x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Across the US, Al Jazeera is still seen as too controversial to screen

Praised by Hillary Clinton for providing 'real news around the clock', attacked by Glenn Beck of Fox News as 'a propaganda machine for the Muslim Brotherhood', Al Jazeera English can still only be seen by a tiny minority of the American viewing public.

Egyptians watching Al Jazeera on a set placed on top of public telephone booths in Cairo's Tahrir Square, during the demonstrations earlier this year calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak's regime. Khaled Desouki / AFP Photo
Egyptians watching Al Jazeera on a set placed on top of public telephone booths in Cairo's Tahrir Square, during the demonstrations earlier this year calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak's regime. Khaled Desouki / AFP Photo

WASHINGTON // With its blanket coverage and the ability to deploy a large contingent of reporters throughout the Middle East, Al Jazeera is out in front of other international news stations in its coverage of the popular uprisings currently sweeping the region.

So far ahead of others has it been, in fact, that Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, felt compelled recently to single out the Qatari network for praise while criticising US media outlets.

"You may not agree with [Al Jazeera], but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which is not particularly informative to us," Mrs Clinton told the Senate foreign relations committee on March 2 while testifying on national security and foreign policy priorities.

And yet in the US, the network is available to only a select few markets: Washington and the states of Ohio and Vermont. Americans have largely had to turn to US news outlets, many of which have relied heavily on Al Jazeera footage, for their information on the popular uprisings in the region that have so far led to the departure of two Arab leaders.

By contrast, Arabs have been glued to Al Jazeera, a regional reach very much acknowledged both by governments, which regularly shut the network down, and anti-government leaders, in countries rocked by popular unrest.

In an interview with Al Jazeera English as the Libyan city of Tobruk fell from Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's grasp on February 22, Major General Suleiman Mahmoud, the Libyan officer in charge of the city, began by expressing his appreciation of the network, for "broadcasting what is happening" across the region.

The network's absence on cable providers across the US has deprived Americans of Al Jazeera's unique on-the-ground coverage and is politically and economically motivated, observers said.

Lawrence Pintak, a professor professor and co-founder of Washington State University's College of Communications, said major cable providers are wary of providing Al Jazeera because the network is seen as controversial.

"Certainly they're not on the major networks, the Time Warners and the Comcasts in part because those organisations know that by putting Jazeera on the air it is going to generate a lot of backlash. So there has not been, up until this point, a big upside for them."

In some quarters, Al Jazeera has been painted as no more than a platform for extremist Islamist viewpoints. Critics, largely right-wing US pundits, grew progressively vocal during Al Jazeera's recent growing prominence.

The Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly characterised the network as "anti-American" and "anti-Semitic" on his news show, The O'Reilly Factor, last month.

Glenn Beck, another Fox News personality, took O'Reilly's criticisms a step further on his self-titled news show, seeing the criticism against Al Jazeera as part of a fight of "good versus evil". "Even our media can't seem to figure out that Al Jazeera is a propaganda machine for, in this case [Egypt], the Muslim Brotherhood, and the 'revolution' on the streets."

Tony Burman, Al Jazeera English's chief strategic adviser for the Americas, said claims of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism were nonsense. He said: "I suspect O'Reilley and Beck and that whole crowd probably have not spent a minute of their lives watching Al Jazeera English. [It] is being seen now in more than 220 million households in more than a hundred countries, including in Israel. It obviously wouldn't be available and watched in Israel if it was anti-Semitic."

Mr Burman said charges of anti-Americanism were also unfounded, saying that "any broadcaster, which covers international affairs with thoroughness can be accused by certain Americans as being anti-American, but I think the response by Americans towards our programming is evidence that that is an eccentric minority view."

Dr Pintak said he believed the unrest across the Arab world could be Al Jazeera English's "Gulf War" moment, a reference to the 1991 conflict that established CNN as the world's leading news provider at the time, and which shifted the media landscape.

Satnam Matharu, the director of communications at Al Jazeera, speaking to National Public Radio, said that during the Egyptian uprising, Al Jazeera's English language website saw a 2,500 per cent jump in traffic, with six out of 10 of those visiting the site from the US.

Noting the marked increase in traffic to their website and attention from US news networks, Al Jazeera launched a campaign in the US to promote its coverage, which included full-page advertisements in The New York Times and advertising on the Los Angeles Times and foreign policy websites.

In markets where it is available, some viewers have long followed Al Jazeera because it provides a different perspective. At a Young Men's Christian Association in Washington, the only television in the lobby is regularly tuned to the network.

"It is interesting. It is something new. You actually learn about something," said Sean, 22, who works for the YMCA. "You see where people are from, and I'm open to that."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae