Al Jazeera Looking To Expand In U.S.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
As the Arab World explodes, most Americans cannot access news and information from Al Jazeera, the international broadcast service based in that area. The network has a roster of veteran, international reporters in the region, while American networks have slashed their overseas bureaus. But Al Jazeera also has a big credibility problem with many Americans and a very hard time getting permission to broadcast on US Cable systems.
During the first days of the Egyptian revolution, the news agency Al Jazeera English says its web traffic increased by 25-hundred percent. The network has a roster of veteran, international reporters in the region, while American networks have slashed their overseas bureaus. And it has access to an impressive list of regional experts to give context to breaking news. But Al Jazeera also has a big credibility problem with many Americans and a very hard time getting permission to broadcast on US Cable systems. The network is hoping that its in-depth coverage of the recent uprisings in the Middle East may change all that.
GUEST: Rob Reynolds, senior correspondent, Al Jazeera English, Los Angeles
CAVANAUGH: Government funding for public TV and radio is once again on the chopping block in Congress. KPBS general manager Tom Karlo and Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray debate the issue. And then one media outlet that's been doing remarkable reporting on the middle east up risings is one most Americans can't see. We'll talk about al-Jazeera English. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Our discussion is government funding for public broad casting will take place later this hour with guest hotels dean Nelson, and guests KPBS general manager Tom Carly on, and San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray. Right now, we're gonna be talking about the tremendous burst in interest in the news agency, al-Jazeera. During the first days of the Egyptian revolution, al-Jazeera says its web traffic increased by 2500�percent. The network has a roster of veteran, international reporters in the region at a time when American networks have slashed their over seas bureaus, and it has access to an impressive list of regional experts on hand to give context to breaking news. But al-Jazeera also has a big credibility problem with many Americans, and a very hard time getting permission to broad cast on U.S. cable systems. The network is hoping that its in depth coverage of the recent up risings in the middle east may change all that. I'd like to welcome my guest, rob Reynolds of he's senior correspondent for al-Jazeera English, Los Angeles bureau. And rob, good morning, thanks for speaking with us.
REYNOLDS: Well, thank you for having me, Maureen. It's a real opportunity to speak to you and to your listeners in San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we invite our listeners to join this conversation. Have you seen any of al-Jazeera's web or satellite coverage of the middle east unrest? Tell us what you thought about it. Give us a call with your questions and your comments at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. First of all, rob, how much coverage of the unrest in the Arab world is al-Jazeera providing? Is it sort of nonstop or are you also covering other stories?
REYNOLDS: Well, we are coving other stories but when things have been hot in the Middle East, when the moments came in the midst of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings where events were taking place that are very rapid pace, we went wall to wall without any interpretation live from Tahrir square in the center of Cairo, and all around Egypt in the case of that country's revolution. And we're doing something quite similar in Libya, although the circumstances there are even more difficult than they were in Cairo. Having said that, we're still offering our viewers coverage of other important stories, we've been covering just today I saw a run down of coverage, in stories from Mexico, covering the continued drug fuelled violence in that country.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I said in the beginning that your web traffic increased by 25 helped percent during the first few days of the Egyptian revolution, now, that's not just from America, best of your recollection that is al-Jazeera English, right?
REYNOLDS: That's correct. And the majority of that web traffic, the new traffic, comes from the United States and Canada. And interestingly enough, when we broke down the numbers, we found that a large percentage of that actually came from California. So there are many people in this part of the United States who have learned about Al-Jazeera and are trying to get access. We know the demand is very strong in all parts of the United States for Al-Jazeera because we get that over our -- the increased traffic to our website, which is English dot Al-Jazeera dot net, and anyone can tune into that, watch our live stream, and get our coverage and our commentary and related content on the website.
CAVANAUGH: Besides the web, are you carried on any cable channels here in the United States? Or how can people see Al-Jazeera English on TV?
