02.13.11

How Al Jazeera Shook Its "Terror TV" Label

Following 18 days of non-stop Egypt coverage, many are calling this Al Jazeera’s moment. The network’s U.S. bureau chief discusses the network’s resurgence, skittish cable companies, and how Fox News got its Egypt coverage all wrong.

Following 18 days of nonstop Egypt coverage, many are calling this al Jazeera’s moment. The network’s U.S. bureau chief discusses the network’s resurgence, skittish cable companies, and how Fox News got its Egypt coverage all wrong.

As the Western world watched Egypt’s revolution unfold in real time over the past two weeks, many were tuned to the livestream of one network’s coverage: al Jazeera English. The network—once dubbed “Terror Television” for its airing of al Qaeda-produced videos—has been undergoing a rebirth, and TV pundits are issuing renewed calls for carriers to offer the Arabic-language news network here in the U.S. Writing in Saturday’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof argued it was the coverage by networks including al Jazeera that "broke the government monopoly on information in Egypt" and, despite Americans' scorn, "it played a greater role in promoting democracy in the Arab world than anything the United States did."

To explore our readers’ perception of al Jazeera English in the wake of its Egypt coverage, The Daily Beast invited Muhammad Cajee, al Jazeera English's U.S. bureau chief based out of Washington, D.C., to answer user-submitted questions. Below are his answers that explore al Jazeera’s perception in the West, explain why cable companies shun the network, and describe how Egypt can chart its path forward. The questions below were taken from The Daily Beast’s Facebook community and a thread posted on Reddit.

How do you think al Jazeera's credibility among Western viewers changed since your reporting on the protests in Egypt?

Muhammad Cajee: Thats a bit of a loaded question since it assumes that we had a credibility problem across the Western world, which just isn't true. We have strong audiences in the English-speaking democracies of Britain, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Malaysia, and among presidents and diplomats, policymakers, and leaders across the world. Rumor has it that everyone at the State Department was watching al Jazeera English throughout this, and that President Obama knows the exact channel that AJE is on in the Oval Office.     

Viewers who tune in to al Jazeera find our coverage to be balanced, fair, and objective, compared to other news organizations whose editorial policies are driven by the interests of shareholders and advertisers rather than the truth. 

The Bush administration smeared al Jazeera in the run-up to the Iraq War, which put our credibility into question in the U.S. in particular. It's been hard to shake the 'Terror TV' tag in the U.S., but as Chris Matthews said on Hardball Friday Nnght, along the lines of 'We thought that you were with the terrorists, but you're really with us.' 

Millions of viewers in the U.S. and around the world were looking for a credible, accurate, balanced source of minute-by-minute news coverage to follow the events in Egypt from Egypt, and they found it at our live stream on the Web. So I think that we've finally shaken the Bush voodoo in the U.S.              

How do you anticipate Egyptian media—newspapers in particular—reacting? Will we see a dramatic change in coverage in the newspapers over the coming weeks?

MC: The independent Egyptian media will be free of self-censorship or state censorship and I suspect that much of their pages in the next few weeks will be debating the next steps, and the reforms that need to be implemented in terms of the constitution and the electoral law to ensure that a true democracy emerges within a reasonable timeframe. I still have my doubts about the independence of the state media under the military, but the traditional media overall is mostly obsolete with those under 40 turning to the Internet for their information.     

How would you characterize coverage (if you've been able to see any) of the revolution by European and U.S. media, respectively? What have been the largest gaps in coverage?

MC: I watched quite a bit of MSNBC's coverage and a little of CNN's. I found CNN's coverage to be sparse but I didn't watch enough of it to make a fair judgment, while MSNBC's had more depth with a wider variety of opinions being aired. In most cases, pundits and analysts were Americans or foreigners living in America, which was the real limitation in terms of the coverage, and the number of ads on all networks is very annoying. 

Lloyd Grove: Meet Al Jazeera’s Breakout StarMSNBC had their own Arabic-speaking correspondent in Cairo. You can’t underestimate the value of speaking the language when covering a story, since language is the real window into the culture, history, and aspirations of a people. MSNBC used some of our correspondents and our pictures for their coverage, and were quite positive about AJE's coverage. I didn't get to see much of the BBC's coverage. Fox got it all wrong. 

When am I going to get AJE on my dish????

MC: When you organize a revolution outside your cable company's local offices and don't leave until they give you AJE. I will come visit as a guest speaker at my own expense or send a couple of AJE correspondents on my behalf. Deal?

Al-Jazeera English has been getting lots of praise recently for their coverage of the events in Egypt. How has this affected your distribution negotiations with providers across the country? (Carriage in a few thousand homes in Vermont, Ohio, and the DC area doesn't cut it—I also think that if they have room for 12 shopping channels, they can make room for one international English news channel—especially if that signal is offered for free, as I believe it was to Buckeye Cable in Toledo four years ago.)

