By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Ever since it launched 30 months ago, the Al Jazeera English news channel has been embraced widely, picking up viewers in more than 100 countries. The notable exception: the United States, where AJE -- an offshoot of the pioneering, pan-Arabic al-Jazeera network -- has been all but ignored by cable and satellite companies, some apparently concerned about al-Jazeera's alleged anti-American bias.
As a result, Al Jazeera English became the global news channel you couldn't see in the United States, outside of two tiny cable systems in Vermont and Ohio, and a few buildings in downtown Washington served by a private cable hookup.
But that's about to change. Under an agreement with MHz Networks, a Falls Church-based educational broadcaster, AJE will become available today to households throughout the Washington area, and to cable and broadcast viewers in 20 other cities in a few months.
AJE, funded by and based in the oil-rich Persian Gulf state of Qatar, is a news and news-talk network that broadcasts from four hubs around the world: Doha (Qatar's capital), London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It's the first worldwide TV news operation based outside the United States or Britain.
Many Americans might know the older pan-Arabic network al-Jazeera, whose reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan angered conservatives and some officials in the Bush administration. At one point in early 2004, Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush administration's first defense secretary, publicly accused al-Jazeera of "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable" reporting about U.S. actions in the two wars. The network has also drawn criticism in the United States for airing video communiques from Osama bin Laden.
AJE has never been the target of such criticism, but its close association with al-Jazeera (the name means "the peninsula" in Arabic, a reference to Qatar's land mass) seems to have made it unwelcome in America. In fact, AJE's promotional material goes on at some length to rebut many of the rumors and allegations thrown at it ("A lot of people, particularly in this region, think of Al Jazeera as Osama Bin Laden's channel. Isn't there some truth to that?" reads one such heading).
Thus, the deal with MHz represents not just expanded distribution to American viewers, but possibly something of a cultural shift, said Will Stebbins, AJE's Washington bureau chief. "There was clearly an attempt to delegitimize al-Jazeera . . . that came during a period of a lot of national hysteria and paranoia about the Arabic world" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said. With time and a new administration, "I think a lot of those ideas and positions are being rigorously questioned and reevaluated. This is a positive development."
MHz, a nonprofit organization, will add AJE to its lineup of 10 international channels carried on the digital tiers offered by Comcast (the area's largest cable provider, on Channel 271), Cox, RCN and Verizon Fios systems throughout the region. MHz will also offer it over the air July 1, after local stations have completed the transition to digital broadcasts.
MHz will also distribute about one hour of AJE's news on the MHz Worldview channel to public stations throughout Utah and in cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, Denver and Miami. In all, about 18 million households will be able to receive some or all of the network's programming, said Frederick Thomas, MHz's founder and chief executive.
Although some people might have "strong opinions" about the addition of AJE, Thomas doesn't expect much backlash. "We're dedicated to the news from an international perspective, and we haven't had a solid English-language block of content out of that part of the world," he said. "For us, it adds to the overall mix of what we're trying to do."