REYNOLDS: Well, that's a very good question, Maureen. We're carried in a very limited basis in the United States. We're seen in Washington DC through the MHZ network, we're seen in places bike Toledo Ohio and Burlington Vermont, and have been seen there for quite some time. And we're now getting so much more interest in Al-Jazeera English that we are being inundated with requests for our coverage. And we're now seen on the X KPBS station KCET here in Los Angeles for a certain period of time every day. We're also seen on the -- or listened to on the Pacifica radio networks, and let's see here. I'm just looking over my notes. KZTC which is in San Diego, over the air digital multicast 6�hours in the over night hours, and that's available to about 7000 homes in your area, and that's launching this week.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, well, thank you for that. I want to let everybody know that rob Reynolds is my guest, he's senior correspondent with al-Jazeera English up in LA. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Bob is on the line from Del Mar. Good morning, bob and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Yeah, I've been watching Al-Jazeera for years ever since they have been available on the Internet because of the lack of any international news in the U.S.A. I mean, Al-Jazeera is the BBC of kind of de facto foreign sources of information because there are so many cutbacks with the American networks. So I think Al-Jazeera is excellent. It's staffed by X-BBCers and CBCers. It's objective and it's not like bush, as he said they're flaming, commy, radical Arabs or something. I think al-Jazeera is excellent.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that comment, Bob. Thanks for calling in and telling us that. Rob, what do you think -- we just heard from Bob. What do you think distinguishes al-Jazeera's coverage of what's going on in the Arab world?
REYNOLDS: Well, thank you to Bob for those comments. I think what distinguishes our coverage not only in the Arab world but worldwide in the United States from other mainstream networks that are available in English is that we come from a different viewpoint. We are not corporate sponsored, we do not rely on ratings, we are not tied to a viewpoint of any particular country, we do not see things through the lens of the United States and the interests of Americans, nor through the lens in the case of the BBC of people living in Britain and the interests of the UK. We are broad casting from four locations around the world in Qatar, which is our headquarters in the Persian Gulf, London, Kuala Lumpur, and Washington DC. And we have made it our goal to have this network from the bottom up portraying the interests and aspirations and grievances of people around the world without a fit are so that we can provide an unbiassed and critical look at events that are taking place around the world without fear of any lack -- without fear that we're going to turn off our corporate sponsors or we're going to lose audience participation. Audiences around the world want this kind of thing. Now, I worked at CNN, I worked at NBC in my previous career, and I left those organizations on good terms. So I have no ax to grind with them. But if you look at the coverage that is provided by these news organizations, for example in the Middle East, it is so narrowly focused. For example, NBC which I respect as a good news organization other during the up rising in Cairo, they seemed to be obsessed with the story of one elderly American woman who was supposedly trapped in her apartment and was frightened by the demonstrations that were going on outside. They spent so much time trying to get their audience to identify with the American abroad in this situation. And I know that's how these -- I know that's how it works because I've worked for these companies, and I've worked abroad for a foreign correspondent, they believe that Americans can't identify, can't be bothered by or interested in anything that's happening over seas unless there's some sort of local angle, unless there's an American involved. I don't think that that's true. I think that that sells American viewers way short. And it belittles their intelligence and their desire to be engaged in what's going on in the world. The same is true with the focus on sort of celebrity affairs in this country.
REYNOLDS: Which have taken over the media. I mean issue I've been reporting now for al-Jazeera English for four years, and I've been almost a year in Los Angeles now. And I haven't done a single story about Charlie sheen or Lindsey Lohan, so how about that?
CAVANAUGH: Rob, however, I must say, you know several years ago, al-Jazeera was like a couple of steps up from al Qaeda when it came to its credibility, and its reputation with U.S. officials. I mean, that's how a lot of people in the United States reacted and still reacted when they hear al-Jazeera. How do you over come a reputation like that?
