Watch Out World: Al-jazeera Is Going Global
Doha, Qatar: If Doha Is the capital of the state of Qatar (pronounced Cut-ter) known for its 900 trillion standard cubic feet of proven gas reserves (and more than 15.2 BILLION barrels of oil) Al-Jazeera is known here as" the Capitol of Doha," In a few short years this satellite TV station has become the electronic capitol of the Arab world and the fifth best known brand in the world.
Jazeera means island, but in many ways this emerging global broadcaster functions more like an oasis in the dessert country where it has based, as well as in the international TV news industry in which its dedication to hard charging news makes it an anomaly.
Before its emergence Doha had a sleepy if less than stellar international profile.
"In l991," sneers former Terror czar Richard Clarke in his book "Against All Enemies, "Qatari police cars that were escorting my motorcade managed to crash into each other in a city with almost no traffic."
Today the city is bursting with rush hour traffic, and a construction boom thanks to the vision and guile of its ruler and Emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, who not only hosts the largest US regional US military base outside of Iraq (which spawned the Coalition Media Center during the invasion of Iraq) but earlier founded Al-Jazeera in l996,
To many, that seems like to contradiction, but, ironically, for many years Arabs who disliked its interviews with Israelis and US officials denounced Al-Jazeera as too-pro US. Before the Iraq War, 60 Minutes featured a profile of the station as an example of atilt towards pro-American democracy and modernism.
Within months, the Bush Administration pronounced it the anti-Christ for its airing interviews with Bin Laden and other "evildoers." Donald Rumsfeld fulminates against Al-Jazeera for "manipulating world opinion." Yet all the might. so far, of the US imperium has not squelched its voice even though an Administration that claims to support a free press has tried to suppress.
While in Qatar as a guest of Al-Jazeera's first TV production festival to show my film WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception) to a very receptive audience, I was invited to visit the newsroom and do an on-air interview in the studio shown in the film Control Room.
In network TV terms, Al-Jazeera is tiny, crowded with reporters and producers squeezed around pod-like tables churning out packed newscasts on a 24/7 basis. The whole operation would fit into a corner of the spanking new CNN news operation I toured recently in the opulent Time Warner Center in New York's Columbus Circle. A visiting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak likened it to a "matchbox" saying "All this trouble from a matchbox like this."
There was literally no place for a visitor to sit so I shared space in the Chief Editor's tiny office which has three desks and as many cell phones ringing off the hook as he heatedly defends a decision to his boss, or barks orders to the director to add pictures or sharpen up the questioning of correspondents whose stand-ups from various hot spots flash across the screen.
There was an aura of no-nonsense earnest professionalism in the building. On the wall, the Al-Jazeera Code of Ethics in English and Arabic mandates a strict separation of news and opinion. It was developed in response to constant criticisms, some fair, many not, of on-air bias.
I told the chief editor of being interviewed live on Fox News when it aired a story deriding the code. I called it "a good idea" and suggest that that Fox should should try it.
The reaction was nothing short of horror.
"Are you suggesting that Fox is like Al-Jazeera," was the dismissive come back.
"I am not the first one," was my rejoinder.
The two networks are news leaders but clearly inhabit different worlds with far different worldviews. What does connect them is an aggressive attitude and love of controversy.
Al-Jazeera talk shows are outspoken but open to all points of view in the spirit of "the opinion and the other opinion."
Fox prefers more predictable opinions and its own "message points." One of those messages is to constantly target and caricature Al-Jazeera even as it spent as much as $10,000 monthly to buy its feed according to Hugh Miles excellent new book on Al-Jazeera, "The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that Is Challenging the West."
That challenge will soon no longer just be with its approach to news. Its one satellite news channel is already spawning a larger media company with websites, wireless news, a sports channel, a children's channel and documentary channel.
But the big news--and the buried lead in this article-- is that Al Jazeera is going global, launching an international channel in English that plans to be on the air in 2006. Its goal is nothing less than to "revolutionize viewer choice." It is a bold challenge to western TV hegemony.
This is good news for the vast audiences defecting from network and cable news for its tepid and celebrified and sanitized coverage. It promises a fresh approach with news features and analysis that they insist will be "accurate, impartial and objective." They will show hard-hitting documentaries, air live debates from bases in Doha. Washington, London and Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.
It has assembled a team of TV pros from BBC, APTN, ITV, CNN, and CNBC among others and will have 40 bureaus worldwide.
"Al Jazeera International Is a World Channel for the 21st Century and it is the channel the world is waiting for" is its idealistic proclamation. Its programmers are already buying up documentaries and seem to relish having a go at the news companies they have left, at least according to a spirited conversation I had with programming Director Paul Gibbs who worked with BBC and the Discovery Channel. I was very impressed with the multinational members of the corporate strategy team that are gearing up a sophisticated approach to build a new more
The conservative news world will be waiting and watching and so will alternative media channels like Link Television or the new International World Television channel which hope to do something similar.
Unlike the alternative media groups, Al-Jazeera does not seem to be lacking in money,
But challenges remain: can they get carriage for their channel on cable and satellite systems controlled by western media cartels? Getting their signal up is far easier than bringing it down into people's homes.
More importantly, can the Al-Jazeera approach, which has been associated with controversy and terrorism, find a receptive audience among viewers who have never really seen its news product (and couldn't understand it if they did) but have been prejudiced against it all the same? Will they/we tune it in and give it a chance,
Its always hard to be the last kid on the block but these kids are (a) not such kids; (b) have a lot to say and c) know how to say it,
As the demoralized, compromises and dumbed down news system in the west implodes with mounting scandals and erosion of both viewers and credibility, is there a new savior, a genie in the bottle arising in the East?
Twenty five years ago. I worked in the basement of what was once the Progressive Jewish Country Club in Atlanta on another news venture that wanted to change the world. It was dismissed by the TV industry as the Chicken Noodle Network. Its founder Ted Turner had a grand vision that was co-opted by parochialism, greed and market logic. Years later he would be bemoaning the big media outlets he sold out to,
A quarter of a century later, its time for someone else to give it a try.
Years ago, a critic wrote of "hearing the future of rock and roll, and his name is Bruce Springsteen."
I may have just seen the future of global television and its name is Al-Jazeera.
(Don't be suprised if Al-Jazeera morphs into Al Jaz in the way that Federal Express became Fed Ex.)
Who knows, BUT: we all know, inshallah, that we need something new in TV news and badly. Don't we?
News Dissector Danny Schechter, a former CNN and ABC News producer, is the "blogger-in chief" of Mediachannel.org and director of WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception) www.wmdthefilm.com
While he was in Doha, Danny was interviewed by the Friends of Al-Jazeera website