First Anniversary for Al Jazeera in English

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One year ago tomorrow, the Arabic news service debuted al Jazeera International, an English-language version of its programming. We'll look back at David Folkenflik's coverage of its inception, and talk to Dave Marash, an anchor and reporter for al Jazeera International, about his first year at the network.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Today marks one year since the debut of Al-Jazeera International, the English language version of the Arabic news service.

Let's go back to yesteryear and check out a report about the debut from NPR's media reporter David Folkenflik.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. DAVE MARASH (Reporter, "Nightline"): I'm Dave Marash. The top story from the Americas the day after resigning as U.S. Secretary Defense of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says enemies of the U.S…

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: That is Dave Marash, a former correspondent for ABC News' "Nightline," and he's made the gamble of his career by joining Al-Jazeera International.

Mr. MARASH: For me, it's an opportunity, I think, to join the most exciting experiment going on in television news - certainly in English - in the world today.

FOLKENFLIK: He's part of the media company that's famous in the Middle East for airing dissent about the Arab world and famous in the United States for broadcasting the video tape pronouncements of Osama bin Laden. But Marash says the new channel will develop its own approach independently of Al-Jazeera in Arabic.

Other new hires include journalists from CNN and the BBC including famous interviewer David Frost. Al-Jazeera International will have bureaus winning(ph) the world and four major studios based in Washington, London, Qatar(ph) and Malaysia. But in the U.S., it will be tough to find at all. So far, exactly zero American cable providers have agreed to carry the channel. The nation's largest cable company, Comcast, says such decisions are made on purely financial grounds, not politics.

STEWART: Fast forward to today. Well, I do want to correct myself. Al-Jazeera debuted on November 15th 2006.

BURBANK: Right.

STEWART: Not the 14th. Should learn to read the calendar one day. All right. At this point, who is carrying Al-Jazeera International? It's been picked up by some smaller cable providers in the United States. However, the larger cable companies, like Time Warner and Comcast, still don't carry it. Now, there are reports that the news service is close to signing up with a big provider and it's got some traction abroad. But consider this, outside the United States, Al-Jazeera is available to 80 million homes around the world.

BURBANK: We want to catch up now with David Marash, the fellow you heard in that David Folkenflik piece of roughly a year ago. He is an anchor for Al-Jazeera English based in Washington, D.C. Hi, David.

Mr. MARASH: Hi, how are you?

BURBANK: Great. Thank you for coming on. Well, we're about a year out. You guys are on three small stations - in Vermont, Ohio and Washington, D.C. - and you're on a cable network called Globecast. How many Americans you figure you guys are reaching right now?

Mr. MARASH: Well, through the Internet, we are reaching millions a week. We get about three million hits a week on our Web site, on the Internet. And about two-thirds of them, in other words about two million a week, come from the United States. So we are starting to reach an American audience. But aside from the three small cable outfits that you mentioned - two in Ohio, one in Vermont - and, of course, the Pentagon system and the State Department's close circuit system, both of which carry us. We are not seen on conventional cable or satellite television yet in the U.S. Globally, we're up to over a hundred million homes though. And in terms of viewers, we are in the millions every day.

BURBANK: I understand you guys do really well. Al-Jazeera English does really well in Israel?

Mr. MARASH: Yes, as a matter of fact, as does Al-Jazeera Arabic which was, you know, the first channel in Arabic that regularly featured Israeli speakers and continues to this day to offer a platform to Israeli points-of-view, from all points of the political compass in Israel, not just the peace now people, but some people who are, quite frankly, anti-Islamic.

BURBANK: For those who really don't know much about Al-Jazeera - either the Arab version or the English version - they only know it as the place where bin Laden, you know, likes to sort of do his house work, what…

Mr. MARASH: Oh, you're so over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: …what?

Mr. MARASH: Actually…

BURBANK: What - describe it. Could you just describe to us sort of a broadcast day in Al-Jazeera English? What exactly are you guys presenting to people?

