All about the TV network that few US households can watch
Emily Badger:All about the TV network that few US households can watch
25 Feb 11

As the lone eyewitness to events that international news organisations have found difficult to access, Al Jazeera has been an inseparable part of the story in the Middle East and North Africa.  For a solid month, US outlets have hummed with borrowed Al Jazeera content and content about Al Jazeera itself.

Meanwhile, the irony grows by the day: most US households still can’t get the English-language version of the network on their TVs.

“Our local cable-TV monopoly Comcast won’t carry Al Jazeera on its service but finds it newsworthy that Al Jazeera has been shut down in Egypt. What’s the difference?” asked a bitter subscriber on a lively Comcast community message board debating the inconsistency.

Comcast’s news site had, in fact, just published an Associated Press story on the closure of Al Jazeera’s Cairo office two weeks ago.

Americans haven’t paid this much attention to the Qatar-based network since Donald Rumsfeld was accusing it of inciting violence in the early days of the Iraq war. For many US news consumers, it’s the first time they’re seeing the network as a serious news operation – and one covering events about which Americans care deeply.

Old stereotypes, though, die slowly – especially those associated with 9/11 in the American imagination. Even as Al Jazeera proves its worth in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, it continues to face a tough row with US cable distributors.

Providers like Comcast have long insisted that AJE, which launched in 2006, wouldn’t attract enough viewers to justify offering it. But the vast American cable menu makes that argument sound anemic.

“Why do we have Current TV but not Al-Jazeera?” laments a Kansas City Star columnist. Also on offer to most US cable customers: channels devoted exclusively to replays of decades-old sporting events, do-it-yourself home-improvement projects and country music videos. Surely live coverage of key global events could do just as well?

Cable’s aversion to AJE is undoubtedly more calculated. Many Americans have long associated the network with being somehow anti-American, or the go-to distributor of Osama bin Laden each time he puts out a new preachy home video. The suspicion runs deep – and, in the past, it’s run straight to the top of the US government.

George W. Bush singled out the network in his 2004 State of the Union address as a source of “hateful propaganda,” and Donald Rumsfeld called its coverage of civilian casualties in Iraq “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable“. In 2001, the US military even launched a missile at Al Jazeera’s Kabul office, later referring to the building as “a known Al Qaeda facility“. (The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has a fascinating timeline of the troubled relationship between Al Jazeera and the US government).

It’s little wonder, amid such dramatic official pronouncements, that many Americans became wary of the network, and many cable providers are skittish of associating with it. But the stereotype of Al Jazeera as a tool of anti-American terrorists hasn’t survived recent events. Oddly, the perception of bias has been undercut as much by strong reporting in North Africa, as by Al Jazeera’s own role as a victim of repressive regimes.

To critics who still brand the network as a propaganda arm for Middle Eastern strongmen, Wired wrote: “This might come as a surprise to Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who accused the channel of ‘fomenting unrest’. Or to embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi [sic] who in a rambling and defiant speech Tuesday said Al Jazeera was trying to portray Libyans as ‘bad people… a people of turbans and low beards,’ according to one translation.”

Hawkish American commentators may be forgiven for not knowing what’s actually on AJE these days – after all, they can’t tune in to it, either. Bill O’Reilly probably wouldn’t change his mind if he could (nor would the folks behind, who push something that looks much more like propaganda than anything AJE airs). But for the rest of US consumers enthralled by events in the Middle East – people who have been rushing, in the absence of anything else, onto AJE’s web feed – things are changing. American news outlets can less and less afford foreign bureaus, and this is one legitimate news source already on the ground that can.

Sensing the opportunity, Al Jazeera has placed a prominent add on its English home page encouraging people to “Demand Al Jazeera in the USA“. Comcast, as of this week, may finally be coming to the table.