Al-Jazeera English Struggles For U.S. Audience Al-Jazeera English, the 24-hour satellite news channel, has been effectively shut out of the world's most important English-language market. Now, with strong financial backing, it is vying to get picked up by U.S. television carriers.
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Al-Jazeera English Struggles For U.S. Audience

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Al-Jazeera English Struggles For U.S. Audience

Al-Jazeera English Struggles For U.S. Audience

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One television network that's covered Iraq quite closely is Al-Jazeera. It started broadcasting only in Arabic, and then more than two years ago, added Al-Jazeera English. Al-Jazeera English is now seen in some 130 million households around the world, although few of those households are in the U.S. American viewers can watch the 24-hour news channel in just a few spots: Toledo, Ohio; Burlington, Vermont. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, Al-Jazeera is fighting to change that.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Let's say you were a reporter at a bar in Golden, Colorado, last summer, interviewing people live as they watched the acceptance speech of Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention in Denver - pretty standard fare. Now let's say you were with Al-Jazeera English. Things would get tricky.

Mr. JOSH RUSHING (Al-Jazeera English Correspondent): We reported live from the bar, but it meant having police snipers on top of the building, undercover police around me.

FOLKENFLIK: When correspondent Josh Rushing came to town, three rival biker gangs came together to protest. There was another surreal layer, Rushing says.

Mr. RUSHING: The other reporters who were there to report on me reporting on the election. So it just became a huge media circus.

FOLKENFLIK: That reaction has effectively shut Al-Jazeera English out of the world's most influential English-speaking market, North America, even as the language is increasingly part of an international conversation, reporting on and for people all across the globe. The Al-Jazeera networks are backed by the riches of the ruling family of Qatar. The original Arabic language channel is known in the Middle East for airing views that are independent of regimes in the region. But after the September 2001 attacks, some U.S. officials accused Al-Jazeera Arabic of being an arm of al-Qaida for running videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden and his aides. Former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation editor in chief Tony Burman is Al-Jazeera English's managing director, and he acknowledges he has to overcome…

Mr. TONY BURMAN (Managing Director, Al-Jazeera English): …the political stigma that's been attached to Al-Jazeera Arabic - an assumption on the part of some people that, you know, what they heard about Al-Jazeera Arabic, A, is true and B, applies to Al-Jazeera English.

FOLKENFLIK: Executives think they can knock down those assumptions, and they hope to drum up public appetite here with an advertising campaign and a Website,

Among journalists, Al-Jazeera English has won some respect. Tony Maddox is vice president and general manager of CNN International. He says his staff monitors Al-Jazeera English closely.

Mr. TONY MADDOX (Vice President, General Manger, CNN International): They were serious in intent, and they've invested in a very sizable international infrastructure. So, you know, their presence has been felt from an editorial point of view and certainly, within the industry, there's a significant awareness of them.

FOLKENFLIK: But there's been little awareness among viewers and therefore, little pressure on cable and satellite TV providers to carry Al-Jazeera English. And Al-Jazeera English has struggled with growing pains too. Former Nightline correspondent Dave Marash was one of the channel's biggest hires, but he quit a year ago, complaining that British news executives at the network relied on lazy stereotypes about the U.S. for story assignments.

Some of those executives are now gone.

University of Michigan professor Juan Cole is author of the upcoming book "Engaging the Muslim World," and he says the network stories are valuable because they focus on how the news directly affects ordinary people around the world. While watching CNN or MSNBC, he says…

Dr. JUAN COLE (History professor, University of Michigan, Author): The day will go by, and I'll hear nothing about Afghanistan. Well, we've got tens of thousands of troops there. A war is going on. I mean, they're being killed. It's odd that there's so little media attention in the United States.

FOLKENFLIK: The channel points to the Israeli siege of Hamas-controlled Gaza this winter when it was the only English-language news outlet fully able to broadcast stories from inside the territory.

(Soundbite of Al-Jazeera broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: My head hurts so much, he tells me, and I don't know what happened to my friends.

FOLKENFLIK: Online traffic for Al-Jazeera English's stories at shot up six-fold. But some reservations linger. Robert Zelnick is a former Middle East bureau chief for ABC News who's now a journalism professor at Boston University. He says he admires Al-Jazeera English for trying to follow Western professional standards, but he adds…

Mr. ROBERT ZELNICK (Former Middle East Bureau Chief, ABC News; Journalism Professor, Boston University): I can appreciate the Israelis' complaint that Al-Jazeera went out of its way to broadcast gory details of what was, of course, a difficult battle.

FOLKENFLIK: Zelnick, who says he generally supported the Israeli decision to strike Gaza, says he found the network's coverage somewhat one-sided and emotional. But Al-Jazeera English correspondent Josh Rushing says he just wants more people to have a chance to see what they're criticizing.

Mr. RUSHING: The next question to ask is, how much have you watched, and almost invariably, the answer is, well, I don't get it, so I can't see it. And I don't know where to take the debate after that.

FOLKENFLIK: That's why the network is pinning its hopes on this awareness campaign. It can't expect people to clamber for what they've never seen. Once again, not an easy sell.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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