WASHINGTON – What a difference the chain of Arab world uprisings – and a change of presidents in the White House – has made for Al-Jazeera.
The Qatar-based pan-Arab television network was pilloried not long ago by many in Washington as the official house organ for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists because it aired their anti-American statements. Lately, however, it’s become the go-to network for the White House, Congress, Embassy Row and Washington intelligentsia seeking reliable coverage of what’s happening in foreign hot spots.
Al-Jazeera’s constant, compelling and often raw as-it-happens coverage of the uprisings earned it the scorn of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other besieged rulers in the region who’ve felt the network’s hot lights, but it’s rapidly earning high praise in the U.S.
“Viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which … is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”
Clinton isn’t alone in that assessment. Many media analysts and political experts believe that Al-Jazeera is in the midst of a “CNN Moment,” as its coverage of the uprisings is catapulting it into U.S. prominence much as CNN’s round-the-clock coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War did for it.
“The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt could be called Al-Jazeera revolutions,” said Dave Marash, a veteran broadcast journalist who reported for years on ABC’s “Nightline.” He was hired by Al-Jazeera English in 2006, but quit two years later over disagreements with management. “In many ways, they have owned the story because they have complete coverage of the region. There’s no question it’s winning acceptance in America.”
The network is using its growing recognition to renew its effort to get Al-Jazeera English on more U.S. cable systems. For now, Al-Jazeera English is available on cable only in Washington; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vt.
“I think what we’ve seen is a sea change in recent months in the U.S.,” Al Anstey, Al-Jazeera English’s managing director, told McClatchy Newspapers from Doha, Qatar. “We’ve seen an exponential increase in viewership and demand. I quote with delight Hillary Clinton’s comments in the Senate Foreign Relations hearings.”
The network has had discussions with Cablevision, Dish Network, Time Warner Cable and, most recently, Comcast about being included in their cable offerings, Anstey said.
“It’s a question of when, not if,” Anstey said of Al-Jazeera becoming widely available on U.S. cable TV.
When the uprisings first began, Los Angeles’ KCET, a public television station, decided to move the half-hour Al-Jazeera English newscasts it was airing on its digital channel, MHZ Worldview, to its regular channel. Station officials said the newscasts have been thriving ever since.
Between Feb. 7 and March 4, the 6:30 p.m. Al-Jazeera English broadcast alone increased by 450 percent, drawing about 100,000 viewers, according to Bret Marcus, the station’s senior vice president and chief content officer.
“They’re doing incredibly well,” Marcus said. “Al-Jazeera traditionally had a reputation for bias. But of all the emails we’ve gotten, only one has been negative.”
Television viewers can also watch the newscasts daily on Link TV, an independent broadcaster primarily available on DirecTV and Dish satellite systems. Otherwise, U.S. residents can watch Al-Jazeera English live only on their computers.
Some media analysts say Al-Jazeera’s ascension can be linked to the decline of international coverage by U.S. cable and network news in recent years. As ratings declined, TV outlets shuttered their foreign bureaus to save money, relying instead on video purchased from foreign media outlets or freelancers.
“American networks have abdicated their commitment to international news,” said Frank Sesno, the director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and CNN’s former Washington bureau chief. “When you look at Al-Jazeera English, it has acquitted itself well in this process and it’s been recognized.”
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