Will Coverage Of Uprisings Strengthen Al Jazeera's Brand?

Arab TV channel, Al Jazeera English, has been on the frontlines of recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, broadcasting around-the-clock, live coverage of protests. But in the United States, the network's reputation is still somewhat tied to its policy of airing taped messages from Osama Bin Laden. Host Michel Martin asks Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English, whether the channel's Middle East coverage will help the repair its image and gain a greater foothold in the US cable TV market.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the best-selling work of fiction called "The Help" is about black household help and the white families they worked for, at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Critics and readers have loved the book, but now one critic is not happy. She's a real-life nanny who worked for the author's family. She says the main character is based on her. She does not like it and is suing. We will talk about that in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about the network that has led the pack on coverage of the unrest sweeping the Arab world. It's a network that Americans can only access with effort.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: This is Al-Jazeera.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: We're talking about Al-Jazeera, of course. There are actually two services: one in Arabic, which came first, and one in English. Now, for years, the English-language service has been trying to break into the American market, but with very limited success. But in the last month, its cadre of reporters, producers and videographers on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa have given a face and voice to the protesters changing the face of the region.

Al Anstey is working to get Al-Jazeera English into U.S. cable television markets beyond Toledo, Ohio and Burlington, Vermont. He is the managing director of Al-Jazeera English, which is based in Qatar. And he joins us now in our Washington, D.C., studio. He's visiting the United States right now.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. AL ANSTEY (Managing Director, Al-Jazeera English): Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: What do you think distinguished Al-Jazeera's coverage, as these protests have unfolded? And why do you think you became the broadcast network of record in this most recent story?

Mr. ANSTEY: I think first of all, there's a presence on the ground - and again, I'm going to stress showing all sides of the story. If you want to know what's happening in the square, in the Tahrir Square at any point, you could switch us on, and you will see that.

But you will also see what's happening in the cabinet with Mubarak - all the dynamics of that story. And look at Libya now. It's a hugely complicated story. We've got people on the ground. We've got experts who will be able to explain it.

But also, the people that are reporting for us are authorities in this region. They're authorities on Egypt. When Mubarak did not step down on the day everyone thought he would, we were able to give immediate analysis which actually gave the context, sometimes gave the history, so that our viewers, our listeners could understand what's happening right now - but also understand why it's happening, and what it's going to mean. So it's a sort of journalism of depth, combined with the sharp-end reporting we've got.

MARTIN: So I want to play you this clip of Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman addressing the country on February 10th, after President Hosni Mubarak first said he was not stepping down. Here it is.

Vice President OMAR SULEIMAN (Egypt): (Through translator) Do not listen to the satellite television stations whose main purpose is to fuel sedition and drive a wedge among the people.

MARTIN: It seemed pretty clear that he was talking about, you know, Al-Jazeera there. And I wanted to ask, is this the first time that someone has directly said, don't listen to these people?

Mr. ANSTEY: No. It's been said a few times. And ultimately, what Omar Suleiman was saying that day is, don't listen to some of the elements of the story that we were broadcasting. It was unprecedented prior to these events in Egypt for state television, for other television to be able to broadcast protests on the street, for example.

So we had reporters on the ground - still have reporters on the ground in Egypt at the time, in Tahrir Square, in Alexandria and other cities covering all sides of the story, the protesters as well as the pro-Mubarak supporters.

MARTIN: And talk about the founding of the channel. It is funded by the government of Qatar.

Mr. ANSTEY: Well, first of all, we're funded by the State of Qatar, but we're wholly editorially independent. I call us a public broadcaster. Al-Jazeera Arabic, our sister channel, was started 14 years ago as a channel of truth in a region where predominantly, broadcasters were state-controlled. They were, oftentimes, mouthpieces of the governments of those nations.

And Al-Jazeera is entirely independent of the State of Qatar, and that is part of its mission, in a way. So the English channel was started 10 years after the Arabic channel in order to put a truly international network on air, in English, broadcasting to all corners of the globe. By truly international, there's one fundamental point, which is - I always describe that we put every country of the world on a level playing field. We evaluate the story on its merit. What that means is we're covering the developing world as much as the developed.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Al Anstey. He is the managing director of Al-Jazeera English. That is the Qatar-based channel. There's also a language service in Arabic that has been dominating the coverage of the events in the Middle East and North Africa, the protests in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt - not widely available in the United States.

So the impression that I think some Americans have, and certainly some American officials have had of Al-Jazeera over the years, is that the channel is reflexively anti-American and anti-Israel. And the impression has been that there has been kind of a bias toward documenting the violence resulting from the U.S. involvements overseas - less interest in documenting, say, sectarian violence caused, you know, by the conflicts between the Sunnis and Shia and so forth. So could you speak to that?

Mr. ANSTEY: In order to answer that, I guess I got to take a step back and look at some of the coverage of our sister channel, which predates our launch. It goes back to the Iraq War. I remember when Donald Rumsfeld said about Al-Jazeera Arabic's coverage of Fallujah during the Iraq War, that the coverage was done by vicious liars. The fact of the matter on that story was Al-Jazeera Arabic, our sister channel, had covered, on the ground in Fallujah that day, civilian casualties. And at the time, that's not a message - or that's not a story that Donald Rumsfeld, I guess, wanted to be aired that day.

