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Home > Reading Room > Crossing the Divide: Al Jazeera Comes to America

SPJ Reading Room

Crossing the Divide
Al Jazeera Comes to America

By Ronnie Lovler

It was a conversation with a highly educated friend of mine that convinced me I was on the right track when I decided to do my master’s thesis on Al Jazeera English. I had been closely watching the progress of the plan to bring the network to life. In fact, ever since I saw the documentary, “Control Room”, I have been intrigued and fascinated by Al Jazeera.

pictureRonnie Lovler, a member of SPJ's International Journalism Committee, is a broadcast journalism instructor at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. Ronnie’s journalism career spans several decades. She was director of News & Public Affairs at the University of Florida. She served as bureau chief and correspondent for CNN in Latin America for almost 10 years. During her time at CNN, Ronnie reported from every country in Latin America. Ronnie has also worked for CBS News, The Weather Channel and The Associated Press, as well as The San Juan Star in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Ronnie has also served on the executive board of SPJ’s Mid-Florida Pro Chapter.

She was part of a team of observers headed by President Jimmy Carter monitoring electoral processes in Nicaragua (2001) and Venezuela (2004). During the 2005 U.S. hurricane season, Ronnie worked with the American Red Cross as a volunteer crisis communicator and public information officer. Ronnie is a graduate of Ohio State University.

In any case, we were having a telephone conversation when he asked me about the topic of my thesis. When I told him I was taking a look at Al Jazeera, he launched into a tirade — lambasting me for wanting to look into that “terrorist network.” I told him that it was precisely because of the response he had that I thought it was important to make my small statement about Al Jazeera — which I consider a fresh, new approach to journalism that could open our collective eyes to a different way of looking at the world of news.

The Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, and its sister network, the English-language news network that bears the same name, are revamping the global media scene. The 10-year-old Arabic-language network has changed the way news is delivered and received in the Middle East. It has also challenged Western perspectives on the definition of news and how it should be channeled. Now it seems its English-language offshoot is trying to do the same in the West.

The Arabic-language Al Jazeera is an upstart network with an in-your-face approach to covering the news that has won it a huge popular following in the Middle East. At the same time, Al Jazeera has angered Arab governments across the board as well as the Bush Administration. President Bush has called Al Jazeera “the terrorist network” because it has aired video from and interviews with leaders of Al Qaeda. Al Jazeera English launched in November 2006 wrapped in the mantle of its sister Arabic network for better and/or for worse.

All of Al Jazeera’s operations are headquartered in Doha, Qatar. It was the emir of Qatar who provided the funds to get the original Al Jazeera started; picking up the pieces from a failed partnership between the BBC and Saudi Arabia. Not incidentally, many of Al Jazeera’s first hires came from the BBC World Service. Al Jazeera came into being to serve a primarily Middle Eastern audience; it was the events and political developments of the times that propelled its name beyond the regional sphere of the Arabic-speaking world.

Al Jazeera English, launched in November 2006, is designed to have a global reach that goes beyond national borders or regional interests — or in the channel’s own words to “set the news agenda,” by “reversing the flow of information” from South to North. In other words, Al Jazeera is attempting to present an alternative way of approaching the news that will give more voice and greater coverage to issues, people and events from the developing world.

Most likely, if it wasn’t for Osama bin Laden and the U.S. attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, it’s likely that it would have taken many more years for the Al Jazeera television network to become so well-known in the United States and the West. The Arabic-language Al Jazeera achieved instant name recognition after it obtained exclusive interviews with bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and then a month later, as the sole television network with correspondents in Afghanistan when U.S. troops invaded that country. U.S. and European networks scrambled to get hold of the Al Jazeera tapes and they aired them.

The Arabic-language Al Jazeera has brought a different dimension to the electronic news media pie — particularly television. Whether Al Jazeera English will have the same impact still remains to be seen. It seems to be embarking upon a path that is equally intrepid and contentious. Josh Rushing, a former Marine public affairs officer in Iraq is now a reporter for the English language Al Jazeera and is headed back to his old turf — in a different guise.

Yet at the same time, Al Jazeera English is drawing upon the reputation and credentials of many of the journalists it has brought into its fold — among them David Frost, Dave Maresh, Riz Khan and others who have decades of experience with major Western media news organizations like ABC, BBC, CBC and CNN. Why did they make the move? “How could I pass up the opportunity to be part of something new and cutting edge like this,” said one recent Al Jazeera recruit. “It’s groundbreaking — just like what CNN was 25 years ago.”

In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post last year, Al Jazeera executive producer Joanne Levine, a former Nightline staffer, wrote about what it was like to leave the safety net of ABC for the brave new world of Al Jazeera. “Several employees I know believe they have suffered consequences for joining the network — one was dropped by an adoption agency she once used and another had two rental applications rejected after naming her employer. I haven't had any experiences as upsetting as those, but many eyebrows were raised in February when I told friends and acquaintances that I was leaving ABC's "Nightline,” she wrote.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera English has posted its own “Code of Ethics” on the web page, which is not all that much different from that of SPJ. SPJ calls on us to “seek truth and report it. Al Jazeera urges its journalists to “endeavor to get to the truth and declare it.” That’s just one example, but you can’t get much more similar than that.

Al Jazeera English got rave reviews from most major U.S. media when it went on air Nov. 15, 2006 and was even the focus of a Daily Show segment a few weeks after it launched. But the pats on the back haven’t yet helped Al Jazeera English overcome one its biggest hurdles — at least in the United States. Very few people can see it because Al Jazeera English has had difficulty securing distribution. Quite simply cable companies don’t want to carry it. Freedom of speech? Not for Al Jazeera English. At least not yet.
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