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Will Al Jazeera English Revolutionize America's TV News Landscape?

The Qatar-based TV international news channel has changed the face of Arab media, and its poised to do the same in North America.
 
 
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There are three forces shaping the world, an Arab reporter I met in the Gaza Strip once told me: money, women, and journalism.

On the first and third counts, he might have been thinking of Qatar, where I pass by luxury shopping malls, glittering real estate developments, and, in a spirit of reasonableness, traffic signs that advise caution when driving the wrong way down one-way streets. Over the past decade, this tiny desert emirate of a million and a half people -- a bump on the rib cage of Saudi Arabia, directly across the Persian Gulf from Iran -- has asserted itself on the world stage in large measure by pouring money into, of all things, journalism. Since 1996, it has been funding Al Jazeera (Arabic for "the island"), the network that revolutionized the Arab media and is poised to do the same for the English-speaking world.

Passing through the security gate, where a Yemeni guard gives my documents the once-over, I enter the air-conditioned headquarters of Al Jazeera English, the international news channel the network launched in November of 2006. Inside the sweeping high-tech production facility, cameras roll as a young Australian anchor opens a segment on the South African elections, then passes the baton to his co-anchors at the channel's three other broadcast centres, in Washington, London, and Kuala Lumpur.

The managing director of this ambitious operation is on the second floor, above the fray. Tony Burman, the former news chief of CBC Television, has the sort of face that can appear to be scowling when in fact he is deep in thought. Most of the time, what he is thinking about is news -- like today's story by AJE's Beijing correspondent Melissa Chan, who managed to gain entry to one of China's secret "black jails," where the government imprisons citizens who challenge its authority. It's a classic AJE story: a local reporter familiar with the language and culture investigates a place where few foreign correspondents venture to any depth, focusing on the plight of ordinary people and putting the story into context for a global audience. This kind of intrepid field reporting is how Burman made his mark as a producer for Canada's public broadcaster in the '80s and early '90s, when he covered conflict in South America, civil war in Sudan, Mandela's release from prison in South Africa, and the famine in Ethiopia. His crew famously broke that last story for North American viewers, in the process discovering three-year-old Birhan Woldu, who became the face of international relief efforts like Live Aid.

From his spacious corner office, Burman keeps an eye on four television screens: Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera English, and AJE's two main competitors in the global news game, BBC World and CNN International (neither of which is broadly available in North America). Fumbling with the remote, he misfires, landing on what might be considered his arch-nemesis. "I come all the way to Qatar to watch Fox?" he says, bemused.

By the time Burman resigned from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2007 after thirty-five years, eight of them as editor-in-chief, he'd had enough of an upper management he thought was turning CBC into a "B-minus version of Global," the network owned by ailing media giant Canwest. He had become, he says, "less and less happy" with cbc's Americanized direction (though not nearly as unhappy as he might have been had he stayed for the savage staff and budget cuts of late). "It was really time to leave." Yet neither he nor anyone else could have predicted that a year later he would decamp halfway across the world to take on the greatest challenge of his career, lured by a fascinating -- and unlikely -- development in international journalism.

In less than three years, Al Jazeera English has emerged as the dominant channel covering the developing world. As the first worldwide news station to be based in the "global South," it has an audacious mandate: to reverse the information flow that has traditionally moved from the wealthy countries of the North to the poorer countries south of the equator, and to be the "voice of the voiceless," delivering in-depth journalism from under-reported regions around the world. With more than seventy bureaus run by staff drawn from some fifty nations, a typical news day for AJE might include reports on a nomadic camel-herding tribe whose members are key rebel leaders in Darfur, a lawsuit against Chiquita (formerly the United Fruit Company) for financing paramilitary death squads in Colombia, the effects of the global financial crisis on Pakistani carpet weavers, and the recent massive spike in arms sales to the United Arab Emirates. AJE currently broadcasts to 150 million households in more than 100 countries -- with the exception, until now, of North America.

That's where Burman comes in. A bred-in-the-bone journalist who started out in the late '60s reporting for the Montreal Star, where his father was a news editor, he has a lifelong passion for foreign correspondence. Hired by CBC as a radio and TV producer in the early '70s, he took a year off to freelance in South America before rejoining the network, where he eventually served as its European bureau chief, then moved into management. As head of television news, he was the kind of leader journalists were grateful to have on their side.

"When Tony left, people thought, 'There goes the last great journalist in management,'" says Beth Haddon, an old friend and colleague of Burman's who is an adjunct professor at the journalism school of the University of British Columbia. They met when both were senior news producers at CBC in the '80s. "Tony really stood for something," she says. "For quality journalism -- that's old-fashioned, of course -- of fairness, balance, verification, public discourse."

Burman had a reputation for defending his journalists when their reporting raised hackles. (His physical presence can be intimidating: "Give Tony a cigar," one young Al Jazeera staffer told me, "and you could roll the cameras on a Mafia film.") And he didn't mind taking controversial positions if the facts backed them up. Such qualities stand him in good stead running not only AJE's global news coverage, but also its campaign to break into Canada and the US, where cable and satellite carriers have been loath to associate themselves with a network that much of North America still considers Terror TV. The task of demolishing the misconceptions attached to the Al Jazeera brand is daunting. As Haddon warned Burman when he first floated the idea of leaving Toronto for Doha, the job sounded good, "but you'll never have lunch in this town again." Yet his move could hardly have been better timed, coming at a moment when the Western media are in a state of unparalleled crisis, undergoing the first seismic challenge to their dominance since the advent of television.

