complains about the authoritarianism of Arab states. “You know what is the national interest for every leader in the Arab world?” he asks. “To protect his seat.” He pounds the leather armrest on his chair for effect. “Can you believe that most of them, when they die, their children take over?”

Like in Qatar? “Everywhere. I don’t think of Qatar as a haven for freedom and democracy, but it has done this: It allowed Al Jazeera to exist while every other Arab government either closed down bureaus or arrested journalists or put them in jail. And for this the Arab world, I must tell you, is experiencing something different.”

Having begun his career as an Africa correspondent, Khanfar went on to report for Al Jazeera from the Kurdish region of Iraq in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion. He presented, he says, the facts: that the Kurds hated Saddam Hussein and wanted him gone, for example. Khanfar’s broadcasts so enraged Iraq’s minister of information that he marched into Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau with his Kalashnikov and a security detail and promised that Khanfar would be hanged in the city’s main square. Within days, however, the government had fallen. Khanfar became Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau chief and in October 2003 was named director general.

 

If the channel has made enemies among Arab states—it’s the subject of an Arab advertising boycott, is banned in Iraq, Tunisia, and Algeria, and was prohibited in Saudi Arabia until last summer—it has found a weightier opponent in a former friend, the United States. Prior to 9/11, Al Jazeera was greeted by U.S. officials as good news for Arab democracy. All that changed in October 2001, when it aired the first videotaped message from Osama bin Laden after the attacks on New York and Washington, and then began reporting on civilian casualties during the American invasion of Afghanistan. That year, the United States bombed Al Jazeera’s Kabul bureau, an event echoed two years later when it bombed the one in Baghdad, killing a correspondent.

On Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, meanwhile, Sami al-Hajj, a cameraman for the station, was captured in what he believes was a case of mistaken identity; he spent six years in Guantánamo before being released in 2008. The 40-year-old Sudanese national, who now walks like an old man, told me he was interrogated more than 300 times—almost exclusively about Al Jazeera, on which he was asked to spy.

America’s obsession with Al Jazeera has inadvertently handed the network star power. Last year, surfer-haired Virgin CEO Richard Branson and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez both dropped by to visit. Such establishment figures as Shimon Peres, Madeleine Albright, and General David Petraeus have also made the pilgrimage. Even Tony Blair, former British prime minister, came by for a private meeting.

AJE was created in response to mounting international demand for an English version of Al Jazeera’s contentious brand of reporting. The network formed an entirely new entity, which would share some footage with the Arabic channel yet have a separate staff, management, and editorial mandate.

“We wanted it to be an authentic English channel that broadcasts from within the mainstream but carries the ideas Al Jazeera has established,” Khanfar says. The ideas he’s referring to are editorial independence, an emphasis on field reporting, and a diverse staff of employees who reside in the regions they cover, “so they understand and interpret and forecast much better than those who come overnight equipped with intensive reading from Wikipedia.”

He continues: “We are at the center of a lot of troubles—Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine, Sudan—a curse for us as individuals but a blessing for us as journalists. The developing world is generating a huge number of stories, and a TV station headquartered in one of the most complicated and news-producing regions is a great opportunity for audiences all over the world to see a different angle.” AJE is already the most watched international channel in sub-Saharan Africa, and Khanfar argues that the wealthy countries of the North, too, will benefit from an inside view of such developing-world issues as terrorism, immigration, oil, and energy: “If they are not explored properly from within the South, the North is going to suffer as well,” he says.

AJE has poured resources into Africa, Asia, and Latin America, building on the Arabic channel’s access in the Middle East. This at a time when other networks, driven by commercial agendas, are scaling back, which Khanfar considers a “disaster” for the profession. “A journalist who used to go for a month to do something investigative will find it shortened to a few days, if it’s commissioned at all,” he says.

Given that his network is funded by the emir of the richest nation in the Middle East and is therefore free from commercial pressures, he knows he has an advantage in steering AJE through the current financial crisis and declares that “we would like to appear, later on, as the player when it comes to English news internationally.”

 

The Gaza war of 2008–09 was to Al Jazeera English what the first Gulf War was to a little-known satellite network called CNN. As the only international broadcaster based inside Gaza during the three-week Israeli onslaught in which some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed, AJE had the story everyone wanted but couldn’t get, since Israel had banned journalists from entering the war zone. AJE, unlike other international news agencies, had a permanent presence on both sides (Jerusalem is its largest foreign bureau), which meant it was already there when the war started. Then it made the prescient, groundbreaking decision to give away its content to other networks for free, under the most lenient of Creative Commons licenses.

The station’s coverage swept the globe, garnering accolades from international media, including the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, and even Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.

“Al Jazeera,” investigative journalist Seymour Hersh said at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai in May, “has broken the West’s monopoly on how the world views conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. Its coverage of Gaza was nothing short of remarkable. While most American people are still denied the right to view Al Jazeera, many networks were forced to carry its reports and images simply because they were so insightful.”

Gaza also provided an argument for AJE’s campaign to enter North America. Views of video reports on the English website, launched in 2003, jumped 600 percent, with 60 percent of them coming from the United States. Monthly visits to the site, meanwhile, rose to 22 million. That’s proof, Burman says, of the appetite for the channel’s reportage.

Burman’s first year on the job has been a scramble to revive morale, which had stagnated under his predecessor, a former BBC executive who was part of a management team that staff privately dubbed the British Boys Network. A high-profile American hire, former ABC correspondent David Marash, had quit after being removed as the channel’s Washington anchor, and publicly criticized its British executives for relying on lazy anti-American stereotypes in coverage of issues like poverty in the United States.

