Al Jazeera Coming Attractions

, Brittany Fortier and Anthony Kang, Leave a comment

Al Jazeera English is preparing for its July 2010 major-market American debut. The channel has previously experienced static in trying to penetrate the North American market, but plans are currently under way to prime this new audience. Recently, Washington D.C. correspondent Shahnaz Pakravan stated that October 7th, 2001 was the beginning of an “unfortunate era” of Al Jazeera when they were the first network to broadcast Osama bin Laden’s initial message after the 9/11 attacks.

Most Americans are not familiar with Al Jazeera’s brand of news coverage, with the possible exception of its reporting on the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. This coverage fueled the network’s reputation as being biased, with many critics alleging that Al Jazeera promotes propaganda instead of factual information.

The Arabic international news network has had a tremendous amount of success and presence on the global scale for decades now. Al Jazeera is a conglomerate funded by the state of Qatar with 69 international bureaus currently in operation, a number larger than CNN and the BBC.

Former CBC managing director Tony Burman has assumed the same role working for Al Jazeera English since mid 2008. Burman responded to criticisms of Al Jazeera during a panel held at the Washington D.C. Newseum on June 25, 2009.

The panel, which will be featured on an Al Jazeera special called “Changing Channels,” discussed how Al Jazeera English will differ from the mainstream news media that currently dominates the North American region. The special will also feature highlights of Al Jazeera’s recent international news coverage. “We’re coming to America,” says Josh Rushing, an international correspondent for Al Jazeera English.

When faced with the question of how the network plans to deal with the proverbial “600-lb gorilla in the room” and overcome Americans’ preconceived notions and stereotypes about Al Jazeera, Burman stated he was “not concerned” with the issue. He believes that once viewers experience Al Jazeera, the network’s content will “speak for itself.”

Burman also expects Al Jazeera to gain a following in America through word-of-mouth and that a “bandwagon-effect” will mitigate all other potential roadblocks that may prevent Al Jazeera English from establishing a foothold in the North American market.

Although no technological specifics were given, Burman also assured the audience a “new and unparalleled” interactive component will separate Al Jazeera English from other news networks which will also help attract and sustain a large American following.

Another aspect Burman believes will give Al Jazeera English a distinct advantage and staying power is what he sees as Al Jazeera’s reporting commitment to the “human side” of stories. He said that a focus on the “cultural similarities” of humanity has always been an inherent part of the network, as opposed to the “insular and ethnocentric themes” of North American news agencies.

Dalal Azar, a board member of Al Jazeera, pointed out that Al Jazeera has been a respected and award-winning news agency for years. Viewership of Al Jazeera in the Arabic world alone challenges the BBC for worldwide viewership, but as evidence to its legitimacy Azar touched upon its popularity in countries such as Israel, Great Britain, and Russia.

Azar said that Al Jazeera reporters abide by the “international norms of journalism,” and added that Al Jazeera English will not have any particular emphasis on the Middle East region. Al Jazeera’s major-market debut will begin in the Washington, D.C. region, as it will first be widely available to Comcast subscribers, and in all other regions Al Jazeera English is available only by demand.

Sir David Frost of Frost/Nixon fame was also part of the panel discussion at the Newseum. As the host of Al Jazeera’s Frost Over The World program, Frost is convinced that rumors and criticisms of the network will “gently dissipate” as more Americans are able to view the programming Al Jazeera offers.

He referred to Al Jazeera as a “listening network” that is “truly international.”

Pertaining to the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian conflict and recent turmoil in Iran, Azar alluded to several natural advantages Al Jazeera has over other international media. He said that Al Jazeera does not “parachute” into hot spots, thereby enabling the network to obtain access to places where other media are prohibited.

It remains to be seen whether Al Jazeera can look forward to a new era that includes a following in the United States. What is certain is that Al Jazeera’s provocative reports will remain controversial.

Brittany Fortier and Anthony Kang are interns at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.