Arab News Channel Faces a Tough Sell In American Debut

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Mar 26 13:34:51 UTC 2006

>>From Published Saturday, March 25, 2006
Arab News Channel Faces a Tough Sell In American Debut

Al-Jazeera is ready for America, but is America ready for Al-Jazeera? The
Al-Jazeera Channel, the controversial Arab-language network that has
emerged as the principal television news source in the Arab world, is
going global with an international English-language spin-off designed for
European and American audiences. Al-Jazeera International has signed such
mainstream talent as British interviewer David Frost, former "Nightline"
correspondent Dave Marash, and ex-CNN anchor Riz Khan. The new network,
which pledges accurate, impartial and objective reporting, mostly from an
Arab perspective, plans to launch worldwide out of Qatar in late May.

Al-Jazeera will share video with AJI, but they will have separate
programming and staff. They also have separate missions. Al-Jazeera is an
outspokenly Arab enterprise, produced for Arabs, by Arabs. AJI structures
itself more globally, as an alternative to CNN, the BBC and others. Still,
the arrival of AJI may not inspire celebration throughout the land, and
here's why: AlJazeera is perceived by many Westerners as a mouthpiece for
Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. "Some Americans will be curious, but I
suspect most will be wary," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of Washington's
Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Some will be infuriated."

Al-Jazeera "clearly has a point of view, but so does Fox," says Kelly
McBride, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media
Studies, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg. "There's a market for
that in the world, and in the United States, it's probably a growing
market." AJI expects to reach more than 40 million homes at its debut
-including 1 million in the United States -- but the network's presence
here is far from assured. As of Thursday, it did not have signed contracts
with any U.S. cable operator, satellite provider or broadband service,
according to AJI spokeswoman Rana Jazayerli. Comcast has had only "very
preliminary" discussions, says network spokesman Jeff Alexander.

At this point, even AJI doesn't know what its delivery system will be.
Regardless, it will be a tough sell in the United States, media experts
predict. For starters, AJI must find shelf space on cable's
already-bursting spectrum. Moreover, AJI has a serious image problem. The
majority of Americans won't differentiate between 10year-old Al-Jazeera
and its English-language progeny, says Alex Jones, director of Harvard's
Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "Al-Jazeera
has a strong image as the voice of the Arab world, and it's been an
extremely angry voice toward Americans."

"No matter how much they say they have no connection, they're both
carrying the brand," says Abdallah Schliefer, Washington bureau chief for
Arab-language Al Arabiya, an Al-Jazeera competitor based in Dubai.
Al-Jazeera (Arabic for "island" or "peninsula") and AJI are both based in
Doha, capital of Qatar. Both are owned by the emir of Qatar. Both share
the same board of directors. Despite repeated requests, no one from AJI
senior management was made available for interviews for this story.

AJI will have broadcast centers in Doha; Washington; London; and Kuala
Lumpur, Malaysia. Marash and Khan will work out of Washington -- Marash as
weekday anchor and Khan as host of an interactive show. Frost, arguably
AJI's best-known hire, will be a presenter out of London. There will be a
documentary series hosted by former BBC standout Rageh Omaar from London;
and, in a rarity from the Middle East, a show on women's issues from Doha.
The daily schedule will incorporate 11 hours from Doha, five each from
London and Washington, and three from Kuala Lumpur. Washington segments
will run from 1 to 2 p.m. and from 4 to 8 p.m. Eastern time.

Marash, a 16-year "Nightline" veteran who is Jewish, joined AJI in January
after being squeezed out in ABC's restructuring of "Nightline." Marash
says he expected a backlash when he was hired. When it comes to the Arab
world, Americans display an "anxiety and suspicion that sometimes rises to
the hysterical level." Note: Marash was talking on a speakerphone in
Washington, with AJI publicist Jazayerli in the room. Network policy, she
said. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other White House officials
"have said several very untrue and nasty things about the network," Marash

Among them, he says: That AlJazeera broadcasts beheadings of hostages and
is a conduit for bin Laden and al-Qaida terrorists. Marash says Al-Jazeera
has never shown a beheading, and hostage videos are run without sound. Its
broadcast standards are similar to those of ABC, NBC and CBS, he says, and
its coverage of al-Qaida is frequently critical. "The implication is that
AlJazeera is in bed with the insurgents. The truth is, they cover the
insurgents, and they cover them journalistically." In addition to
carriage, advertising will be a tough sell for AJI here, says Brad Adgate,
senior vice president of Horizon Media, a New York media-buying firm.

"There's a perception of AlJazeera that may not lend itself to mainstream
advertisers. They may want to take a wait-and-see approach, to see if
there is any slant to the news and the selection of what's being covered."
Some say that Marash's religion may have been a factor in his employment.
Having a Jewish anchor on the payroll extolling the virtues of an Arab
network is a powerful public-relations tool. (AJI also made a pass at
"Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel, which he considered for "38 seconds" before
turning it down.) "Attracting highly regarded Jewish journalists suggests
that they've been very careful in selling their message," says Robert
Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in
Washington. "It means they're very sincere, or they sound very sincere."

Koppel, who left ABC in November, calls Marash "a superb reporter. I'm
sure that if he feels exploited . . . he'll leave as quickly as he signed
on." Critics label as anti-Semitic the network's use of such politically
charged phrases as "martyrs" and "jihadis" to describe Palestinian suicide
bombers, and "terrorists" to describe Israeli attackers. AJI is working on
a stylebook to address those issues, British managing director Nigel
Parsons has said. The network has another politically useful on-air talent
in exMarine Capt.  Josh Rushing.

Rushing, chief spokesman for the U.S. Central Command during the invasion
of Iraq in 2003, garnered attention with his featured role in 2004's "The
Control Room." The well-received documentary focused on Al-Jazeera and
other news organizations covering the invasion. "I witnessed during the
war how the U.S. media was co-opted by the U.S.  government's messaging,"
he is quoted as saying in the AJI release announcing his appointment in
September. "I am proud to be part of a news network that believes in the
power of the un-spun truth," he adds, sounding not unlike Fox News
Channel. Al-Jazeera senior producer Hassan Ibrahim, whose heated debates
with Rushing were captured in "Control Room," is also a presenter for AJI,
in Doha.

For AJI in the United States, it's not about the numbers, media observers
say. How many viewers will be less important than how many of the right
viewers. "They're looking for the 3 percent -- the decision-makers, the
opinion-makers, the power-brokers," says Jon Petrovich, head of the
broadcast program at Northwestern University's Medill School of
Journalism. "Being at war doesn't change the equation." Lichter, of the
Center for Media and Public Affairs, agrees: "If the right 50,000 people
see them, their message will get out. They want to reach out directly to
the power elites who don't speak Arabic.  Clearly, this is a bid for
Western legitimacy."

Marash says he was recruited about nine months ago by former "Nightline"
producer Rebecca Lipkin, based in London. He calls it "a brokered
marriage" that began "as the lights started to dim for me at `Nightline.'
As she started to tell me about the ambition and extent of this project, I
became intrigued." Will Americans follow suit? "If we succeed in our
mission," Marash says, "people will watch."

Gail Shister writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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