Al Jazeera English is gaining a following in the United States for its extraordinary coverage of the Egyptian protests, with American viewers tuning in to watch the network's broadcast live online. But will the English-language network's much-praised Egypt coverage challenge existing perceptions of "anti-American bias" and convince cable providers to finally add it to the dial?
The Bush administration condemned Al Jazeera's Arabic-language network for its critical coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and decision to air tapes and statements obtained from Osama bin Laden shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, blasted Al Jazeera's 2004 coverage of civilian casualties in Iraq as "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." And there were more than just verbal salvos leveled at Al Jazeera in the Bush years: the U.S. military fired missiles at Al Jazeera's offices in Kabul in 2001 and dropped bombs on the Baghdad newsroom in 2003.
So it's not surprising that when the Qatar-based network launched an English-language version in 2006, it had to contend with an adverse reputation among many in the U.S. audience as a pro-terrorist media outlet. U.S. cable providers initially refused to carry the English-language network, which included established television correspondents from ABC News and the BBC. Five years later, Al Jazeera English is available in more than 100 countries but in just three American cities: Washington D.C., Burlington, Vt., and Toledo, Ohio.
The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim wrote Sunday on the Al Jazeera English blackout amid calls for more U.S. cable providers to start carrying the network as the Egypt crisis continued to build. Now, Al Jazeera executives are trying to harness this audience interest into pushing for more widespread distribution. Al Anstey, the managing editor of Al Jazeera English, told the New York Times on Monday that he hopes "now is a turning point."
Al Jazeera executives can make a strong case that there's an appetite for international news—at least during moments of upheaval. The Times reports that the website's livestream has been viewed more than 4 million times, with 1.6 million of the views from inside the United States. The network's web traffic is up an astounding 2,500 percent.
So far, cable and satellite providers—such as Comcast, DirecTV, Verizon FiOS, and Time Warner—haven't said publicly if they'll take steps to carry the network. [Update: Company statements] And yet, Americans are tuning in.
"Al Jazeera has absolutely owned this story," said George Washington University professor Marc Lynch, author of a book on Arab media, who's also recently written on the network's role, along with social media, in the Tunisian uprising.
Al Jazeera's Egypt coverage "fits right in with the sort of thing that they've been doing for the last decade," Lynch said Tuesday on MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown." "Al Jazeera, they're really invested in questions of Arab reform and Arab democracy and they've been scathingly critical of the Arab status quo. It's the one thing they agreed with the Bush administration about—that Arab dictators were the problem."
For that reason, strongmen in the region such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak aren't big fans of the network. Mubarak's authoritarian regime—which has tried crushing independent news sources and beaten journalists since the protests erupted—shut down Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau on Sunday and has detained several of the network's reporters. Still, Al Jazeera English continues to cover the Egyptian protests, trying to protect some correspondents on the ground by not revealing their identities.
Here's one example of Al Jazeera's coverage during the protests on Friday:
(Photo of Al Jazeera English newsroom in Doha, Qatar on Nov. 14, 2006: AP / Hamid Jalaudin)