Al Jazeera has been called "the terrorist network," a "beheadings channel," and "a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden." Yet there was Dave Marash, 64, Al Jazeera's improbable anchor, sitting at his computer in a seventh-floor corner office in its K Street location, surrounded by mementos from his work as an Emmy-award-winning Nightline correspondent -- a William Gaddis novel on a shelf, an Eva Cassidy plaque on a wall, and a Ghanan akuaba'a fertility doll on top of bookshelf.
It's a radical career move. Currently neither his old friends from ABC, nor anybody else, can watch him on television in the United States. His new employer, Al Jazeera English, launched its channel on November 15 out of Washington -- but only on the Web. How did his friends react when they heard the news?
"The overwhelming majority said, 'That's Marash,'" he says with a grin. Wearing a red tie and wire-rimmed glasses on a recent Friday morning, he enthusiastically described the channel's "absolutely, state-of-the-art" production quality and its "four regional news bases" in Washington, London, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Doha, Qatar, hometown of its financial backer, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, the emir of Qatar.
The goal, at least according to promotional spots, is "[t]o challenge the mainstream media." In some ways, the station has. Even without airing in the United States, it has gained radical-chic allure. In early December, cameramen from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart filmed a segment in the station's K Street building. Playwright Eve (Vagina Monologues) Ensler, wearing red-framed glasses and sitting in an empty theater, will appear in an upcoming Aljazeera Everywoman, a weekly magazine show. And Benetton and Diesel are described as potential advertisers, according to an April 2006 article in Fast Company.
"Right now Al Jazeera is the new frontier," proclaims an advertisement on the channel. Behind the hyperbolic, go-boldly language, though, is a news-gathering organization that is trying to be taken seriously. The channel broadcasts live and worldwide 16 hours a day, focusing heavily on the developing world. According to promotional material, it hopes to provide "accurate, impartial and objective news for a global audience from a grass-roots level" and to become "the channel of reference for Middle East news."
The grass-roots part is key. Al Jazeera English offers an ambitious -- perhaps quixotic -- approach to news, placing an emphasis on ordinary people. Marash says his hero is foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist who has spent decades writing about political issues in African and Latin American countries from the perspective of low-level bureaucrats, former servants, and nomads. "CNN doesn't go for the little man," explains Hugh Miles, a Cairo-based journalist and author of a book, Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. "It shows Minister A meeting Minister B and talking about an important issue. Al Jazeera produces shows about an ambulance driver in Gaza and a gold miner in the Congo."
But is the channel's perspective new or skewed? Probably both. It is too early to judge how accurate its news coverage will be over a sustained period, yet there are clues. In many ways, its newsroom would seem familiar to any Western journalist. The staff of about 140 was hired away from CNN, NBC, CBS, and other U.S. stations, including someone from fox News Channel, according to Washington bureau chief Will Stebbins, himself a former Associated Press Television News executive. Their workspace is bustling and chaotic. Old copies of BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal were piled on a table the Friday afternoon that I visited, and the yellow-and-black carpet was partly held together with masking tape. The back of the room was heavy with the scent of bagels, and a producer-type, a man in sideburns and frayed jeans with Dinosaur Jr. wallpaper on his desktop, was shouting into his telephone, "You are a visionary!"
The channel's editorial product offers professionally packaged news from experienced journalists. There are 24 anchors working in the four regional bureaus. In addition, some CNN regulars appear on Al Jazeera English; Mike Wallace, Wesley Clark, and Jimmy Carter have all been interviewed or are scheduled to appear on the channel. Some of the programming is Headline News in style, though more international and slightly longer in form, from Laos, Somalia, Gaza, and Mexico City. Other stories cover local businesses, such as Jihad Construction, which is helping to rebuild Lebanon, and regional conflicts ("exclusive footage of a shootout" in Kinshasa, Congo, was touted recently).