MC: Our signal is offered for free to any cable company who is willing to carry us, so there's no financial reason for a lack of carriage on the part of the cable companies. Cable companies have used two main excuses for not carrying AJE. That there is insufficient demand for AJE, and that there is a lack of channel slots to carry us. I assure you that the reason you don't have AJE at home is not because we haven't tried, it's because your cable companyies have to see some unhappy customers with pickets in front of their offices.  

How important is penetration in the U.S. market? Why? For the classical power/expansion motive or because they feel U.S. news quality has degraded?

MC: Incredibly important. Being a person who lived through firsthand the liberation of South Africa from apartheid rule to democracy, the freedom of expression and the press for me is sacrosanct. People have intellect and are able to determine for themselves between right and wrong. Citizens should have access to all views and opinions and be able to make a judgment for themselves of where the truth lies. Al Jazeera does not expand with a profit motive, we expand because we believe that we are true to the ideals of journalism and that we have a responsibility as the Fourth Estate on a global scale to protect the interests of the people for democracy and human rights. 

U.S. news organizations have been compromised by majority shareholders who dictate editorial policy in alignment with their own ideological views, or advertisers who do the same. The need to generate advertising revenue and boost ratings has lead to infotainment being passed off as news in the U.S. and the profit motive has lead to U.S. networks scaling back their news bureaus and news-gathering footprints. In this context, al Jazeera is of great value to the American people as credible source of objective international news.

What is going to be done in the future to ensure that al Jazeera stays as unbiased as it can, and not follow the footsteps of Fox/CNN/MSNBC/etc? Can anything be done, or will regulations and income affect their news reporting?

MC: Our model is similar to the BBC, where we are publicly funded with an independent editorial board and a safe distance between the channel's editorial decision-making and its funders. While other networks are scaling back their news-gathering footprint, we are expanding the presence of our journalists in countries around the world. We are not dependent on advertising revenue, or driven by shareholder interests. Our management and staff are staunchly protective of our editorial independence.

How has al Jazeera's relationship with the U.S. government changed over the last decade or so?

MC: It's improved after the departure of the Bush administration.

I have lots of questions, but here's the most important one: Are you hiring?

MC: We are always looking for multilingual idealistic journalists who are objective and driven to tell the truth as they see it. Look out for our ads on Monster.com and Jobs.com. At the minimum, you will get onto our searchable database.  

Mr. Cajee, do you believe a new democratic Egyptian government will continue to be pro-American? And how will this change affect Egypt's relationship with Israel?

MC: It really depends on the actions of the Obama administration. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has traditionally favored realpolitik over principle. in 1953 the Eisenhower administration helped engineer the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minster of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddegh, then actively supported  26 years of dictatorial rule by the shah of Iran. Look where Iran ended up on the scale of anti-Americanism after that intervention. If the U.S. administration, as the most powerful foreign player in the Middle East, is looking behind the scenes to install the next Hosni Mubarak, an entire generation of Egyptians will become anti-American, purely because of what they will believe as the betrayal of their revolution. 

Regarding Israel, true democracies don't go to war. They resolve their differences through diplomacy and dialogue. A democratic Egyptian government will be outspoken about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians but will be very unlikely to go to war with Israel.    

Is Mr. Mubarak going to be investigated for amassing illegal wealth?

MC: A democratically elected government will probably do so, since it's the will of the people.  

As Egypt goes forward in forming a new government, how much will religion play a role in this? Will Egypt go the way of Turkey or Iran, or something more in the middle?

MC: Egyptian society is literate, educated, and politically mature with little dependence on religious jurists for political leadership. Also, the power structure of Shia Islam is quite different to Sunni Islam in that sense, and the way that Khomeini came to power had specific factors that are absent from this revolution, including his theory of Velayet-e- Faqih, which is absent from Sunni political thought. So another Iran is out of the question. Read [Stephen] Kinzer's book  Reset for more on Iran.

A model akin to Turkey is the more likely and the most desirable, that's if the Egyptian military is true to its promise of overseeing the transition to democracy and doesn't try to cling to power. Turkey has served as a model that has proven to the peoples of the Arab world that democracy and Islam are reconcilable, and most importantly that this model is acceptable to the international community. We have to keep a close eye on events to see what consensus model emerges since there is no one dominant opposition force in Egypt.      

Now that we have a coup in Egypt, what do we know of the military and its democratic credentials within it, if it has any—AND/OR—Will the Egyptian people "win," or will the people's revolution be hijacked?

MC: Any revolution is at risk of being hijacked by vested interests that cling to the status quo. The military has outwardly declared that it will oversee a transition to democracy and meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people. The people's love of the military will turn very quickly to anger if the military is seen to be hijacking the revolution and this is the people's real leverage over the military, the need for them to be seen as the people's army. The major factor I can think of that will motivate the top echelons of the Egyptian military to act otherwise is a fear of being implicated and exposed for being beneficiaries to the corruption of the Mubarak regime.

How will, or how can the Egyptians ensure a transition into a secure, stable, functional and most importantly, desirable democracy?

MC: By not leaving Tahrir Square until it happens and keeping pressure on the military every step of the way until the election law is satisfactorily amended and free and fair elections have been held to elect a new parliament that is representative of the people and tasked with legislative reform.