Al Jazeera, the Arab news network that has provided a venue for Osama bin Laden videos, the Muslim Brotherhood and a birthday bash for a convicted murderer, is coming to America.
Al Jazeera Media Network, led and financed by the Al Thani dynasty that has ruled the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar for nearly two centuries, plans to launch the Al Jazeera America (AJA) cable channel Aug. 20 from an anchor desk in New York City.
While the media company claims that the U.S. is falling in love with its brand of news, nearly two dozen of its reporters in Egypt quit in protest this month, saying Al Jazeera's leadership directed them to produce pro-Muslim Brotherhood stories.
Former reporter Haggag Salama told the Gulf News website that Al Jazeera was "airing lies and misleading viewers."
Still, the media company says it has what the U.S. market is seeking.
"Al Jazeera's decision to create a U.S.-based news channel was based in part on the fact that Americans have already shown a great demand for its news and programs," a company statement reads.
The network plans to unleash reporters on U.S. domestic issues, perhaps in the same way that its Arabic channel covers the Muslim world. A third channel, Al Jazeera English, has been broadcasting international stories since 2006 and takes a particularly critical look at the United States.
"They have come a long way," said Paul Janensch, journalism professor emeritus at Quinnipiac University. "They have been criticized in the past for being pro-Arab. My response to that is: Well, our networks are pro-America. Al Jazeera is not pro-regimes. They are not pro-governments. But they are sympathetic to the Arab culture and the so-called 'street.'
"My impression was they were doing a pretty good job of giving you an accurate, reliable presentation of the news in the areas they were interested in," said Mr. Janensch, a longtime newspaper reporter and editor.
Analysts will watch for whether Al Jazeera America becomes another voice for Islamic causes, given its ownership's track record.
New kid on the dial
Former Qatari emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who founded Al Jazeera, has provided millions of dollars to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and openly promotes Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Sheik Hamad has pledged $250 million to protect Islamic culture in Jerusalem, a city the Palestinians want to control as part of their coveted statehood.
While the former emir pushes an Islamic agenda, his state-sponsored broadcast empire keeps growing.
Since buying Al Gore's little-watched, liberal-oriented Current TV channel (28,000 viewers during prime time) for $400 million in January, its upcoming replacement, Al Jazeera America, has been signing up local talent — most notably former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien and reporter David Shuster, formerly of MSNBC and Fox News. On Monday, AJA announced that it named as its president Kate O'Brian, ABC's former senior vice president for news.
It is staffing bureaus from Washington to Los Angeles with several American reporters, such as Andrea Stone from The Huffington Post and Josh Bernstein, an investigative reporter at Denver's KDVR Fox TV. The channel also has signed longtime Washington investigative reporter Ed Pound.
But buying a channel and changing its format does not guarantee that cable providers will continue to carry the network. An Al Jazeera America spokeswoman said she could provide no information on cable providers.
Representatives for Verizon and Comcast, which broadcast Current TV, said they plan to carry the new network.
Entering the crowded U.S. market, where Fox News dominates cable news viewership, is another big step for a company that began in 1996 as an obscure Arabic-language channel funded by Qatari oil and natural gas money.
Today, Al Jazeera is a brand name, boasting a global news operation of 70 bureaus and entree into 260 million households. It added Al Jazeera English in 2006, opening cable, satellite and Web markets around the world, including Europe and the United States. AJE has a decidedly anti-America spin, a review of its website and programming shows.
Al Jazeera has won several prestigious citations from America's liberal press, such as a 2012 Polk Award for the documentary "Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark," about the repression of the Arab Spring protests there. It also earned an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for a documentary on post-earthquake Haiti.
In July, Al Jazeera broke a story on Pakistan's investigative report on the 2011 U.S. raid that killed bin Laden. The report lambasted the military for not detecting the helicopter incursion and criticized the government's failure to locate the al Qaeda leader, who had holed up for years in a walled compound in Abbottabad.
The Washington press generally lauded its 24/7 coverage of the 2011 popular uprising in Cairo that ultimately deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Trouble with reporters
The Al Jazeera story, however, has another side.
