Vermont TV Station Drops Al Jazeera

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When the city-owned TV provider in Burlington, Vermont decided to drop Al Jazeera English from its offerings, it ignited a debate over the Qatar-based television network. The city has decided to put the decision on hold, while residents weigh in on whether it's a matter of anti-American sentiment or free speech.

ALEX COHEN, host:

The English version of the Arabic news network Al Jazeera went on the air a year and a half ago. Still, not a single major US cable company carries the controversial network. In fact, only two local cable systems currently air Al Jazeera in English.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

One is in Ohio, the other in Burlington, Vermont. But even there, residents are debating whether Al Jazeera should be aired at all. Steve Zind of Vermont Public Radio reports.

STEVE ZIND: Sandy Beard(ph) could watch any number of news stations on the city-owned cable company Burlington Telecom, but only one gives her what she's looking for.

Ms. SANDY BEARD (Al Jazeera Listener): Al Jazeera provides the best 24-hour coverage of international news, which the American networks simply do not. And it's very important stuff to me.

ZIND: As for complaints from critics that Al Jazeera has an anti-American bias, especially in its coverage of the war, Beard says the network is only showing what's actually happening in Iraq.

Ms. BEARD: I don't believe reality is an anti-American bias. I honestly do not understand this whole outcry.

ZIND: The outcry is a debate in Burlington over whether Al Jazeera should stay or go. Last month the manager of Burlington Telecom announced he was pulling the network, citing contractual issues, and what he says were complaints from residents about anti-American content. The decision was put on hold until citizens could weigh in. And they have in a pair of public forums. In a city known for its progressive politics, the vast majority of the forums have expressed opinions like James Lee's.

Mr. JAMES LEE (Burlington Resident): One of the speakers on the other side of this debate said that somehow our freedom is going to be jeopardized if we are permitted the choice to tune in to Al Jazeera. And I think the truth is just the opposite. We lose our freedom when choices are taken away.

ZIND: A few, like Kate Trudell(ph), reject Al Jazeera because it's owned by the government of Qatar, an Islamic country.

Ms. KATE TRUDELL (Burlington Resident): They may have a right to broadcast, but we don't necessarily have to invite them in to the United States of America. If we offered them a spot in our airways, they're not going to be blatantly obvious. I call it soft, subtle, cultural Jihad.

ZIND: Burlington Telecom is one of about 40 publically owned cable systems in the country. In the debate over Al Jazeera, one side argues publically-owned means there should be more diversity than on commercial systems. The other side says a government-run system shouldn't be carrying a network seen as anti-American. Marisa Guthrie of the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable said the problem for Al Jazeera is rooted in an image people have of its sister Arabic service. Guthrie says what comes to mind for most people when they think of Al Jazeera are tapes of Osama bin Laden aired on the network.

. MMARISA GUTHRIE (Writer, Broadcasting & Cable Magazine): When you're lobbying to get an American cable company to carry you, and that's the only thing that people know about you, it's a very uphill battle.

ZIND: Al Jazeera English managing director Tony Burman says the network's image is unwarranted. He says there are suspicions surrounding any Arab-run enterprise.

Mr. TONY BURMAN (Al Jazeera English Managing Director): I think there's a lot of that. My hope would be that in the weeks and the months, dare I say the years ahead, that suspicion, not only in the United States, but in Canada, and obviously in parts of Europe will dissipate.

ZIND: Burman was part of a contingent of Al Jazeera representatives who came to Burlington to plead the network's case. With only about 2,400 television subscribers, the Burlington cable system is a small one. But recently, Al Jazeera has renewed its efforts to gain footing in the US. And losing Burlington could send the wrong message to other cable companies. Burlington Telecom's manager has declined to talk about his decision on Al Jazeera, one that's expected to be made final in the coming weeks. For NPR News, I'm Steve Zind in Braintree, Vermont.

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