After years of sacrificing qualified reporting staff to the bottom line, and substituting public relations (press releases barely rewritten, press conferences reported verbatim) for costly investigative journalism, the media corporations that, starting in the '90s, convinced regulators that consolidation was essential to their survival have found themselves with little immunity against the financial crisis. Faced with the simultaneous defection of their ad revenue and audiences to the Internet, even towering news titans such as the Boston Globe and the New York Times are struggling, while others are perishing outright.

Foreign bureaus have been among the hardest hit by cost-cutting measures in print and television media alike. According to the Pew Research Center's annual State of the News Media report, coverage of international events by American media fell by about 40 percent in 2008. Thus has a bizarre situation arisen: at the most interconnected time in history, accurate and comprehensive news of the outside world is disappearing -- and with it an informed public.

"The mainstream American networks have cut their bureaus to the bone," says Burman. "They're basically only in London now. Even CNN has pulled back. I remember in the '80s when I covered these events, there would be a truckload of American journalists and crews and editors, and now Al Jazeera outnumbers them all." The channel plans to open ten new bureaus in the coming year, including one in Canada. "At the risk of sounding incredibly self serving," Burman says, "that's where, in the absence of alternatives, Al Jazeera English can fill a vacuum, simply because we're going in the opposite direction."

Today Burman is marking a victory: Al Jazeera English has finally broken into the United States. A non-profit educational broadcaster has agreed to carry it in Washington and twenty other American cities. The breakthrough is a watershed after years of confinement for aje to two small areas in the US (besides the State Department and the Pentagon), and -- in stealth manoeuvres that have essentially commandeered new technology to circumvent the blockade -- on YouTube, or streaming for free online through Livestation.com. Burman's main thrust, however, has been Canada, which he considers a critical beachhead. If AJE can get permission to broadcast here, he expects to have a far easier time with the commercial American cable carriers that have thus far shied away.

"My hope is that once people see that the sun still shines, kids still go to school, people still laugh at good jokes, and the republic holds," he says, "they will give it a shot."

Al Jazeera built its name on opposing the status quo. The first twenty-four-hour news channel in the Arab world, it was launched by the Emir of Qatar in 1996, a year after he overthrew his father while the old man was holidaying in Switzerland. The coup, which ushered in an era of liberalization in the emirate, was nothing compared with the revolution the channel would create -- one arguably as significant for the Arab world as Martin Luther's legendary nailing of his dissident theses to a church door was for Europe. (That old-school press conference, which ignited the Protestant Reformation, took off thanks to a new technology: the printing press. For the Arab world, that technology is the satellite dish.)

The birth of Al Jazeera marked the first time in modern history that a plurality of viewpoints was included in the Arab public discourse -- and there was something to outrage just about everyone. With a mandate to broadcast "the opinion and the other opinion" through a mix of news and audience-participation talk shows, the channel gave Israeli and American commentators a voice, along with religious skeptics, Islamic fundamentalists, women's advocates, and political dissidents. The result was accusations from all quarters -- that it was an instrument of the Mossad, the CIA, or, of course, al Qaeda. As American political science professor Marc Lynch, author of Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, has said, the channel provided "a relentless criticism of the status quo, of political repression, of economic stagnation." It pried the stranglehold on information from the hands of state leaders, and allowed formerly heretical views to enter the living rooms and coffee shops of the Arab public, forcing their politicians to, as Lynch puts it, "at least think about what will play well on Al Jazeera."

By contrast with AJE's bright new premises, the Arabic channel's headquarters are spare -- nothing more than a series of high-end trailers with stained industrial carpeting and the scent of coffee laced with cardamom floating through the hallways. Just inside the front entrance is the original production facility, recognizable from Control Room, the 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera filmed during the early days of the Iraq invasion. On this particular afternoon, Wadah Khanfar, the forty-year-old director general of the network (which encompasses the Arabic and English channels, plus a documentary channel, and a handful of subscription-only sports channels -- the network's primary money-makers, given an ongoing Arab advertising boycott) has been contending with two new sources of outrage. Today it is Egypt, which is claiming that the "state of Al Jazeera" is plotting to overthrow its government; and Sudan, where an adviser to the president wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes has stated that Al Jazeera is too "stupid" to understand the concept of national interest.

For Khanfar, an imposing figure in a navy blue pinstriped suit and red tie who wields stock phrases like "speaking truth to power" and clearly relishes the role of the muckraker, it's just another ordinary day. Seated in his first-floor office next to the newsroom, where a beautiful woman with blown-out hair and full TV makeup is preparing to anchor a segment, he complains about the authoritarianism of Arab states. "You know what is the national interest for every leader in the Arab world?" he asks. "To protect his seat." He pounds the leather armrest on his chair for effect. "Can you believe that most of them, when they die, their children take over?"

Like in Qatar? "Everywhere. I don't think of Qatar as a haven for freedom and democracy, but it has done this: it allowed Al Jazeera to exist while every other Arab government either closed down bureaus or arrested journalists or put them in jail. And for this the Arab world, I must tell you, is experiencing something different."

Having begun his career as an Africa correspondent, Khanfar went on to report for Al Jazeera from the Kurdish region of Iraq in the lead-up to the US invasion. He presented, he says, the facts: that the Kurds hated Saddam Hussein and wanted him gone. Khanfar's broadcasts so enraged Iraq's then minister of information (not to mention viewers who supported Saddam Hussein) that he marched into Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau with his Kalashnikov and a security detail and promised that Khanfar would be hanged in the main square in Baghdad. Within days, however, the government had fallen. Khanfar became Al Jazeera's Baghdad bureau chief and in October 2003 was named director general.

 
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