REYNOLDS: Well, I think that reputation, first of all, is undeserved and inaccurate. We were vilified by officials in the bush administration because we were doing our job and we were portraying events that were taking place in Afghanistan and in Iraq in a objective and truthful manner. And people like formerly defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn't like that at all. Our offices of the Al-Jazeera networks in Kabul were bombed by U.S. planes, and an acquaintance of mine, a guy they knew before I joined al-Jazeera named Tarek Ayu was killed as he was reporting live for al-Jazeera from the top of a -- a roof top of a hotel in Baghdad during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. So it's not been just verbal attacks. There have been physical attacks as well. Having said that, are I think that that whole reputation or branding problem that the -- that al-Jazeera has in the United States is really a relic of sort of the freedom fries era when there was so much fear and Islamiphobia abroad in the country. People did not watch al-Jazeera because it was not available to them. So people took this as a sort of secondhand impression that, yes, al-Jazeera is biassed. [] In his opinion, a credible news source. Bob is one of the people who's actually watched the channel, has watched the content, and has made his own decision. And I think that in this day and able, in 2011, for U.S. cable companies to continue to be hesitant to show al-Jazeera for offending Americans is treating Americans like children. We're all adults here. We want news, we want information, and we certainly don't want the cable companies acting as our mommy, holding its fingers over our eyes and saying don't watch this big bad era of news network.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Rob Reynolds, he is senior correspondent for al-Jazeera English in its Los Angeles bureau. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I do want to mention that al-Jazeera can be seen on Links TV, that's viewer supported cable in this country. Jamal is calling from San Diego, good morning Jamal, and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, how are you doing today 1234.
CAVANAUGH: I'm doing great, thanks for calling.
NEW SPEAKER: I just had a couple comments about al-Jazeera. First, I love you guys' jingle. Secondly, what I noticed about al-Jazeera's coverage is whereas the bias for American cable television news channels is they widely miss the point. I find that al-Jazeera's coverage tends to make a point to pull at my heart strings, even when your guests just described the death of one of his colleagues, which is very tragic and I'm sorry about, I don't think that the U.S. Army meant to bomb the building that he was on necessarily. I don't think it was a personal attack on al-Jazeera or something. Other than that, I really do enjoy the coverage, and it is accurate. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thanks Jamal, thanks for the phone call. I think people in the United States are pretty savvy about the biases of the cable networks, the American cable networks. What -- I mean, al-Jazeera can't be completely unbiassed. If you were to describe any kind of bias, what would it be, rob?
REYNOLDS: I think I wouldn't use the word bias, but I would say that our inclination is to tell the stories of the people at the bottom, the people who normally have no voice, rather than to simply accept the pronouncements from the centers of government and these so called talking heads and experts. Now, I thank Jamal for his comments, and I will say that we have a wide variety of opinion on al-Jazeera. We have guests from -- coming from lots of different directions of political points of view. And we show as often as we can the -- these oppose you go points of view. For example, we have P. J Crowley, the State Department spokes done, interviewed on al-Jazeera very frequently. I myself have done interviews with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, admiral Mike Mullen, Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, did an interview recently with the head of our Arabic service in Washington. We also broad cast the views of Israeli officials since we have a special focus on the conflict in the Middle East, the Palestinian Israeli conflict, and these officials seen on Alyson St. John both Arabic, and English versions of Alyson St. John probably for the first time people in the Arab world are hearing the voice of an Israeli official because they don't get that on their state run media. So I'm not going to say that, you know, Maureen, you know that people no matter how hard they try to be completely objective, it's very difficult to do that. So I won't say that there are absolutely no biases among all of the journalists who work at al-Jazeera. But I'd say that we strive as much as we possibly can to portray the world as it is with a wide variety of opinions and viewpoints with a special emphasis, again, on getting the views of people in the streets at the bottom of the heap, the people who are normally overlooked and voiceless.
CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call, rob. Kim is calling us from Mission Hills. Good morning, Kim, and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, good morning. I have kind of a very special reason for really appreciating the work that al-Jazeera is doing, and I hate to make it sound very -- very, very personal, but I have three children in Benghazi right now.
CAVANAUGH: In Libya.
NEW SPEAKER: In Libya, yeah. And I had not been able to be in touch with them for over a week because the lines were down, the Internet was down. But through Alyson St. John at least I knew what was happening there, I couldn't -- I know minute by minute because I do the live blog, Libya, and they have live blogs to many different countries in the middle east. And through that, I got connections to other news sources. So it's not just their source, it's also they connect you to other sources, including ABC and CNN, and YouTube, where you might not see some of the stuff you see on YouTube on the regular stations that we have in the United States.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call, Kim. And I -- do you want to respond, rob?
REYNOLDS: Yeah, Kim, have you been able to reach your kids in Benghazi?