"The first problem with Al Jazeera in the United States is it presents itself as if it is a news organization in the mold of CNN or Fox or MSNBC, when in fact it is a government-sponsored news agency," said Shoshana Bryen of the conservative Jewish Policy Center, which backs Israel and U.S. defense.
"In the Cold War years, we used to know if you read Pravda or Izvestia, you were reading the Russian government," Ms. Bryen said. "So the first problem is, this is an arm of the government of Qatar presenting itself as if it is independent news. The government of Qatar promotes and pays for a lot of things people in the United States would find abhorrent, like the Muslim Brotherhood, like Hamas, like the 'Arabification' of Jerusalem."
Sheik Hamad and Al Jazeera suffered a major setback in Egypt this month when the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government and worked to appoint non-Islamists to a transitional government.
In the middle of the crisis, 22 Al Jazeera staffers in Egypt quit — and some went public with the network's dirty laundry: Headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was demanding pro-Brotherhood reporting, they charged.
"The management in Doha provokes sedition among the Egyptian people and has an agenda against Egypt and other Arab countries," former anchor Kareem Mahmood told the Gulf News.
Asked about former staffers in Cairo quitting and accusing Doha of bias, an Al Jazeera spokesman provided this statement:
"Al Jazeera, as the most-watched news outlet in the Arab world, has been particularly targeted in an apparent crackdown on information.
"We've always given all sides of opinion airtime on Al Jazeera, it's our mantra. ... Following the recent squeeze on media in Egypt, some Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr [live streaming] staff have decided to leave. We understand the reasons for some employees feeling they need to move on, including those with partisan political opinions. ... Throughout our history we've had to cope with crackdowns. This unfortunately is nothing new. We will carry on doing our job regardless — upholding the highest standards of journalism, covering all angles of events in Egypt with balance and integrity."
Critics say the staff mutiny illustrates all that is wrong with Al Jazeera: reporters, especially on the Arabic channel, funnel the foreign policy objectives of Sheik Hamad.
"What happens in Al Jazeera English does not at all resemble what happens in Al Jazeera Arabic," Ms. Bryen said. "In the Arab world, in Arabic, Al Jazeera is virulently anti-Western, anti-secular, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel."
One of Al Jazeera's most-watched shows, "Shariah and Life," is hosted by cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a spiritual adviser to the Brotherhood. American scholars say he has issued fatwas, or religious decrees, approving the killings of Americans in Iraq and Jews in Israel. He also has endorsed a form of female genital mutilation that the World Health Organization calls a human rights abuse.
Al Jazeera pundits promoted the canard that Jews were told not to go to work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
After President Obama's speech in March in Jerusalem called on Arabs to normalize relations with Israel, Al Jazeera published a provocative cartoon: A "Mother Palestine" figure being crucified at the hands of a Jew wielding a hammer, his arm blood-soaked.
Then there is the infamous Al Jazeera birthday bash, televised live, for Samir Kuntar.
In 1979, Kuntar, then a Lebanese member of the Palestine Liberation Front, infiltrated Israel by boat to conduct terrorism. He kidnapped an Israeli man and his 4-year-old daughter, but Israeli police intercepted his escape route. During a gunbattle, he killed the father and the girl. An Israeli court sentenced him to life in prison.
An exchange with Lebanese Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, brought him freedom in 2008.
Greeting him was Al Jazeera's Beruit bureau, which held a televised birthday party.
"Brother Samir, we would like to celebrate your birthday with you," said Ghassan Ben Jeddo, Al Jazeera's Beirut bureau chief. "You deserve even more than this. ... Happy birthday, Brother Samir. Thank you."
Al Jazeera reporters have been arrested in Iraq and Afghanistan on suspicion of working with Sunni insurgents, al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Al Jazeera Arabic rose to prominence after al Qaeda's Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
As a fugitive, bin Laden chose the station as his conduit for taunting the West with anti-America videos smuggled to Al Jazeera representatives. In Iraq, U.S. commanders and the Shiite majority charged its reporters with working with Sunni insurgents.
In 2005, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld accused the network of promoting terrorism and anti-Americanism.
