The Challenges of Working at Al-Jazeera

Joanne Levine, executive producer of programming for the Americas at al-Jazeera, discusses her op-ed piece, "Al-Jazeera, as American as Apple Pie," which appeared in Sunday's Washington Post. She talks about the challenges of working at al-Jazeera and says the news network is often the victim of racism, stereotyping and simple misunderstanding.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Al-Jazeera announced it would launch an English-language international version in the U.S. in May, but pushed the date back until later this year after encountering resistance - from getting cable and satellite operators to carry the channel, to rumors from pressure groups to alleged ties to terrorism. Just the name Al-Jazeera makes people in this country assume the worst: al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, anti-Americanism.

Joanne Levine says it's just not true. She's executive producer of programming for the Americas at Al-Jazeera International, and in an op-ed yesterday, she called the Arab-language news network the victim of racism, stereotyping, and plain old misunderstanding.

In short, she says she can't do her job properly. Sources won't talk to her reporters. Those who do are interrogated by local officials, and Al-Jazeera journalists are denied access to news events.

If you have questions about Al-Jazeera International or about the problems they've encountered in this country, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

Joanne Levine's op-ed, Al-Jazeera, as American as Apple Pie, ran in Sunday's Washington Post. And she's here with us in Studio 3, and it's good to have you with us today.

Ms. JOANNE LEVINE (Executive Producer of Programming for the Americas at Al-Jazeera): Nice to be here.

CONAN: You say there's a misperception in this country that Al-Jazeera is somehow linked to terrorists. And the fact is, most people in this country have never seen Al-Jazeera.

Ms. LEVINE: That's true, and that's a problem.

CONAN: And of course, most people, if they see it, they wouldn't understand what they're saying.

Ms. LEVINE: Yes, but it is - as I laid out in my piece - Al-Jazeera often presents the Arabic point of view...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. LEVINE: ...and that point of view sometimes is a point of view that might not be one that people want to hear here, but to go from there to say that it's linked to a terrorist organization is a pretty big, strong leap of faith. And especially, as you mentioned, the fact that many people have never seen the network in any ways whatsoever.

CONAN: Well, the main thing people do know about it is that when Osama bin Laden finishes a videotape, he writes Al-Jazeera's address on it and mails it to them.

Ms. LEVINE: CNN runs it, ABC runs it, NBC runs it. When I first joined Al-Jazeera International, it was actually very interesting. It was around the time one of the tapes were released. Al-Jazeera ran it once, and moved on to its regular sports programming. And CNN was on in the newsroom as well, and CNN ran it all day long, repeatedly. So is CNN a terrorist network?

CONAN: Depends on who you listen to. But as you look at this, at the coverage, I think people are just uncomfortable with the phrase - the name Al-Jazeera, whether it's a misbegotten belief, whether it's out of ignorance or not, the company has done a poor job marketing itself in this country.

Ms. LEVINE: Well, I mean, I think with Al-Jazeera and the launch of Al-Jazeera International and people get to sort of see the type of programming we're going to do, you know, hopefully we'll be able to show people that it's not the stereotype that's been portrayed.

We're going to have an international women's show that's coming out of Doha that's revolutionary. We're going to have a documentary show. We're going to do newscasts from four major hubs: Washington, D.C., Koala Lumpur, London, Doha. We're really trying to present all sides of the story in a way that hasn't been done before.

CONAN: And I think what some people don't understand is the enormous impact that Al-Jazeera has had in the world it covers. In the Arab world, for example, consistently irritating many of Doha's gulf neighbors.

Ms. LEVINE: Yeah, I mean, actually, Al-Jazeera has irritated everyone from the United States to many of the countries in the Middle East. In the past, where I've lived and worked, reporters have been kicked out of various countries - Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq - the network's been kicked out of Iraq. Al-Jazeera pulls no punches. It does a lot of hard-hitting, fearless type of reporting. And it angers a lot of people, and sometimes the regimes it angers are in the Middle East, and sometimes it's here.

CONAN: And there are, of course, allegations in Iraq that it was getting wonderful footage of insurgent attacks by knowing about those attacks in advance.

Ms. LEVINE: I can't comment on that, because I'm just not familiar enough with it.

CONAN: Right.

We want to get your input on this. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's begin with Omar. Omar calling us from Minneapolis.

OMAR (Caller): Yeah, hi. I actually want to comment on something, that the reception of Al-Jazeera here in the U.S. is quite similar to the reception of the same TV network in the Arab world. That means that in the Arab world, they are many people saying that Al-Jazeera is founded by the CIA or the U.S. government. And the stories that it, like, you know, broadcasts are favored to the U.S. side, or to the western world.

CONAN: And that is an accurate - Omar's - you know, we've certainly read about those opinions.

Ms. LEVINE: Yes, I think one of the areas that I pointed out in my piece yesterday is that, in fact, Al-Jazeera does open itself to have all points of view. It repeatedly invites Israeli diplomats and Israeli officials to go on the air to present their side of the story, which they often do. Because of that, they're also often labeled as Zionist sympathizers on the Arab street at times.

CONAN: Omar, what do you make of it?

OMAR: Actually, you know, what your guest is saying is profoundly true, because my friends - I discuss with them everyday here in the U.S. or I speak to other friends in Lebanon or other parts of the world on the Internet - they say the same thing. We are pro-Israel, pro-Zionist, and when you hear Rumsfeld saying that these are American news channels, that they show that all these things like you ever hear Rumsfeld typically saying, it's really they are caught between the hammer and the I don't know what you call the other part of that.

