Published on Thursday, November 16, 2006 by Der Speigel
Call it the Un-CNN. Imagine that the BBC devotes 24 hours to special coverage of Africa and the Middle East and you will get a sense of the first day of broadcasting for al-Jazeera English (AJE), the English-language cousin of the channel the Bush administration loves to hate.
AJE has the look and feel of the BBC and rival Sky News. The visual identity � graphics, backdrops, audio stingers, precise English and overall pacing � are all straight from the BBC. So is the set, aside from the video wall in front of which the anchors stand, a prop straight from the set of Sky News. There�s an obvious reason for the similarity. Three-quarters of the on-air staff, and most of the management, come from the British and U.S. networks.
Al-Jazeera�s critics have been waiting with sharpened knives for evidence of anti-American or anti-Israeli bias on the new channel; none of that was evident in the first day of broadcasting. One thing was apparent: A self-conscious � sometimes excruciating � emphasis on being the non-Western voice. Like the old 7-Up campaign that positioned the lemon-lime soda as the alternative to Coca-Cola, al-Jazeera International is perhaps trying too hard to show it does not have the Western-centricism of CNN, the BBC and their counterparts.
Don�t get me wrong, it is refreshing to see stories from largely-ignored corners of the world, but on Day One, they came at the expense of other important developments, whether in the U.S., Europe or Japan.
Two news stories dominated coverage, the elections in Congo and the pair of rocket attacks on Israeli targets that left one dead and several injured. Coverage of the Middle East story was carefully balanced, with reports from both sides. The piece from the Israel-based reporter showed footage of the coffin of an Israeli woman who was killed and bloody images of a 17-year old man injured in the second attack. No one mentioned �martyrs� or �terrorists.� In fact, a report from Iraq employed to the aggressively neutral term �guerrillas.�
The weakness was not in bias but in the breadth and depth of news coverage. The day was feature-heavy. A handful of �exclusive� interviews were endlessly � agonizingly � repeated. Breaking news � with the exception of the Palestinian rocket attack in Israel � was the exception, rather than the rule. A timeless feature about suicides among members of a small tribe in Brazil looped throughout the day. So, too, an interview with a UN official about stolen passports and a feature about kids driving fast in China. Not exactly coverage that will change the world.
It was gratifying to see a reporter standing in Darfur reporting on the largely-ignored genocide. Ditto a rare dispatch from Mugabi�s Zimbabwe. It was equally gratifying not to see coverage of Michael Jackson performing in London, carried by some of the Western networks. However, the absence � in the many hours this writer sampled coverage through the day � of coverage of many stories that dominated coverage elsewhere in the world was striking: the Congressional testimony of the U.S. commander in Iraq, the tsunami in Japan (mentioned briefly in the first hours then ignored), passage of a new rape law in Pakistan, John McCain entering the U.S. presidential race, or anything in Europe.
Aside from the Israel-Palestine piece and a report from Iraq, one of the few breaking news stories in the early hours was a speech by the Qatari foreign minister, which raises obvious red flags about the channel�s obligation to its financial benefactors.
In a recent interview, the director general of the al-Jazeera channels, Wadah Khanfar, told me that the new English channel would have a �global� perspective with an emphasis on the so-called �South� or developing world. That was apparent in the coverage. But on Day One, it was as if the �North� ceased to exist. So, too, Asia.
Much hype from al-Jazeera�s PR people has focused on the fact that the channel has a rolling broadcast day, with programs originating from Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Washington, D.C. and London as prime-time moves around the globe. But as daylight fell on Asia, AJE remained preoccupied with the Middle East, Africa and that one small tribe in Brazil. At noon in Kuala Lumpur, the anchor led the hour by taking �a glimpse back at some of the day�s news and how we covered those stories,� which consisted of a somewhat disjointed series of edited highlights from coverage earlier in the day. An hour later, exactly that same half-hour taped segment was repeated.
If there was any news in Asia � like a tsunami in Japan for a start � Asian viewers couldn�t tell from watching AJE. Rather, the sense was that since it was nighttime in the Middle East, they could just air re-runs. Oh, there was the feature about Chinese kids who drive fast.
Al-Jazeera�s PR machine is certainly right about the failure of Western networks to adequately cover the developing world, but, in its first day at least, the channel was in danger of trading a Western-centric view of the world for one preoccupied with the Middle East and Africa. Nor was there much evidence of the much-vaunted global network of experienced correspondents. With all the delays, AJ-English has accumulated a roomful of features and undated interviews, and on Day One the channel seemed bound and determined to use them. Instead of the �fearless journalism� that is �setting the news agenda� as promised in the self-congratulatory promos, soft news dominated.
Much stronger than news coverage were the current affairs offerings. Under AJE�s format, the first half of every hour is devoted to news and the second half is a current affairs broadcast. Riz Khan interviewed the Palestinian prime minister and Israeli deputy prime minister Shimon Peres (though it was more a series of short speeches than an interview); �101 East� focused on Taiwan politics; and �Every Woman� looked at skin bleaching in Africa and the plight of a woman who�s husband is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
But weaknesses existed even there. Much of the material is purchased from freelancers and what promised to be an interesting edition of �Witness� about Iraq�s oil consisted largely of a segment shot by an Australian filmmaker embedded with the Australian navy in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2005. It had a very dated feel.
There were obvious growing pains, such as an anchor in Asia introducing the wrong reporter for that ever-present Brazil segment and jarring transitions in the edited segments of coverage from earlier in the day. But that�s all part of the shakeout.
One indication that the channel is still trying to find its identity: The name was changed, literally at the eleventh hour. For more than a year, the station has been marketed as �al-Jazeera International.� That�s what the business cards, marketing videos and press releases say. Suddenly, a week before the launch, those press releases were referring to �al-Jazeera English.� Word is that the switch is a concession to the Arabic channel, which, after all, also broadcasts internationally.
But there are bigger questions beyond the name: Can the channel hold its own when a major news story breaks, or is it destined to be a third-world feature service with very splashy graphics? And, will it only �seek out the areas neglected by the Western media,� as one promo promises, or will it find its own balance between the Arab/Afri-centric approach of the first day and the Amero/Euro-centric bias of the Western networks?
As Day Two dawned, there were signs the newsroom was finally kicking into gear with actual news stories being reported from four continents. Perhaps not yet �every angle, every side,� as the channel�s catchphrase promises, but a few more than elsewhere.
The scorecard for Day One: News �B.� Current affairs programming �A-.� Production values: �A.� Potential: �A+.