"If anyone here lived in the Middle East and watched a network like Al Jazeera day after day after day, even if you were an American, you would begin to believe that America was bad," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "Quite honestly, I do not get up in the morning and think that America is what's wrong with the world. The people that are going on television, chopping off people's heads is what's wrong with the world. And television networks that carry it and promote it and are Johnny on the spot every time there's a terrorist act are promoting it."
Yet Mr. Rumsfeld and other senior U.S. policymakers sat down for lengthy interviews with Al Jazeera after deciding that it was better to try to use the network to reach the Arab world even if doing so raised its stature.
On covering the U.S.
If Al Jazeera English provides a clue, Al Jazeera America's coverage will tilt to the political left.
Its American columnists, day in, day out, compose a stable of liberal college professors and trial lawyers who paint negative pictures of U.S. society.
Al Jazeera English promotes National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden as a politically oppressed whistleblower.
On its Web page, sociology professor William Robinson writes that the immigration overhaul passed by the U.S. Senate and backed by Mr. Obama is a "war on immigrants."
Other columnists attack free enterprise in Third World countries, blame the U.S. Navy live-fire training for diseases in Puerto Rico, criticize Republicans for "making women's lives harder" by banning late-term abortions, and categorize Mr. Snowden as committing "political crimes."
A story during the week of July 8 criticized a plan in Florida to reduce the appeal time between sentencing and executing death-row inmates. The story featured an ACLU lawyer and an ex-convict sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. No time was given to supporters of the proposed law.
Al Jazeera English aired a story last week that said: "U.S. most expensive country for childbirth. Having baby in the U.S. costs more than anywhere else, despite country's highest infant mortality rates."
The United States does not have the highest infant mortality rate, measured by the deaths of children younger than 1 year per 1,000 live births. The U.S. rate of 5.9 puts it well below the average of 37.6, according to the CIA World FactBook 2013.
From its start, Al Jazeera English appeared to be a way for the headquarters in Doha to paint a negative picture of America.
The channel scored a coup in 2006 by signing former ABC "Nightline" substitute host Dave Marash as its Washington studio anchor.
Mr. Marash quit less than two years later over Doha's story selections. He had been removed as anchor and made a senior correspondent — a role that left him unable to edit what he considered bad reporting.
Asked by the Columbia Journalism Review to provide examples of lousy stories, Mr. Marash said:
"There was a series entitled 'Poverty in America,' which, in the first place, was done in a way that illustrates some of the infrastructural problems that disturbed me greatly. The idea of a series about poverty in America was broached by the planning desk in Doha. The specifics of the plan were so stereotypical and shallow that the planning desk in Washington said that we think this is a very bad idea and recommend against it and won't do it. And so the planning desk in Doha literally sneaked a production team into the United States without letting anyone in the American news desk know, and they went off and shot a four-part series that was execrable. That was essentially, if I may say so, here a poor, there a poor, everywhere a poor."
He added: "Now, there is poverty in America, and there is a very wide gulf between rich and poor in America, and that is a trend for which there are stories to be reported. But this series reported nothing beyond the stereotype and the mere fact that there were homeless people living on the street in Baltimore, for example. Well, were they there as a consequence of mental illness that was not properly cared for because of a generation of a policy of deinstitutionalization? Al Jazeera didn't know because they didn't ask."
Independent or state-run?
Obama Saeed, Al Jazeera's corporate spokesman, said the company does not release its budget or its source of funding.
"The network receives funding from numerous sources, including a grant from the state of Qatar, advertising and subscriptions," Mr. Saeed said.
The Al Thani family is firmly in control.
Sheik Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, the former emir's billionaire cousin, is chairman of the board of Al Jazeera Media Network. Before starting Al Jazeera, he was the country's propagandist as minister of information.
Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a royal family member, was the network's director general until he resigned in June to become Qatar's minister of economy.
"I have some misgivings about that," Mr. Janensch, the Quinnipiac journalism professor, said about Qatar's ownership. "On the other hand, the BBC is ultimately owned by the British government, and so this is a long-standing mode of operation. I think the BBC has proven its independence.
"As far as I know, in general terms, Al Jazeera is not a mouthpiece for the Qatar government. I'm pretty positive on Al Jazeera, and I'm looking forward to their expansion."
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