Mr. MARASH: Okay. We're presenting 24/7 straight-up news with the following differences that would distinguish us from our English language competition, like Fox, CNN, MSNBC or the networks. Number one is we do fewer stories so that we can do some of them at greater length, so we have a slightly slower tempo. Number two, whereas most of our conventional competition focuses on the universe that is North America, Western Europe, Israel and Japan, Al-Jazeera English broadcasts the whole spectrum of the world. And probably about 60 percent of our news comes from the areas outside of Western Europe, North American, Israel and Japan.

STEWART: Dave, is there a story or a subject or - well, I don't know what you call - that you folks have decided that you wouldn't cover, but there's some area that is not in Al-Jazeera (unintelligible)?

Mr. MARASH: Well, there's a whole category of, quote, "news," such as the celebrity stories involving people, like Parish Hilton or Lindsay Lohan or O.J. Simpson that have never appeared on air, so that's what we don't cover. What we do cover is real news from every point of the compass including a lot of important American stories that the American news media rarely looks at, at all. For example, the war in Somalia which was, after all, an invasion more or less sponsored by and trained up by the U.S. military and which has, on a much smaller scale, produced results for Somalians almost as catastrophic as the war in Iraq has produced for Iraqis.

BURBANK: You had to know going into this that there were some challenges. What though has surprised you one year later about trying to get this network accepted in the U.S.?

Mr. MARASH: I'd say what had surprised me - and I am by nature a Pollyanna - is how good we've been. You know, any start up is going to have its bumps and we've had ours. But I think from the first day, which will be a year tomorrow, we've been on the air with really thoroughly network quality and thoroughly first rate news that I think is politically straight up and journalistically really accurate and really ambitious.

In some ways, this turns the clock back on television because the pattern in television, really, the pattern in all visual media since the Lumiere brothers at the start - at end of the 19th century more or less invented motion pictures has been faster, faster and faster. Literally, more cuts per second of film or video tape, and faster and shorter stories. And we're going in the opposite direction. We're buying more time for the stories that we think are important, so that we can give them to our audience in more detail, of a little more nuance, and a little more sophistication.

So we're swimming upstream against what has been the mainstream of media trending, but I think we're serving our audience with simply broader and deeper news than any other English language news channel.

BURBANK: Your P.R. person was very quick to forward us some information like you guys have your own branded channel on YouTube which does really well and you talked about all the Web traffic you're getting. Why do you even care about getting on TV channels? Why don't you just make this all kind of an online experience?

Mr. MARASH: Because you want to talk to all of the people all the time and still, television channels are the conventional means of receiving television information.

BURBANK: Does that mean then that this has been…

Mr. MARASH: The Internet is coming up fast and I don't think anybody doubts that in the very foreseeable future, the Internet is going to supplant broadcast cable and satellite television, but for now, if you want to reach eyeballs, as they say, in this industry, conventional television - in the United States at least - is still the way to go.

BURBANK: Well, does that mean that this has been a disappointing first year then because you're not reaching a lot of eyeballs through TV?

Mr. MARASH: Well, that is disappointing and that is frustrating, but, frankly, the quality of the product far outweighs that for me because what I have found and what was demonstrated very happily for us this week in the New York Times, where Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, did an op-ed piece in which he decried the absence of Al-Jazeera from American television because we do provide unique kinds of information that if you don't watch us, you simply aren't getting. And the point that I keep making over and over again is that if the war in Iraq has a single message, it is that ignorance kills. And, unfortunately, more and more of the news channels and the networks in the United States are leaving viewers ignorant of the way in which most of the world thinks…

BURBANK: Dave.

Mr. MARASH: …and we have much more of that on our channel. So I'm much prouder about that than I'm worried about how large our audience is today because Cohen did this column and it was favorable and that was great. And almost all of the media reviews of the channel have done extremely favorable.

BURBANK: Well, Dave, as a veteran newsman yourself, you understand being up against the clock.

Mr. MARASH: Tick, tick, tick, tick.

BURBANK: So I'm going to have to let you go, but I do appreciate your coming on.

David Marash, former "Nightline" correspondent, now anchor for Al-Jazeera English. He's based in Washington, D.C. Thanks again.

Mr. MARASH: My pleasure. Thanks.

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