August 3, 2007 4:46 pm

Al-Jazeera offers news diversity to US

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Ignored or shunned by almost every cable provider in the US, the al-Jazeera English news channel has turned to the internet in an effort to reach American viewers – with much more success.

Since April, when al-Jazeera struck a distribution tie-up with YouTube, the popular videoclip site owned by Google, the channel has received 2m hits and on one day last month was ranked first ahead of Paris Hilton and other staple fare.

Described by Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, as a “mouthpiece of al-Qaeda”, the Arabic channel’s English-language offspring was given a hostile reception in the US when it started broadcasting last November.

Only two cable providers, Buckeye Cable System, which reaches 147,000 homes in northern Ohio, and a small municipal service in Burlington, Vermont, that is piped to just 1,000 homes, have so far agreed to offer it to their subscribers.

Al-Jazeera, which has its headquarters in Qatar, is also available on the Pentagon’s closed-circuit television system for defence officials. But the main cable providers, such as Time Warner and Comcast, have avoided it.

“America is fighting a war and al-Jazeera works for the enemy,” says Cliff Kinkaid, the president of Accuracy in Media, a conservative watchdog that has campaigned against the channel. “Would Buckeye Cablesystems have broadcast Tokyo Rose [an anti-American propagandist] during world war two? I don’t see any difference.”

Allan Block, the owner of Buckeye Cable systems, dismisses such criticisms as “lunatic ranting”. He also points out that he voted for George W. Bush in 2000. “I have received threats and abuse, mostly from people living in the Bible Belt and almost none of them from Ohio,” says Mr Block.

“They claim I’m carrying a terrorist channel which broadcasts beheadings. But anyone who has watched al-Jazeera realises it’s a balanced and professional channel that gives people diverse perspectives on international events. And it doesn’t show beheadings.”

The channel, which reaches 90m homes worldwide – fewer than 1 per cent of them in the US – has shown savvy in the journalists it has hired, including former employees of ABC, CNN and the BBC. David Marash, a former correspondent at ABC now one of al-Jazeera’s three US-based anchors, says it helps that people recognise him.

“Frequently people will call the police when we’re out there doing reporting in America,” he says. “The police come round, they recognise me and that quickly solves the situation.” Equally effective is the presence of Josh Rushing, al-Jazeera’s US defence and military correspondent, who used to be a captain in the US marines.

Mr Rushing’s previous job was as a spokesman at the US military’s central command in Doha, the capital of Qatar and headquarters for the US invasion of Iraq. Mr Roshing grew frustrated with what he described as Centcom’s disdain towards al-Jazeera and the fact that the Pentagon would not listen to his argument that it provided a unique new way for America to reach the “Arab street”.

He resigned from the marines and was offered a job at the new channel. “I used to represent America to al-Jazeera, now I represent al-Jazeera to America,” said Mr Rushing. “I tell people that al-Jazeera provides a different perspective to CNN but an equally valid one. CNN films the launch of the missile. Al-Jazeera films what happens where it lands.”

With the help of YouTube and al-Jazeera’s global website, which gets more than half its traffic from the US (the channel’s four main bureaux are in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington), some barriers are starting to break down.

“Elected politicians and senior officials still refuse to be interviewed by us,” says Mr Marash. “But people from the think-tanks, including some well-known neoconservatives, are very happy to come on al-Jazeera. They appreciate the fact that we go into much more detail than CNN.”

The channel’s hope is that US providers will eventually be forced by popular demand to include it in their service, much like MTV achieved with its “I want my MTV” campaign in the 1980s. But the channel might face an even bigger obstacle than hyped-up fears about terrorism: the public’s lack of int­erest in international news.

Mr Marash is unfazed. “I think the line about the ‘brave little channel they wouldn’t let you see’ appeals to something in the American spirit,” he says. “I am optimistic that we will succeed in America.”

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