“Al Jazeera English is an absolutely first-rate news channel, and if you’re interested in the world south of the equator it is absolutely dominant,” Marash told me. “What’s so heartbreaking to me is that [coverage of] the United States would be its weakest link.”

Marash’s analysis “has merit,” Burman acknowledges. Better coverage of the United States is a priority as the channel begins airing there—a prelude to what he believes is a turning point in the channel’s relations with the West.

The limited entry of AJE into the United States, and Canada’s likely approval of the station, coincide with a cultural shift symbolized by President Barack Obama’s decision to give his first presidential interview to the Arab network Al Arabiya last January, followed by his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June. Since then, attitudes in Washington have changed so dramatically that government officials who used to regard being asked to appear on Al Jazeera English as comparable to an invitation to an al-Qaeda training seminar are suddenly courting the network.

This shift, combined with the fact that Western media have essentially abandoned foreign correspondence, leaves AJE well situated to assume the sort of dominance it has already achieved in other parts of the world.

It may be—with a planned Canadian bureau and expanded coverage of the United States, including a new U.S.-focused current affairs show hosted by Avi Lewis—that North Americans underserved by domestic journalism will start looking to Qatar not only for news of the outside world, but also to understand what is happening at home.

 

It’s World Press Freedom Day 2009, an annual event organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and held this year in Doha. In the crowded hallway outside the Intercontinental Hotel conference room, a hundred or so journalists and media freedom types mill about, exchanging business cards.

Tolerance is the theme of this year’s event—aptly illustrated by the bikini-clad women at the pool next to others in head scarves and full bodysuits. Even the surprise appearance of Flemming Rose, the editor who published the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, yields only mild indignation. And while conference organizers have a great deal to say about the “information explosion,” the rise of new media, and the need for everyone to just get along, the drastic decline in the amount of actual journalism being done is barely addressed.

It’s a subject of some obsession for one of the participants, Andrew Stroehlein, communications director of the International Crisis Group, a global nonprofit that advises governments and intergovernmental agencies such as the U.N., the European Union, and the World Bank on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict. Stroehlein churns out op-eds from his office in Brussels in an attempt to draw attention to forgotten wars. He worries that the plummeting budgets for foreign coverage mean more and more conflicts will fall into that category.

“People think there’s an information explosion,” he says while the rest of the participants feast on pastries during a break, “but what’s not being replaced is newsgathering by professionals.” And what of the assumption that everyone with access to the Internet or a camera phone will fill the gap? “Citizen journalism,” he says, “is like citizen dentistry.” Without trained journalists expending the time and resources to find out what is going on, the risk is not only of becoming cut off from reality and developing skewed perceptions. The greater concern is what an information vacuum permits. “You get away with things like [the war in] Iraq because people don’t know what’s going on. That’s why these things happen.”

In an op-ed titled “Welcome to a World Without Foreign Correspondents,” Stroehlein lamented the dearth of coverage of Somalia and Sri Lanka, adding, “Too bad Al Jazeera English is not available on most living-room screens in the United States, and people there have to choke down the endless rotting fish heads of celebrity news, or the same tiresome group of ignoramuses shouting at each other in a studio.”

A big fan of AJE, which is widely watched in Europe, Stroehlein says,  “I think Al Jazeera English is the best international television news in the world, with the caveat that BBC World News is probably equally good. We as an organization take it very seriously.”

At a time when the media have come to be regarded as actors in international conflicts rather than impartial observers—embedded coverage of the Iraq war being a case in point—a Knight Foundation–funded study of Al Jazeera English found that the channel functions as a form of “conciliatory media.”

In other words, it works as a “clash of civilizations” in reverse, facilitating cross-cultural reconciliation rather than pitting us versus them. The longer viewers had been watching AJE, the study concluded, the less dogmatic was their thinking.

Comparing it with the American television networks “is like comparing The Economist to Newsweek,” Philip Seib, author of The Al Jazeera Effect, says. “It’s so much more sophisticated and broad in terms of coverage.”

A professor at the University of Southern California at Annenberg who studies the links between media, war, and terrorism, Seib says AJE has “expanded the realm of discourse” and could be invaluable in breaking down American insularity. “I think you’ll find those who criticize it have never seen it,” he says.

Stroehlein, meanwhile, thinks AJE has caused its only real competitor, BBC World, to up its game. “One reason I’m desperate to see Al Jazeera English enter the American news market is that it’s going to challenge the other news providers,” he says.

Or maybe it won’t. Solid international reporting is important, but it’s hardly profitable; and serious reporting, Stroehlein acknowledges, is all about the dateline. That means foreign bureaus based in the countries they cover. It means long-term commitments to a region. In other words, it means something commercial broadcasters aren’t willing to provide: money.

Journalism has a responsibility to society, says Stroehlein, arguing that news reporting is not just another business: “How many businesses are there where if someone screws up just a little bit, you have mass violence?”

The same potential exists when no one is there to bear witness at all—potential not only for mass violence but also for corruption, nepotism, and an uninformed public incapable of holding anyone to account. Which is why the current crisis in journalism is so dire, and why all efforts to reverse that trend should be welcomed, even if they come from the most hated name in news.

Tony Burman—who can, it turns out, still have lunch in Toronto, despite occasional ribbing about “shilling for al--Qaeda,” and who expects that you’ll be watching Al Jazeera English soon—says that controversy is the price of admission for hard-hitting journalism. Al Jazeera, he believes, “will be controversial every day it exists. That’s not only the nature of the organization; that’s almost the purpose of the organization: to keep stirring the pot so that change happens.”

 

Excerpted from The Walrus (Oct. 2009), the Canadian magazine that carries the torch of quality journalism north of the U.S. border.
www.walrusmagazine.com