Al-Jazeera, as American as Apple Pie

From the archive (legacy material)

Joanne Levine | The Washington Post | 25 June 2006

In a country’s hinterlands, a distant region seldom visited by outsiders, a television crew investigates why so many residents are fleeing the area. When local officials catch wind of the crew’s presence, they begin interrogating people the journalists interviewed, and pressure others not to talk.
Russia? Uzbekistan? China? No. This incident took place in North Dakota, in the heart of the United States.
That’s where a team of reporters I supervise went to shoot a story about the Great Plains emptying out. When the sheriff of Crosby, a town near the Canadian border, heard about it, he contacted the U.S. Border Patrol. An agent soon showed up at the local newspaper, asking for the journalists’ names. Other agents asked whether they “seemed like U.S. citizens.”
The journalists are Peggy Holter, Josh Rushing and Mark Teboe. They are all experienced reporters, and they are all U.S. citizens. So what was it that raised officials’ antennae?
The channel they work for: al-Jazeera.
Say that name in the United States and, likely as not, the listener will practically shudder in revulsion. Many Americans automatically think “terrorist TV,” or “Osama bin Laden’s network.” They see al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language channel based in Qatar, as the al-Qaeda leader’s mouthpiece, broadcasting his videotaped messages of jihad.
Yet the truth is that al-Jazeera is a pioneer of news independence that the U.S. government once lauded for bringing freedom of the press to the Middle East. Now it’s planning to broadcast worldwide, including in the United States. But as its Arab owners work to make that a reality, the prejudice here persists, and those of us who work for the network find ourselves running, at every turn, into resistance, rejection and racism.
Take Border Patrol Assistant Chief Lonnie Schweitzer, who questioned the legitimacy of our reporters’ presence in Crosby. “It’s al-Jazeera,” he told the local newspaper. “What is the interest of an Arab news organization in Crosby, North Dakota?”
Holter, Rushing, Teboe and I work for al-Jazeera International, a 24-hour English-language news and current affairs channel set to launch later this year from four new broadcast centers — in Doha, Qatar; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; London; and Washington. The network will still have a lot of news and documentary programming emanating from the Middle East and showing Arab points of view. But in expanding, it hopes to provide news from a broad range of perspectives and to increase coverage of regions largely forgotten by U.S. networks, such as Africa and Latin America.
Yet even as al-Jazeera International prepares to open a window onto the world, the doors here are slamming shut. AJI and its employees are being isolated. The network cannot get liability insurance, which severely hampers our ability to hire freelancers and rent equipment. One of the big five U.S. accounting firms won’t touch our business here, even though it is happy to work with us in Doha. The same is true of a major international bank.
The channel has also struggled to get distribution in the United States. Various organizations are angered by the prospect of it hitting the airwaves. The conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media is trying to block us any way it can. The United American Committee, which defines its mission as promoting awareness of extremist Islamic threats in the United States, even organized a protest outside the network’s Washington offices in April, although only a handful of demonstrators showed up.
Several employees I know believe they have suffered consequences for joining the network — one was dropped by an adoption agency she once used and another had two rental applications rejected after naming her employer. I haven’t had any experiences as upsetting as those, but many eyebrows were raised in February when I told friends and acquaintances that I was leaving ABC’s “Nightline,” where I was a producer, to take a job as head of long-form programming for North and South America at al-Jazeera International.
Perhaps most significant, scores of people refuse to be interviewed by our reporters. On numerous stories, I have approached people who know me from my past jobs. They will talk to me on the phone, but they refuse to appear on camera, saying they can’t be seen on al-Jazeera. I have heard this too often — from officials in government and Congress as well as from other people in the media.
My department, for instance, tried to do a story about Civil War reenactors. The journalists were denied access to a reenactment because the organizers were expecting “many patriotic people” who they thought would be upset by al-Jazeera’s presence. At the recent Take Back America conference here in Washington, author Kevin Phillips would not accept a business card from our investigative reporter. And even The Washington Post would not allow one of its staff photographers to participate in an AJI discussion about images from the Iraq war.
I am not naive. I know we are living in a time when the Middle East and the West harbor deep-rooted suspicions and mistrust of each other. I’ve worked and lived in the Middle East for the past six years, covering stories such as the second Palestinian intifada and the invasion of Iraq. I’m a New York Jew married to a Jordanian Druze whom I met when I lived in Amman in 2002 on a fellowship. I heard plenty of anti-Semitic comments there from those who didn’t suspect that I might be Jewish. Today, some people ask me how a Jew can work for al-Jazeera. It’s that kind of thinking that builds up walls, rather than tearing them down. The racism I experienced was unacceptable in Jordan. And it is unacceptable in the United States.
Most people in this country have never watched al-Jazeera. But in so many minds, it has become synonymous with al-Qaeda. I’d guess that the only thing most people know about it is that it is always the first network to receive bin Laden’s videotapes. What they don’t know is that al-Jazeera started nearly 10 years ago as the first independent voice in the Middle East. With the courage to tell it like it is, it offended authoritarian regimes from Saudi Arabia to Jordan. Its reporters — and at times the network itself — have been routinely kicked out of countries for reporting the real news instead of acting like the sleeping pill known as state-run television news.
Al-Jazeera has even been labeled “Zionist” by the Arab street and its regimes. It is the only Arabic broadcaster to put Israeli officials on television and to report the Israeli side of stories. Israeli leaders such as Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres have been invited to appear on the network, although they ultimately did not. But Israel routinely sends Arabic-speaking officials to participate on various programs.
What many Americans also don’t know is that, before Sept. 11, 2001, al-Jazeera was lauded and applauded by the Bush administration for this fearless attitude toward the dictatorships of the Middle East. High-ranking administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, made frequent appearances on the network.
After 9/11 — and especially after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — tensions between the West and the Middle East escalated, and al-Jazeera’s reporting often angered Americans. The network showed civilian casualties caused by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also showed images of U.S. troops taken hostage in Iraq. It broadcast pictures of Iraqis celebrating over a downed U.S. aircraft. When four U.S. contractors were killed in Fallujah in March 2004 and their burned and mutilated bodies were hung from a bridge, al-Jazeera put it on TV.
The White House now takes every opportunity to demonize the network’s editorial choices. Some of these choices may be hard for Americans to stomach. But they undeniably offer another side of the story. And al-Jazeera has a tradition of showing both sides. Many Americans would probably be surprised to learn that last winter, a fiery Syrian American psychiatrist, Wafa Sultan, came out on al-Jazeera to declare that violence is destroying Islam. The impassioned interview made her an international sensation — and a target of death threats.
It wasn’t an easy decision to take the job at al-Jazeera International. I’ve found it a challenge to work under conditions in which I often feel like an outcast. But I believe that bridges need to be built, and I felt that taking a job with AJI offered a chance to try to do that.
Each incident shrouded in bigotry has served to convince me ever more that the United States needs an outlet like al-Jazeera International, offering a wider panorama of views. These are dangerous times. And they will just get more dangerous if each side continues to retreat. Al-Jazeera doesn’t shy away from any side of a story. And Americans should not shy away from al-Jazeera.
Joanne Levine is executive producer of programming for the Americas at al-Jazeera International.