WASHINGTON — For anyone who can’t resist betting on an underdog, Al Jazeera English is a 24-hour news network that might be worth watching. That is, if you can find it.
“Our great frustration in life is that except for the closed circuit cable systems of the Pentagon and State Department, which serves embassies in Washington, in America we are only seen on a few very small cable systems, two in Ohio, one in Vermont and one in the Watergate complex [in Washington],” lamented co-anchor Dave Marash, the award-winning, Jewish, former correspondent who spent 16 years working on “Nightline,” Ted Koppel’s nightly news show. Al Jazeera English recruited Marash several months after ABC laid him off in a post-Koppel move to revamp the show. At the time, Marash took a lot of heat for joining an Islamic-backed network that had weathered heavy attacks from then-secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld and was seen by many conservatives as an apologist for Al-Qaeda.
Rumsfeld is gone, Al Jazeera is now seen as a major source of international news, and Marash is still breaking stories. The only hitch is that, even now, it’s easy for his colleagues not to know they’re take credit for “breaking” a story he did first.
Take New York Times reporter Michael Gordon, who last year reported that American troops and independent U.S. contractors had assisted Ethiopian soldiers in toppling the government of Somalia. When Marash broke the story days before, he asked Adm. Michael Mullen, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether the tactic might become a paradigm for future U.S. military operations. Mullen agreed, calling it “one of the arrows in our quiver.”
“Michael Gordon probably never saw the show,” said Marash, knowing too well how public information specialists can spin a story once it has already aired.
Difficulties reaching viewers in the U.S. — despite a worldwide audience of 800 million households — aren’t the only obstacles facing Al Jazeera English’s Washington news team, though. Even after a year on air, Bush administration cabinet officials continue to assiduously avoid the Al Jazeera English option. “Alas, we are finding that American officials are still somewhat gun shy,” said Marash, noting that in Congress, only Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Democrat Neal Abercrombie of Hawaii have appeared.
In addition, out of a current staff of 140, with 40 journalists and four cameramen, only one Al Jazeera English reporter holds a White House press pass.
But none of this seems to bother Will Stebbins, Al Jazeera English’s Washington bureau chief, much. He puts a positive spin on the lack of access.
“When the White House makes a statement on immigration, for example, we aren’t so much interested in being in the press room as we are in reporting from the border where the story is actually taking place,” explained the 41-year-old, former Latin American correspondent for Associated Press Television, who recently hired Lucia Newman, CNN’s Havana bureau chief, to run the network’s Buenos Aires bureau.
Stebbins insisted he faces no shortage of talented journalists eager to join his staff, despite the pro forma chorus of criticism by administration officials who scorn the network for showing close-up shots of wounded American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
“Frankly, it was sort of an embarrassment of riches really,” said Stebbins, who credits his stack of résumés to a growing frustration among journalists over news organizations trimming their international staffs. “Now would seem to be a time when U.S. viewers require much larger ingredients of international news in their evening newscasts, and yet, oddly enough, the coverage is shrinking rather than growing.”
For Lebanese-born Ghida Fakhry, the bureau’s lead female anchor, interviewing an undersecretary of state on matters of international policy is an opportunity worth fighting for. “It’s always a bit of a boxing match,” said Fakhry, explaining, “I enjoy interviews where I can challenge someone in a position of authority. Interviewing analysts is not the same as interviewing U.S. officials before an important U.S. move like the embargo of Iran.”
Voted one of the hottest on-air female news personalities by Esquire magazine, Fakhry, a size 2 who favors Ann Taylor pantsuits for their fitted jackets and hip-hugger waistlines, is a formidable interviewer, as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently discovered. Noting France’s own history of developing a nuclear bomb in secret, she questioned his government’s saber rattling about the need to bomb Iran if that country didn’t give up its nuclear aspirations.
“Can’t you ask me a positive question?” he winced in the face of Fakhry’s grilling.
“I am a journalist,” she replied, offering up a demure smile as she went on to ask why the U.S. had scheduled the round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for November at a time when leaders of both regions were suffering historically low approval ratings at home. From there she wondered, in view of President Bush’s decision to flout the United Nations and attack Iraq, whether the American President should be tried as a war criminal. Kouchner dodged the question without once rejecting the possibility.