Of course, Al Jazeera shows its distinctive character as well. When there's fashion, it's about the hijab (featuring Yasmin Safri, "catwalk designer of Islamic fashionwear"). Among the early investigative airings are "Triangle of Anger," a journalist-produced documentary about extraordinary rendition, and "Prisoner 345," another documentary, about an Al Jazeera cameraman, Sami al-Hajj, who was arrested on the Afghan-Pakistani border in December 2001 and later imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. One recent news segment depicts the lives of Iraqi children, who play with a battery-operated toy vehicle in the street -- and watch it collapse in flames after the explosion of a miniature explosive in the front hood.
The key question, of course, is editorial control. Al Jazeera executives and newscasters say they work independently of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani and separate from their Arabic-language counterpart. "Not only is Al Jazeera English editorially independent of Al Jazeera Arabic -- although they each share the same guiding spirit -- but each of the four broadcast centers of Al Jazeera English retains editorial independence over its own content, allowing each center to present the news as seen from its particular position in the world," explained Stebbins.
It's true that under Sheikh Hamad, the press censorship law in Qatar has been eased. "The Doha-based al-Jazeera satellite channel is acknowledged as the freest television station in the Middle East," according to a December 1 country briefing from the Economist Intelligence Unit. Still, it's hard to believe Al Jazeera English is as clean as its executives claim. Sheikh Hamad is openly critical of the West, sharply attacking it "for boycotting the Hamas government," and adding "that Palestinians are being punished for practicing democracy." But the extent of his influence is elusive. As Brendan Bernhard wrote in a November New York Sun article, "It would take a George Smiley to figure out what the Emir of Qatar's game is, but it's surely a double, triple, or even quadruple one."
Yet Al Jazeera English doesn't seem to show obvious bias: The United States and Israel are treated like any other country in the news segments and are not referred to as evil empires -- despite what the channel's detractors may think. There is, not surprisingly, a significant amount of coverage devoted to Iraq, in stories that don't seem to show any more sympathy for the Sunni or the Shia perspective. Instead, they show compassion for the "Iraqi people."
Most of the anchoring is done in Doha. Between news segments about malaria in Ethiopia, a new prison wing at Guantanamo Bay, and the Iraq Study Group, you are invariably taken back to the Doha mother ship -- an enormous, two-story, Matrix-fantasy newsroom with rows of desktops bathed in shades of rich, cornflower blue. Among the
Al Jazeera English 24 newscasters, 12 are stationed in Doha, according to the company, and the ratio of news coverage among the four regional centers shows Doha clearly in the lead. Even the most casual viewer gets the message: Doha is the center of the world.
Critics, including the Bush administration, have claimed that Al Jazeera has ties to terrorists, but Al Jazeera English staff say that is simply wrong. "Al Jazeera has a functioning relationship with al-Qaeda and insurgent groups in Iraq. But it doesn't mean they have any ideological sympathy for these political groups," says writer Miles. "The Pentagon and the State Department have invested a lot of resources trying to show Al Jazeera is a terrorist channel, or funded by terrorists, but they haven't been able to do it for the simple reason it's not."
To date, no U.S. satellite or cable company has picked the channel up.
Al Jazeera English spokeswoman Lindsey Oliver explained that "it is hard for any new broadcast organization to get carriage, particularly on satellite and cable, because of the limited space they offer for new programming." Still, it's not easy being associated with the network that features personalities like Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, an Islamic leader who has supported suicide bombings, and others who express strong anti-U.S. sentiments. "Cable carriers are afraid of the P.R. hit they will take for being the first media conglomerate to pick up on what most Americans believe is a terrorist wire service," says Matthew T. Felling, media director of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan organization that studies the news media.
People in other countries have given a warmer reception to Al Jazeera English. More than 80 million households, in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and other countries around the world, can tune into the channel on television. British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared on one of its programs on November 20, five days after its launch. Perhaps not surprisingly, there hasn't been any response from the White House. "No flowers," says the program's Washington bureau chief Stebbins. "Must be stuck in the mail."