When Al Anstey, a 45-year-old veteran British journalist, was named managing director of al-Jazeera English in October 2010, he could hardly have predicted the events that would soon propel the five-year-old news network to new heights in the U.S. As the Arab Spring began to rock the Middle East, AJE would quickly become an indispensable resource for U.S. viewers transfixed by the uprisings.
For those viewers, there was a small problem: al-Jazeera was and remains all but banned from U.S. cable systems. Thanks to the Internet, however, millions of Americans watched AJE's live Web stream, which featured vivid, round-the-clock coverage of the events.
U.S. Web viewership of AJE has since skyrocketed. Its website now receives more than 22 million visitors per month. Al-Jazeera's desire to expand its English-speaking empire has climbed too. With Anstey at the helm, that means boosting AJE's credibility in the West and proving to U.S. television and cable outlets that U.S. viewers care about global news. "So often one hears that Americans aren't interested in what's going on around the world, and I think we've successfully challenged that," Anstey says. In an effort to grow the network's U.S. footprint, he launched the Demand al-Jazeera campaign complete with full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers which generated more than 70,000 signatures from U.S. viewers.
The advocacy is starting to pay off. In September, nearly 10 years to the day after the 9/11 attacks, AJE became available through Time Warner Cable and Verizon FiOS in New York City, which sends more traffic to AJE's website than any other city globally. AJE also makes its way onto Chicago public television Oct. 31. (It has been available in small markets in Rhode Island, Vermont and Ohio as well as in Washington, D.C.) The broadening of AJE's reach is quite a feat for a news organization once branded a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda. During the Iraq war, former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously suggested that al-Jazeera was in league with America's enemies. Like its Arabic-language sister channel, AJE, with its 250 million viewers in more than 120 countries, is funded by the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a key U.S. ally in the region.
"It's taken a while to tackle certain myths and misconceptions in the U.S. about what al-Jazeera stands for," says Anstey. He insists that the network's coverage is fact-based and that AJE is wholly independent of the Qatari government. But there are skeptics. Cables published by WikiLeaks suggested that al-Jazeera director general Wadah Khanfar altered coverage of the Iraq war in response to pressure from the U.S. government. Khanfar resigned in September.
And there have been setbacks. As Egypt's protests grew, the Mubarak government revoked al-Jazeera's license before ransacking its Cairo bureau and ultimately yanking it off the air. The network's correspondents in the Middle East have been harassed, beaten and in one case during the Libyan uprising even killed.
In the U.S., AJE has since received widespread plaudits. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a congressional hearing that AJE carried "real news" as opposed to "arguments between talking heads." Rumsfeld did an about-face, saying in a recent interview he was "delighted" with the network. Columbia Journalism School dean Nicholas Lemann confessed that he had become an al-Jazeera "addict." Prominent media pundit Jeff Jarvis even suggested that it was "un-American" for the major U.S. cable providers not to carry AJE.
Anstey believes AJE has a competitive advantage when it comes to global news: more than 1,000 staffers from 30 countries working in 70 bureaus. "We've got correspondents who live and breathe these stories worldwide," Anstey says. "They don't just parachute in, and that's a key distinction."
Still, AJE's U.S. expansion faces challenges. Earlier this fall, AJE reporter Gabriel Elizondo arrived at a high school football game in the tiny town of Booker, Texas, hoping to interview locals about the anniversary of 9/11. After a tense exchange with school officials, Elizondo was turned away. Winning over the American heartland may be AJE's toughest assignment yet.
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