The reality is, they were covering the facts on the ground. They were covering all sides of the story. They were also covering all the stories out of the United States and all the Pentagon briefings that day, as much as the civilian casualties on the ground in Fallujah.

Our job - talking about Al-Jazeera as a whole, but the English channel and the Arabic channel - our job is not to be anti-American, pro-American, anti-this, anti-that. Our job is to cover all relevant opinions, all sides. I think there's been a change in the fact that we are now recognized amongst many more people in the United States for the quality and the depth and the integrity of the journalism. And as a result of that, as soon as you switch on Al-Jazeera English, any myth or misconception you may have about bias or anti-this or anti-that is dispelled immediately.

MARTIN: But I need to - and I think it is fair to point out that there is a vigorous debate in this country about the objectivity of American media, you know. It's an open discussion of whether, you know, media outlets, including this one, tilt one way or the other. However, there is an ongoing sense that some of the rules for Al-Jazeera are different; that, for example, some of the broadcasters in Tunisia were perceived as kind of openly cheering on the protester. Do you think that's a fair characterization of the work?

Mr. ANSTEY: Were we fueling the protest? Were we on the side of the protest? The answer is a clear no. If our coverage - and working in parallel with the fact that there is a huge social media conversation going on in Tunisia and in Egypt and in Libya - if our coverage is showing the facts on the ground, and that is of interest to certain people, that's - it's not our job to be pro or anti. It's simply our job to cover the facts - but I stress, to cover the facts on all relevant sides of the story. So our job is not to create the story. It is our job to be journalists.

MARTIN: Why do you think that Al-Jazeera's had such a difficult time breaking into more American markets?

Mr. ANSTEY: I think there are two key points. First of all, we're a new channel. This channel was only born four-and-a-bit years ago. It takes a while to get recognized. I think that recognition is almost exponential. As we're recognized with each of the events that people switch us on to watch us, watch our coverage, then they stick with us, I hope, as loyal viewers for the future.

But also, let's face it, there were myths and misconceptions about what Al-Jazeera stood for. We've discussed the perceived bias amongst some quarters. And I think as we're increasingly recognized in this country, those myths and misconceptions are dispelled.

So what I'm seeing is a sea change now, a pickup online in terms of Web streaming and web views. And the first days of Egypt was up by 2,500 percent. And 50 percent of that total traffic is coming from the United States.

MARTIN: I will mention that you are also a veteran of CBS News.

Mr. ANSTEY: I started my career at CBS News, and proud to have done so.

MARTIN: And what is your hope for Al-Jazeera English? What is your hope? If you and I are to meet again a year from now, what is your hope?

Mr. ANSTEY: I would like to be able to travel around the United States for a few days before and have people recognize us from watching us on their televisions. That's the ambition here in the United States. Our journalism is of the highest standard. Our storytelling is in depth, it's clear. We're offering something with our news gathering which I believe is unrivaled in the world at the moment.

So I would like - we'll continue to refine. We'll continue to enhance our strengths. We're in the process of expanding our news-gathering reach at the moment. But clearly, here in the United States, we want to be recognized, we want to be recognized for the caliber of the journalism that we put out every day.

MARTIN: And finally, what do you think you offer an American audience that they cannot get from the existing network offerings?

Mr. ANSTEY: It comes back to news-gathering reach. We've got 70 bureaus around the world staffed by the highest-caliber journalists. They're eyewitness reporting events on the ground. They're seeing those events for themselves. We're covering them. We're showing the pictures of those events. That was evidenced in Egypt. That's why people switched us on as a channel of reference on that story.

So first of all, there was the sheer reach. Obviously, this is all underpinned by the integrity and the balance and the in-depth nature of our journalism. But also, we are truly global. If you want to see what's happening in the world, whether it be a big story today or what's happening in Bolivia or Bangladesh or across the United States or the U.K., this is the channel that will show it to you.

MARTIN: We've done reporting, of course - a number of Americans have noted the attack on Lara Logan, the CBS correspondent who was physically assaulted while she was covering the events in Tahrir Square. But it's, at one point, for those who were not able to get the channel and may not be aware of this, some of your correspondents had to - even though they were broadcasting for a television channel, had to remove themselves from being seen on air. And their physical locations were not disclosed. Why was that? Was that because they were, then, also a target themselves - they were targeted also?

Mr. ANSTEY: I think there's some - well, the story in Egypt, but also in Libya right now, it's massively dangerous for reporters on the ground because we're broadcasting on things that the governments do not want to be seen. And oftentimes, they'll do whatever they can to stop that; try and bring down our cameras. We were shut down, effectively, by the Egyptian authorities. We had a number of journalists detained by the army. Some of our journalists were attacked by the pro-Mubarak supporters.

It was a very dangerous situation on the ground and clearly, safety underpins what we do - the safety of our people but also, the safety of all journalists on the ground. That is critical. So we had to take measures. That was oftentimes not naming people, not putting them in vision, to ensure that they did not become unduly at risk. They didn't become the target and by not identifying them, we kept them safer by doing so.

MARTIN: Al Anstey is a managing director of Al-Jazeera English. That is the English language service. There's also an Arabic language channel that's been providing extensive coverage and analysis of the protests in the Middle East and North Africa. He's visiting the U.S. from his base in Qatar, and hoping to convince providers to offer Al-Jazeera English to more American viewers. And he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios.

Al Anstey, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ANSTEY: Thank you.

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