Riz Khan, former host of the CNN talk show Q&A, shocked his friends when he told them that he was taking a job with the fledgling Washington bureau of the Arabic news network, Al Jazeera.
Especially Colin Powell and George H. W. Bush.
“I think they were a bit surprised when they asked what I was doing next and I said, ‘I’m helping set up Al Jazeera International,’” he said. “I saw the expression on their faces, you know, were curious. I explained it was a fantastic opportunity to communicate with a part of the world we’ve lost touch with.”
He said he told them: “This is an opportunity to put senior U.S. officials in front of Arab viewers.” Then, he added, “Both of them seemed to have a much more positive attitude after that.”
Mr. Khan continued: “The administration seems to have turned around and realized that, actually, the prospect of an English-language channel broadcast internationally is an interesting one. People I meet from the State Department, from elsewhere, are far more keen to engage.”
Al Jazeera signifies many things to many American television viewers—most of them bad. It is “Osama Television” to the Bush administration, a Qatar-based broadcast network precariously endowed by the tiny nation’s benevolent dictator.
It shows indulgent montages of graphic violence and welcomes guests with strong anti-American and anti-Zionist politics. It counts Mr. bin Laden as one of its more reliable freelance personalities. Former star correspondent Tayseer Alouni was recently sentenced to seven years in prison by a court in Madrid for collaborating with Al Qaeda. And according to a British tabloid report last week, in April 2004, another friend of Mr. Powell and the elder Mr. Bush—the current President, George W. Bush—was just barely dissuaded from bombing the bejeezus out of Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha.
All of which would seem to make the planned March 2006 launch of an English-language version of Al Jazeera—not a translation of the Arabic original, but an entirely unique network staffed by native speakers and broadcast for a worldwide audience—a curious business decision.
Except for one thing: Western viewers may be leery of the brand name, but some of the Western world’s most accomplished broadcast journalists see the new network as a last, great hope.
“What makes Al Jazeera International different, and therefore that much more appealing to us, is that if you’re interested in doing international news, there aren’t that many choices,” said Mr. Khan. “There’s the BBC and CNN. But for those of us who want to do international news on a day-to-day basis, there’s just not that much out there.”
Among those attracted to the promise of foreign bureaus and nearly limitless resources is Dave Marash, a former Nightline correspondent and onetime anchor of WCBS New York, who is negotiating a job in the Washington bureau, according to sources close to the journalist. David Frost, the veteran BBC journalist and the first to interview Richard Nixon after Watergate, signed on earlier this summer. Former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel had a meeting with a representative from Al Jazeera International in Washington this fall, according sources close to Mr. Koppel. But nothing came of it.
Mr. Marash couldn’t be reached for comment; Mr. Koppel declined an interview request through his assistant; and Mr. Frost didn’t return several calls.
Rebecca Lipkin, a former London-based Nightline producer, joined Al Jazeera International earlier this year as the executive producer for programming out of the London bureau. She jumped not out of any frustration with broadcast news, she said, but because of the opportunity to work for a network that will allow her to produce long pieces about parts of the world that the broadcast and cable news networks don’t cover well—or don’t cover at all.
“If you told somebody at one of the networks that you want to put 20 minutes on the air about Central Asia, they would say you’re crazy,” she said. “I think this network would say, ‘Well, let’s think about this.’”
She was one of the first network veterans to accept a job with Al Jazeera, she said. “I think what initially gave me pause was that there were some friends—who I considered to be very progressive, interesting people—who were scared for me to take this job.”
It helped Ms. Lipkin with her former colleagues when Mr. Frost signed on, lending his considerable credentials to the infant network. Now, she said, “the resistance to it has changed. It’s not because of the recent news [about the President’s alleged plans to bomb Doha]. It’s probably because of the reality of the universe—the small universe—in which U.S. and foreign journalists are working. There’s just not much opportunity to have an empty palette to create programming about topics that you think are important.”]
In total, each of the main newsgathering bureaus will hire around 70 staffers, including correspondents, producers, cameramen and technical-support staff, according to Nigel Parsons, the managing director of Al Jazeera International. About 60 percent of the job offers for positions in the Washington bureau have already been extended, he said, and the network has received more than 1,000 applications for editorial positions.
Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau occupies the first seven floors of a bland-looking but well-appointed office building on K Street, directly opposite the American Legion. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, there were a handful of diverse, thirtysomething producers working in the second-story newsroom, which is fitted with a row of flat-paneled televisions broadcasting Al Jazeera in Arabic as well as CNN. Otherwise, the building was basically empty except for Josh Rushing, the former Marine from Texas who joined Al Jazeera and was featured in Control Room, a recent documentary about the network; Mr. Khan’s longtime executive producer, James Wright; and Kieran Baker, the American news editor and a former editor and producer for CNN.