Recalling her own journalism career start as a researcher for a leading Arab newspaper based in London, she said, “I remember reading about Christiane Amanpour in Time magazine, that she had been working as a secretary when she asked, ‘Hey, why don’t you send me to the Balkans?”’ said Fakhry, whose decision to adopt the same approach landed her an assignment covering the United Nations. “She paved the way for women journalists to go to a conflict zone.”
“What makes Al Jazeera the best is we never waste our time with ephemeral non-news of the Paris Hilton and O.J. Simpson sort,” claimed Marash. “And most of all because we cover, perhaps even preferentially, 60 percent of the planet that our conventional competitors radically undercover. Places like South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.”
Of course, Al Jazeera can afford to focus on a global view because, so far, it doesn’t have any advertisers. Commercial pressures are growing on all areas of the Western media, a fact recently bemoaned by former vice president Al Gore on “The Daily Show” as one reason American newspapers and TV don’t cover more global issues.
In Al Jazeera’s case, the only vote that counts is that of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who founded Al Jazeera International in 1996 with a grant of $150 million. A decade later, he started Al Jazeera English. But even the emir is interested in measuring his success. In November, he ordered a Nielsen report to mark the network’s one-year anniversary, including an independent analysis of who is watching what.
Among Al Jazeera English’s viewers are three cable stations in Estonia, Global TV in Canada with 1.8 million households and YES satellite in Israel, which in January dropped the BBC in favor of Al Jazeera English. The network has also been successful on the Internet, with its English Web site receiving 4 million to 5 million page views a week, and 60 percent of its hits coming from America.
And the network continues to grab scoops — and generate controversy — worldwide. On Thursday it broadcast an interview with Vietnam’s Thich Quang Do, 80, a prominent dissident and deputy leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, who has been under house arrest in Saigon for more than 25 years. A week earlier, Al Jazeera ignited outrage in Algeria when it conducted a survey on its Web site asking whether Al-Qaeda’s attacks there were justified. The channel subsequently withdrew the poll and issued an apology.
Washington is one of the network’s three international bureaus, along with Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and London, connected to headquarters in Doha, Qatar, by a round-the-world fiber ring. State-of-the-art equipment is strictly high-definition. No one here uses tapes. To put the shows together, producers rely on Samsung computers and the same Vizrt template graphics used by CNN and accessible through an Octopus newsroom system.
Housed in the same unmarked office of a Washington building across the street from McCormick & Schmick’s seafood restaurant, Al Jazeera International and Al Jazeera English operate separately stretched over seven floors.
“We all joke that the place looks like the set from ‘The West Wing,”’ said a receptionist on the third floor where the Al Jazeera English top brass have their offices.
Among those who rate are Riz Khan, a former BBC trainee born in South Yemen and educated at the University of Wales in Cardiff, who previously hosted an interactive talk show for CNN where he interviewed world leaders including Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. In April 1998, he covered the Muslim pilgrimage, the hajj, live for CNN, almost a decade before joining Al Jazeera in 2006.
Also in the lineup is former U.S. Marine Josh Rushing, 35, the Texan who in 2003 was assigned to take questions from Al Jazeera as part of his duties as media affairs officer at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha. He became something of a media star as the only American featured in Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim’s critically acclaimed documentary “Control Room.”
Earlier this year, when Al Jazeera English was considering how to cover Gen. David Petraeus’ September report to Congress on the situation in Iraq, bureau chief Stebbins recalled, “Just before his report, we did a story on the Third Infantry out of Georgia. We didn’t just focus on what Petraeus was saying. We actually went to the place he was talking about. Josh was embedded and went with them to Iraq to give a firsthand report from the troops on the ground.
“The rest of the world doesn’t really have intimate knowledge of how the U.S. functions,” continued Stebbins. “They see a lot of the President, they see a lot of celebrity scandals and celebrity trials, but what they’re really interested in is the interplay between the legislative and executive branches.”