Al-Jazeera, as American as Apple Pie

By Joanne Levine
Sunday, June 25, 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.

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