NEW SPEAKER: Yes, finally on Sunday they were able to reestablish the phone lines and the Internet service. So I've been on the phone and Internet with them. And they were able to verify a lot of what al-Jazeera has been reporting, that there's general calm in Benghazi, and where they live, it's just a suburb outside that everything is fine there. But they also corroborated what other people on the ground had said, which only I think al-Jazeera reported, that many people died, my son said at least a thousand people have died.
REYNOLDS: Well, Kim I'm glad your children are safe. And I greatly appreciate your comments about al-Jazeera's coverage in Libya.
CAVANAUGH: Well I think -- thank you for the call very much, Kim, and I think that's one of the reasons that al-Jazeera has found this burst of interest in its web presence is because one noticed, as one was watching TV, that because the American networks couldn't get their TV cameras into Libya, this huge story was not covered with the same kind of -- 247 kind of coverage we got out of Egypt.
REYNOLDS: That's right. And Libya is a much more closed society than Egypt. Although Egypt -- the Egyptian authorities before Hosni Mubarak left his seat of power did try to clamp down. They arrested our journalists from al-Jazeera and they were detained briefly but were released unharmed eventually. In the case of Libya, it's been very interesting, Maureen, we have gotten a flood -- literally been inundated in our headquarters in Doha, Qatar and elsewhere with YouTube, with videos, with cellphone videos, and e-mails of videos, and all sorts of electronic communication from people in Benghazi or in Tripoli or in other parts of Libya. They are reaching out now to us, and we're seeing this reverse flow of information, which I think is really fascinating. It's coming from the streets to the broad casting network, and then out from there. We of course try as hard as we can to verify the source of the videos and the reports and the phone interviews that we're able to do with residents in places like Benghazi or Tripoli. And we are able in that way because people in this countries know and now trust al-Jazeera as a provider of news, they are new reaching out to us and giving us the opportunity to share their stories and what they've literally seen with their own eyes with the rest of the world.
CAVANAUGH: Rob, I wonder as these uprisings in the Middle East, in the Arab Middle East continue, and we hear today that there are demonstrations in Iran, so there's even more going on in that region of the world, do you see al-Jazeera making a step away from the reputation that was handed to them earlier in -- in earlier years and actually presenting what it is that they do to the American public?
REYNOLDS: I think absolutely that is correct. And I think that your viewers -- I'm sorry, your listeners today who've called in are a good example. These folks have actually watched al-Jazeera for themselves, with their own eyes, and they haven't just taken the word of officials like former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld they've watched it themselves. The more that people watch al-Jazeera, the more they will be able to make up their own mind. If they don't like it, then they need not watch it. If they feel that it's not for them, then they're perfectly free to go somewhere else. But they need the opportunity to watch it and decide for themselves. And that's why we are in negotiations with the big cable companies who are now coming around to realize this their policy of trying to exclude us from the airwaves in the United States has been shortsighted because the demand is out there now.
CAVANAUGH: I want to squeeze in one more question. Omar is calling, he's on the road. Good morning, Omar, and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Yes, good morning. Yes, I wanted to know if al-Jazeera is affiliated with BBC in any way, and if not, then -- and, what is your source of funding and income?
CAVANAUGH: Okay, and we're gonna have to do that in about a minute, if that's okay with you, Rob.
REYNOLDS: Okay. Sure. No problem.
CAVANAUGH: No, I mean we can answer it now. But we have about 60�seconds to do so.
REYNOLDS: Oh, oh -- very quickly then, to Omar's question, we're heavily dependent on the state of Qatar for funding. The state of Qatar has a hands off editorial policy for al-Jazeera. The government there, as a policy, believes that it should and does preserve al-Jazeera's editorial independence, knowing that this editorial independence and veracity gives the state of Qatar that much more prominence hot world scene. As far as Omar's question about al-Jazeera's affiliation with the BBC, if I heard him correctly.
REYNOLDS: No, we do not have any affiliation with the BBC, although we have many many people who have left the BBC to come work with al-Jazeera.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, you certainly do. Many, many British corespondents. I have so much more to ask you, perhaps you can come back at a later time, rob.
REYNOLDS: I'd be more than happy to, Maureen. It's been a pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: Terrific. Rob Reynolds, senior correspondent with al-Jazeera English up in LA. If you'd like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Our discussion of government finishing for public broad casting is up next. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.