Al Jazeera English set for local cable


Just weeks before we memorialize the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, a news network known for its anti-Israel and anti-American slant, will be coming to Long Island on local cable networks. In contrast to efforts made by former president George W. Bush to postpone the airing of Al Jazeera English in the United States, current President Barack Obama strongly encourages its arrival on local television channels.

In light of its “Arab Spring” coverage, President Obama believes that Al Jazeera has shifted its reporting from anti-American towards pro-democracy. “Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech to the Senate in March. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials.”

The independently operated company was initially launched as an Arabic news channel in November 1996. Since then, Al Jazeera has widely expanded into a network with several media outlets, including online and specialty television channels in English and Russian among other languages. The original mission of Al Jazeera, to broadcast diverse views through call-in channels, was controversial in the Arab world. After the 9/11 attacks, the station gained worldwide attention for being the only one to broadcast the war in Afghanistan live from its bureau there, and for its broadcasting speeches by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Al Jazeera English was first launched in 2006, with initial staff members experienced in reporting for top news organizations. The network appeared to advance an extremist Islamic ideology, while openly expressing antagonism toward Jews and the Jewish state. Examples of its extensive anti-Israel reporting include the birthday party thrown by Al Jazeera Arabic for Samir Kuntar, a murderer of three members of a Jewish Israeli family, after he was released by Israel in July 2008.

Some local supporters of Israel have witnessed firsthand the subjective reporting of Al Jazeera. During last year’s confrontation between David F. Nesenoff and longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas, “There were a number of strong errors in their reporting. They said there was an anti-Israel protest that day when there was not,” Nesenoff said. “I’ve noticed that they constantly want to show an impression that there are always protests against Israel at the White House.”

In addition to appearing as anti-Israel, Al Jazeera also seems to take an anti-American slant. “There’s no question that the editorial views on it are more critical of U.S. policy, but I wouldn’t say that it’s anti-American,” said Harvard communications professor Matthew Baum. “It’s simply reflecting who their customers are, the perspective of the region.”

The broadcaster’s opinion columnists are sated with subjective Israel bashers who freely use the “apartheid state” label when speaking of Israel. Even recently claiming Zionism is to be blamed for the Norway killings.

While Al Jazeera has a reputation for critically reporting on America and Israel, Baum believes that few Americans have actually seen an Al Jazeera English broadcast. “It’s mainly for immigrant communities. But if it’s in every household, that could change public opinion.” Baum said that with the perception that Al Jazeera is anti-American, watching the network may feel “politically incorrect” and it will take time for the network to establish a wider audience.

Al Jazeera English is doubling up its efforts to persuade cable companies around the nation to carry its news channel. Earlier this year Al Jazeera English launched the “Demand Al Jazeera” online campaign to press its case, urging supporters to lobby their local cable companies, many of which turned down the requests due to the network’s reported anti-American and anti-Semitic bias.

In May, Comcast denied Al Jazeera’s many efforts to appear on their network. However, the company recently began leasing space from WRNN, a private broadcast network that provides news for its own channel as well as Verizon FiOS. On August 1, Time Warner Cable began broadcasting Al Jazeera and it will soon be available on Verizon FiOS. The deal will bring the channel to over two million homes across the New York Metropolitan area. 

“The Al Jazeera Network will be broadcasted on multi-cast through the WRNN station in Westchester which has a few channels on the Verizon network,” said John Bonomo, Verizon FiOS director of media relations. “The agreement was made between Al Jazeera and WRNN. Verizon just broadcasts what the Westchester network elects to put on.”

Al Anstey, the managing director of Al Jazeera English, informs the press that there has been a high demand for the channel in New York. He adds that 40 percent of the network’s online traffic comes from the United States. Furthermore, Al Jazeera already attracts 500,000 online readers from New York, according to Anstey.

The network is in for a cold response from Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, who argues that the network views the U.S. as “Neocons and violent invaders and murderers of civilians.” But even he admits that its English tone would be tamer. “I have seen the change in tone over the last several years. They often use American terms such as ‘neocons’ to win over the anti-war faction of the American population,” O’Reilly said on his show in February.

While the channel brings with it mixed feelings, there is no denying that it is available here on Long Island, and its viablilty and popularity will remain to be seen.