By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
The lead story on the debut of Al Jazeera’s new English language channel yesterday was the re-election of President Joseph Kabila of Congo.
There were also features on the hip, multicultural scene in Damascus; traffic in Beijing; Brazilian indigenous tribes; and the trials and tribulations of a Palestinian ambulance driver in Gaza. “Everywoman,” a weekly woman’s program, took on “the horrors of skin-bleaching cream” and also spoke to the wife of Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who has spent years imprisoned without trial at Guantánamo Bay.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld once famously denounced the Arab-language Al Jazeera as “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable,” which may be one reason that major cable and satellite providers in the United States declined to offer the English version. Yesterday, most Americans could watch it only on the Internet at english.aljazeera.net.
It’s a shame. Americans can see almost anything on television these days, from Polish newscasts to reruns of “Benson.” The new channel, Al Jazeera English, will never displace CNN, MSNBC or Fox News, but it provides the curious — or the passionately concerned — with a window into how the world sees us, or doesn’t. It’s a Saul Steinberg map of the globe in which the channel’s hub in Doha, Qatar, looms over Iran, Iraq, Syria and the West Bank — the dots in the horizon are New York and Hollywood.
While American cable news shows focused yesterday on live coverage of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearings on Iraq, Al Jazeera English was crammed with reports about Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, the crisis in Darfur, kidnappings in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with frequent updates on Israeli retaliatory air strikes in Gaza.
Even on a computer screen, Al Jazeera English looks like CNN International and sounds like a cross of C-Span and Fox News: the stories are long and detailed (that’s the C-Span part); behind the news reports is an overall sensibility that is different from that of most mainstream television news organizations (that’s the Fox News part).
Just as Fox News gives its viewers a vision of the world as seen by conservative, patriotic Americans, Al Jazeera English reflects the mindsets across much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It is an American-style cable news network with jazzy newsrooms, poised, attractive anchors, flashy promos and sleek ads for Qatar Airways, Nokia and Shell. But its goal is to bring a non-Western perspective to the West.
There was no fuss over Naomi Campbell’s court appearance on accusations that she had struck her maid or People magazine’s choice for “Sexiest Man Alive” (George Clooney) on Al Jazeera English. A promo for an upcoming program described American policy in Iraq as George Bush’s “alleged war on terror.”
Al Jazeera English — which also broadcasts from bureaus in London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — recruited many Western journalists, including David Frost and Dave Marash, a longtime “Nightline” correspondent who was let go by ABC almost a year ago. Both men are showcased in advertisements for the channel, but were not as visible on the maiden newscast. Mr. Marash, based in Washington, is the anchor of an evening newscast alongside Ghida Fakhry.
Riz Khan, a veteran of the BBC and CNN, is one of the channel’s bigger stars — he has his own show, “Riz Khan,” on Al Jazeera English. Yesterday, he conducted separate but equally long satellite interviews with Ismail Haniya, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and Shimon Peres, Israel’s deputy prime minister.
Mr. Khan asked the two leaders questions sent in by viewers, including a New Yorker named Danny who asked if Mr. Haniya was worried that he would be killed like so many of his predecessors, a question Mr. Khan described as “morbid.” Mr. Haniya was not offended. “All Palestinians are in danger: leaders, women, children and the elderly,” he replied. “We always expect the worst from Israel.” When his turn came, Mr. Peres was just as unruffled.
The original Al Jazeera, created in 1996 with the backing of the emir of Qatar, boasts that it gets as many complaints from African dictators and Muslim leaders as American officials. American viewers mostly know it as an Arab-language news channel that shows Osama bin Laden videos and grisly images of dead American soldiers and mutilated Iraqi children. If yesterday is any indication, the English language version is more button-down and cosmopolitan.
Though Al Jazeera English looks at news events through a non-Western prism, it also points to where East and West actually meet. On a feature story, a group of Syrian women, Muslim and Christian, let a reporter follow them on their girls’ night out. Topic A was the shortage of men in Syria.