CONAN: We'll go for devil and the deep blue sea.

OMAR: Excuse me?

CONAN: We'll go for the devil and the deep blue sea, is what they're caught between.

OMAR: Yeah, yeah. I don't really, this is the problem. I'm not really familiar with that.

CONAN: That's okay. Omar, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

OMAR: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: We're discussing the Al-Jazeera International with Joanne Levine, an executive producer of programming for the Americas for that outlet. Her op-ed piece ran in yesterday's Washington Post.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And by the way, if you'd like to get a link to that op-ed piece in yesterday's Washington Post - or to any of the op-ed pieces that have run on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page - you can go to our Web site at npr.org and go to the TALK OF THE NATION page.

And Joanne Levine, let me ask you a little bit - what kinds of difficulties is Al-Jazeera encountering? I mean, if you're going to be successful in this country, you have to be distributed, you have to be available on cable outlets and on satellite outlets for cable news operation.

Ms. LEVINE: What I can say is that there are negotiations going on now. I'm not the person in charge of distribution. I'm not, you know, I'm not evading it, I just don't know. But there are things that are being discussed right now as we speak.

And I just want to correct one thing. You said we didn't launch because of distribution. That's actually not the case. We haven't launched because the technology - we're doing state of the art technology, it's going to be a high definition, fiber optic newsroom linked in four international bureaus, and basically, the technology wasn't ready. And we'll launch when we're ready, but it's not because we haven't gotten distribution in the United States, because...

CONAN: I apologize then. And in what ways - you, I know, have been out in the field talking to people as a producer. In what ways is this problem, have you encountered difficulty?

Ms. LEVINE: What way haven't we? You know, there are a lot of people that are applauding what we're trying to do, but there are a lot of people - there is a stereotype out there about Al-Jazeera. And the climate in this country right now between this country and the Mid-East, it's a time of deep suspicion, and people hear the name Al-Jazeera and they don't want to often talk to us. So it's very hard at times to get people to talk to us in the field, to get insurance, to get a bank to do transactions.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jeannie(ph), have I got that right?

JEANNIE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Okay, calling from St. Augustine in Florida. Go ahead.

JEANNIE: I'm calling because I have a friend who's just recently returned from the National Guard, and he was serving in Iraq. And when I said, oh, isn't this great? Al-Jazeera's going to come, and we'll, you know, see what other people had to say. He told me that they also watched Al-Jazeera over there, and that you would have news stories where - the news story would be one thing, but they would take footage - like of American planes, stock footage - and splice it in with footage of civilians being killed, and use that as if it was actual documented footage of the story.

And it was very inflammatory and intended to make Americans look like we were killing civilians. You know, every time you drag out a story, out comes this stock footage of Americans killing civilians. And I think that greatly contributes to the way that people have a negative, you know...

CONAN: Yeah, this is a friend of a friend told, but is that right?

Ms. LEVINE: You know, I would need to know the specifics to look it up. I haven't seen that. That doesn't mean it's aired or not. I...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. LEVINE: I'm not trying to evade it. If I knew the specifics of it, I would go and look at it and I would give you an answer. I know that Al - you know, what we're going to be doing, you know, editorially, the people that they've hired - I take my journalism background and credentials very, very seriously. The only thing I have is my integrity and my word. And I think most of the people who have joined feel that way.

CONAN: All right. Jeannie, maybe when it shows up, you can give it a try and see for yourself.

JEANNIE: I'd like to do that. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.

And let's try Jeff. Jeff's calling from Ludlow, in Kentucky.

JEFF (Caller): Yes, sir. I would just like to speak for Al-Jazeera on my cable channel. I think I can speak for myself and a lot of my fellow hillbillies down here. We're pretty sure we're not getting the straight story from CNN and FOX, and we're pretty sure we're not getting the straight story from the press room in D.C., and you know, any other source of information that we can sift through. We're capable of making up our own minds.

CONAN: And, I wonder, is that an attitude that you're also encountering?

Ms. LEVINE: Yes, we are, and that's great. And I think what Al-Jazeera International and Al-Jazeera wants to do is just present different sides and all sides of the story, and it's great to hear people like you who are willing not to judge it before it's on the air. That's all we ask.

CONAN: Right. Jeff, thanks very much for the call.

JEFF: Take care.

CONAN: Bye bye.

At this point, is there a launch date?

Ms. LEVINE: Later this year. When the technology is ready, we will be on the air.

CONAN: And what kind of audience does Al-Jazeera International hope to get?

Ms. LEVINE: Well, I think its going to be different, depending on what part of the world. I think here in the states it's going to be people who have a great, deep interest in foreign news and the world around them. We're going to have, you know, programming - a lot of it coming out of the Middle East, but we're also going to cover Latin America in a way that no other place is covering. We're going to be covering Africa. We're going to have current affair programming that features documentaries from all over the world.

So you're going to have people in this country who have those sorts of thirsts for other stories that they're not seeing on the major networks.

CONAN: Joanne Levine, thanks very much.

Ms. LEVINE: thank you.

CONAN: Joanne Levine, executive producer of programming for the Americas at Al-Jazeera International. Her op-ed, Al-Jazeera, as American as Apple Pie, ran Sunday in the Washington Post. You can link to it, again, at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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