Al Jazeera International’s studios and newsroom will be on the seventh floor—someday. For now, the entire floor is open and gutted, with bright green spray paint mapping out desks, offices and places for the cameras. Where there is concrete and loose wiring now, there will be two studios six months from now, in front of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over a day spa whose motto—“An Oasis in the City”—is painted into a giant mural directly in view. (They plan to cover the windows.)
From these studios, the Washington bureau will contribute four hours of broadcasting every day. London and Kuala Lumpur will also be in charge of four hours each, and the other 12 hours will come from Doha. The outlet anchoring the broadcast will move with the sun, with the London bureau anchoring as European audiences are waking up, Washington taking over when morning reaches America, and so on.
Each hour will begin with a reading of the international headlines. The network will feature call-in talk shows, such as Mr. Khan’s show, and documentaries submitted by independent producers through an online screening process. In this way—and probably in only this way—Al Jazeera has taken a page from Al Gore, whose new television network, Current, solicits short documentary-style pieces from citizen journalists the world over in hopes of luring a young, news-savvy audience.
“We’re trying to reach educated decision-makers and young people,” said Mr. Parsons. “We would love to have an audience that regards us as their first source of balanced and impartial news. Beyond that, we’ll always be an interesting alternative source.”
Jehane Noujaim, who made Control Room, said that even with its flaws, the Arab network is valuable to American viewers.
As an example of how Al Jazeera’s coverage differed in a valuable way from Western outlets, Ms. Noujaim remembered the first day she visited the network’s cafeteria, before the war began.
“There was a group of journalists talking about what would come afterwards,” she said, “about what divisions there would be, what would happen with the Sunnis and the Shiites. Meanwhile, we were talking about how many troops we were gonna send, what kind of machinery there would be, when it was gonna happen.”
As security problems increasingly limit the ability of Western journalists to cover the region, Al Jazeera International will only become more important to people like Ms. Noujaim, she said.
“Regardless of whether people agree with what’s being shown on the channel,” she said, “I think people need to understand what that part of the world is thinking right now.”
But before Al Jazeera International can be a primary or secondary or tertiary news source for American viewers, it needs to get on American televisions. Mr. Parsons said that he’s had trouble finding distributors in the United States and Australia, and though the network isn’t dependent on commercial dollars, it’s been tough getting advertisers to sign on as well.
Al Jazeera was founded in 1996 with a grant from the fabulously wealthy and press-savvy Emir of Qatar, who still contributes the majority of the network’s estimated $85 million yearly budget. It was the first even nominally free press in the Middle East and quickly found trouble with government officials. Daring, sensationalist and somewhere between vaguely and overtly Islamist in bent, Al Jazeera made enemies with the government of Saudi Arabia after a few initial critical reports. The Saudis have led an unofficial pan-Arab boycott of the network ever since.
Nevertheless, Al Jazeera is seen by 50 million viewers in the Arab world and 200,000 in the United States who receive it by satellite. It has had an eventful first decade: In 1998, Al Jazeera scooped American television news outlets by airing a live feed out of Iraq during Operation Desert Fox. Two years later, it stoked anti-Israel sentiment with coverage of an Israeli crackdown on Palestinian uprisings. Beginning in 2001, it has aired taped interviews with Mr. bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda officials and sold those feeds to American cable and broadcast networks.
This last habit—of profiting from Mr. bin Laden’s messages—led Dorrance Smith, a former ABC News producer who was a senior media advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, to write in The Wall Street Journal: “Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al Qaeda have a partner in al-Jazeera and, by extension, most networks in the U.S. This partnership is a powerful tool for the terrorists in the war in Iraq.”
Mr. Smith is currently awaiting confirmation as an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.
Many in journalism and government are skeptical of the international channel and its still-ambiguous relationship with the original network.
“They see it as a way to unravel the mystery of Al Jazeera to Western, English-speaking audiences,” said Jeremy M. Sharp, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. Mr. Sharp wrote a 2003 policy paper suggesting ways of limiting Al Jazeera’s influence in the region. He said he believes the international network is a public-relations move intended to further endear the oil-rich nation to its Western allies.
It would be an outrageously expensive propaganda effort. “But remember: Qatar is sitting on the third-largest reserve of natural gas,” he said.
That, combined with a perception—false, said staffers—that the network is offering high salaries to accomplished journalists as a way of buying credibility, has led to an uphill P.R. battle for Al Jazeera.
Last week’s report in Britain’s Daily Mirror wasn’t so good, either. Citing two anonymous sources, the article described an alleged interaction between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in which Mr. Blair persuaded Mr. Bush not to bomb Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha.
“Al Jazeera is not just a TV station,” managing director Wadah Khanfar told The Guardian earlier this week, on his way to petition Mr. Blair. “It has become something people are very attached to.”
Whether it becomes something Western viewers are very attached to remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the staff of Al Jazeera International is scrambling to be ready for its official launch date next spring.
“People are going to have to judge,” said Ms. Lipkin. “Hopefully, people will be patient when it launches. And then they’ll have a chance to see for themselves.”