Since its launch in 2006, Al Jazeera English has had a lot of trouble breaking into American markets. Andrew Stelzer reports a cautionary tale about Burlington, Vermont, a town whose cable service picked up Al Jazeera English, inspiring intense local protests.
After September 11th the Bush administration condemned Al Jazeera, the Doha-based Arabic language TV news network for its airing of bin Laden tapes and images of captured American soldiers. But this year’s Arab Spring marked a sharp change in America's opinion of the channel. Online viewership rose 2500 percent, with more than half of that increase coming from the U,S.
Still, Al Jazeera English, which launched in 2006 to great success worldwide, struggles to get picked up by U.S. cable companies, a problem it's been addressing with an email campaign, Demand Al Jazeera.
Since that campaign is gaining steam, we offer this case study of what happened when Al Jazeera came to Vermont. Andrew Stelzer reports.
If you want to watch Al Jazeera English on cable TV well, odds are you're out of luck. Just four cable systems in the U.S. currently carry it. New York City became the most recent this August, when Al Jazeera was able to sublease 23 hours a day from another station on Time Warner Cable. They have a similar arrangement in Washington D.C.
The only carriers which carry the channel outright are Buckeye Cable in Toledo Ohio and Burlington Cable in Vermont. Burlington was the first, beginning in January 2007, and it wasn't without a struggle.
And so here, all of a sudden, Al Jazeera, self-admitted notorious, controversial station is here, without anyone having a say.
Jeffrey Kaufman was one of several Burlington residents who began to complain soon after Al Jazeera came on air. Kaufman says he believes the Arab network is providing a platform for hate, anti-Semitism and is what he calls a, quote, “soft sell tool to help spread Sharia or strict Islamic law.”
To make his case, Kaufman points to videos from Al Jazeera’s Arabic language station which plays different content than the English channel.
[AL JAZEERA CLIP IN ARABIC]
At this part we’re at: Oh Allah, take the – speaking of the Jews – oh Allah, take this oppressive tyrannical bent of people. Oh Allah, do not spare a single one of them. Count their numbers and kill them down to the very last one.
Onscreen a man is giving a sermon about the 2009 invasion of Gaza.
This is SheikYusuf – Qaradawi, regularly featured on Al Jazeera. I mean, that this is very scary stuff.
In 2008, complaints by Kaufman and others found the ear of Burlington Telecom's General Manager Chris Burns, who announced he would take Al Jazeera off the air.
But that move also got the station's supporters up off the couch. Hundreds of people came out to a set of hearings scheduled by Burlington Telecom’s advisory committees, held in City Hall and at a local college.
WOMAN AT HEARING:
We're here tonight because there is a small group of people who don't like the fact that Al Jazeera exists and that millions of people around the world watch it.
MAN AT HEARING:
This xenophobic paranoia of Islam is totally unwarranted. And for those who are offended by the program just switch channels.
In several hours of testimony, Al Jazeera supporters far outnumbered those opposed. An investigation about claims of anti-Semitic programming or support of terrorism also came up empty. And the station was kept on the air.
Well, I always say that is a question for me of when, not if.
Al Anstey, managing director of Al Jazeera English says the network is in talks with several major cable companies. Anstey says misconceptions about the station have been consigned to history.
But at this point, that's probably a bit optimistic. Don Rojas is the executive director of Free Speech TV, a satellite station which airs Al Jazeera English’s programming for two and a half hours a day.
There's still that stigma hanging over Al Jazeera that they are supposedly the channel of the terrorists. And, you know, they have not been able to really shake that image fully in the U.S. and among U.S. media executive decision makers.
But coming into its own this year, with coverage of the Arab revolutions, has made Al Jazeera’s news value undeniable.
AL JAZEERA CORRESPONDENT:
Let's go back now to one of our top stories here on Al Jazeera and that’s the protests, of course, in Tunisia.
AL JAZEERA CORRESPONDENT
Ayman Mohyeldin joins us now joins us now on the phone from Cairo.
[SOUND OF PROTESTORS IN BACKGROUND]
OMAR AL SALAH:
Neither the government nor the protestors are willing to give up.
Omar al Salah. Al Jazeera Ramtha on the Jordan-Syria border.
Back in Vermont, Burlington college teacher Sandy Baird assigned students in her American Foreign Policy and Cities of the World classes to watch the Arab Spring unfold on Al Jazeera.
I was really surprised ‘cause my students are pretty politically apathetic, but through watching Al Jazeera they really got addicted to the whole happenings in the Middle East, as well as a lot of other places - Latin America and coverage of Venezuela and Chavez and Cuba. And they’re really fascinated how different it is than the other networks.
Senior Nicholas Losito was one student who instantly noticed that difference.
While CNN and all these like American broadcasting centers were talking about Charlie Sheen, Al Jazeera was talking about the revolutions that were happening in the Middle East, and that’s a bonafide fact. It was almost like the revolutions were a break from the Charlie Sheen coverage And I'm just like I really don't care about that at all. [LAUGHS]
Taking a gamble that others think like Losito, the Demand Al Jazeera campaign is targeting college students. They invited summer interns in Washington to visit their D.C. studios and are holding national Call Your Cable Provider Days on college campuses.
The hope is exposure to the content and the culture of Al Jazeera will overturn stereotypes that have built up over the past decade.
For On the Media, I'm Andrew Stelzer, in Burlington, Vermont.