Al Jazeera English Set for Debut; Are Viewers? The Al Jazeera English news channel will begin airing Wednesday. But it remains to be seen how many Americans will -- or can -- tune in to the channel, which has hired well-known journalists from the BBC, CNN and ABC News. America's cable providers have shunned the Qatar-based network's first English-language offering.
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Al Jazeera English Set for Debut; Are Viewers?

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Al Jazeera English Set for Debut; Are Viewers?

Al Jazeera English Set for Debut; Are Viewers?

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Tomorrow morning, Al Jazeera International will enter the 24-hour TV news business. It's an English language version of the Arabic news service. And while there will be some faces and voices familiar to American viewers, it will be hard to catch them here in the U.S.

NPR's David Folkenflik has our report.

Mr. DAVE MARISH (Announcer): I'm Dave Marish. The top story from the Americas -a day after resigning as U.S. secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld says enemies of -

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

Mr. DAVE MARISH (Al Jazeera International): 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 videotaped pronouncements of Osama bin Laden. But Marish 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 ringing the world and four major studios based in Washington, London, Gutter 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.

Perhaps so, but Al Jazeera has plenty of American detractors. Here's Fox News host Bill O'Reilly.

Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Host, Fox News): Helping the terrorists. As we have opined, the TV network Al Jazeera helps al-Qaida and other killers by broadcasting their executions and propaganda.

FOLKENFLIK: Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the same claim. Al Jazeera says that's flatly untrue, but it's battling broader cultural mistrust, as in this spoof from the comedy show Mad TV.

(Soundbite of show, "Mad TV")

Unidentified Man: You are watching the English speaking Al Jazeera Network. The English-speaking action news with Abdul Kareem Aziz.

FOLKENFLIK: In the U.S., only subscribers to the Dish TV satellite system will be able to get the real Al Jazeera International for an extra fee. Nigel Parsons, the channel's managing director, says it hopes to gain greater acceptance and exposure over time.

Mr. NIGEL PARSONS (Managing Director, Al Jazeera International): We don't have horns and forked tails and cloven feet. This is a long term project. We're confident we'll get there in the end.

FOLKENFLIK: Parsons says there's an international perspective viewers can't find elsewhere.

Mr. PARSONS: We are the first English language channel based in the Middle East looking out. Traditionally, these international channels have come from major Western countries.

FOLKENFLIK: The new Al Jazeera channel, like the original, is heavily subsidized by the Amir of Gutter. Richard Sandbrook is director of BBC Global News. He says Al Jazeera wants to do more than reach new viewers.

Mr. RICHARD SANDBROOK (BBC Global News): And clearly, part of what they're trying to do is to further legitimize themselves in the eyes of the West and of the developed countries and to become a kind of bigger player.

FOLKENFLIK: Al Jazeera may find it hard to pull that off. Many Westerners object to interviews like this one on the original Al Jazeera.

Mr. IBRAHIM ALOUSH: (Speaking foreign language)

FOLKENFLIK: There a scholar Ibrahim Aloush claimed there was scientific proof the Holocaust did not occur and encouraged al-Qaida to rise up in Iraq.

Al Jazeera anchor Rita Farhi says focusing on such interviews misses the point.

Ms. RITA FARHI (Al Jazeera): Some pundits in the U.S., some U.S. officials also, often forget the kind of pioneering role that Al Jazeera Arabic played in forcing open debates on important and sensitive issues across the Middle East.

FOLKENFLIK: Another Al Jazeera reporter, Josh Rushing, says Americans aren't receptive yet.

Mr. JOSH RUSHING (Al Jazeera): You tell people hi, I'm from Al Jazeera, there's a look in their eyes of fear and you know they're going through trying to remember - are they supposed to stop, drop and roll, or should they call 911, or what do I do when I'm encountered with a terrorist, you know?

FOLKENFLIK: Rushing was a Marine captain who served as a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Doha. He praised Al Jazeera in a documentary and the backlash led him to leave the Marine Corps. He became one of Al Jazeera's first hires.

Mr. RUSHING: In looking back on it, I wonder how does a nation like America go to war on a bunch of information that ends up all being false - how does that happen? And to me it seems as if a democracy requires a skeptical media. And then it occurred to me that's exactly what Al Jazeera was doing.

FOLKENFLIK: The best way for curious Americans to watch Al Jazeera International will be online. Those with broadband Internet connections can see it for free.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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