Al-Jazeera's Profile Continues To Rise In U.S.

Al-Jazeera's pervasive presence in the Middle East has enabled it to provide the deepest reporting and most immediate video images of events in Egypt. The profile in the U.S. of Al-Jazeera English has risen as a result, with news outlets such as MSNBC using Al-Jazeera English feeds. For more, host Michele Norris speaks to NPR's David Folkenflik.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

One news outlet has led all others in getting out word of developments from Egypt and that's the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. Its past coverage has been controversial in this country due to a tone some American critics contend is anti-American or anti-Israel. And its English-language service has been kept off most cable systems here, but people steeped in the politics of the region say the work has been indispensible over the past week.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now from our bureau in New York to talk more about this.

David, why are people now saying Al-Jazeera's coverage is so important in this conflict?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, this is Al-Jazeera's sweet spot. It's where they live. They've been doing it for, one way or another, 15 years. Last week, they were there with live pictures and coverage at a time when Western outlets were caught a bit short. They were caught a bit short in terms of being there and also in understanding events as they were unfolding.

For example, President Mubarak has been a stalwart American ally. And so, in terms of positioning this, there's a little uncertainty to see it play out in the airwaves. An American journalist who was on CNN at one point, even rebuked an anchor, saying, look, change your caption. It says chaos in Egypt. You should change it to something like, uprising or revolution, saying that the idea of chaos was playing into the hands of the regime.

As well, in talking to analysts, they say that Al-Jazeera has been much more sophisticated than its American and Western counterparts. For example, when President Mubarak named his intelligence chief as the new vice president, the channel's pundits instantly knew that protesters would probably recoil, as that intelligence chief has been linked to various episodes of torture there.

I spoke earlier today to former State Department official named Katie Stanton. She's now vice president at Twitter. She says everyone, including government officials here in the States, are turning to Al-Jazeera as a trusted source of news, and that Al-Jazeera has used Twitter aggressively to get out its reports.

It helps to remember - I mean, you're talking about Jazeera's incredibly dramatic footage while a crackdown was in place. Think back last Friday, the authorities shut down the Internet, shut down cell phone traffic, and yet Al-Jazeera was still broadcasting to the outside world. It was perhaps most tangible and vivid in moments where you could hear reporters telling the anchors on Al-Jazeera English's feed that there were policemen at the door, trying to knock down the doors to shut down the coverage.

MSNBC, trying to play catch-up, was airing footage from Al-Jazeera itself.

NORRIS: So the revolution was televised.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. Exactly.

NORRIS: You know, part of the story here is that Al-Jazeera managed to stay on the air, even when there was an attempt to keep them off the air, that they were very wily in terms of continuing to report on the conflict.

FOLKENFLIK: I think that's exactly right. They were showing enterprise in a variety of ways, in part because they had people on the field, in part because they were using perhaps more mobile and portable ways to uplink things to satellite.

At one point, you had reporters, I'm told, call in to the social newsroom and sort of dictate their tweets so they could be sent out through social media networks.

NORRIS: So why can't we watch it on TV here in America, except in a very small number of cases?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, a ton of people have been watching online. That's a relative ton of people. We're told that the Al-Jazeera English website saw a 2,500 percent jump in online visitors last week, most of it, or much of it driven from the U.S. But that's a tiny percentage when you consider all the people who aren't able to see it on television. It's available in Washington area. It's available in places like Toledo, Ohio, Burlington, Vermont, you know...

NORRIS: Burlington, Vermont.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. Little isolated areas. Burlington, known sort of a liberal enclave, they may be interested in a place that's known as being somewhat more critical of the United States stand, some critics say anti-American, some critics also say anti-Israel. There's that political touchiness around it. The cable providers say it's a business decision. Others say it's really politics.

But people have been hungry for this, at least over the past week. As Yogi Berra might say, everybody is watching, but nobody can see it, at least not on television.

NORRIS: Hmm. So Al-Jazeera has built up quite a bit of momentum with their coverage. What do they do with that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, an Al-Jazeera official told me earlier today they plan to re-launch a campaign they began two years ago. You know, two years ago, I did a story on this about the question of where was the pickup for Al-Jazeera English. You know, there's so many more channels now with digital streams, and yet, they really haven't gotten that kind of distribution. They say they perhaps intend to re-launch that.

They've also done other stories that have been very relevant from the Middle East lately, even to American viewers, about revelations about negotiations in Israel and Palestine, about the toppling of the government in Tunisia, another autocratic regime. And yet, so far, there hasn't been this push to pick them up. They've been sort of going around it by being viewed online.

NORRIS: Always good to talk to you, David. Thank you very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

NORRIS: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

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