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Through Egypt, Al Jazeera English has an American moment

The English-language channel, dogged by its Arabic counterpart's image, has had little luck in securing U.S. cable contracts in its four years on the air, but the crisis in Egypt has brought American viewers flocking to its online live stream.

January 31, 2011|By Matea Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • Some protesters camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square overnight, they awoke to helicopters flying over them in the early morning hours. With Al Jazeera's English and Arabic channels both banned by Egyptian authorities, it is having reports file on-air reports via cellphones.
Some protesters camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square overnight, they… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

Reporting from Washington — As White House officials monitor the chaotic developments in Egypt, many television sets in the West Wing are tuned to Al Jazeera English, the sister channel of the popular Arabic-language news network.

But that's one of the few places in the United States where people can watch the Doha, Qatar-based Al Jazeera English on television. Four years after its launch, the network's reach is largely limited to Washington, Toledo, Ohio, and Burlington, Vt. — the result of its inability to secure deals with major cable and satellite operators.

That may change after this week. The network's on-the-ground reports from Cairo — as well as its confrontations with Egyptian authorities, who have tried to shut it down and on Monday briefly detained six staff members — have brought Al Jazeera English new prominence in the United States.

American viewers have flocked to its website as it provides a nonstop live stream of its television feed. Traffic is up 2,500% since Friday, with nearly half of it coming from the United States, according to network officials.

"I can't stop looking at it," said Ruth Robbins, 36, an artist in New Orleans, who heard about Al Jazeera English from an Egyptian friend and has been checking the live stream online every few hours since the uprising began. "The thing that was really amazing was in the first couple days, when there was censorship of cellphones and the Internet, they were still able to get a story out."

The network, which had two correspondents in Cairo when the uprising began, now has seven reporting teams fanned out across the country, delivering both up-close footage of the swelling crowds and in-person interviews with Egyptian leaders.

"Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one — not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media — can bring the perspective, insight and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can," wrote new-media expert Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, on his blog Sunday. Jarvis has started a Twitter campaign urging cable operators to carry the channel ("#WeWantOurAJE").

The Drudge Report linked to Al Jazeera English's live stream Monday — a sharp contrast from the skepticism that greeted its launch in 2006, when critics alleged the network would promote anti-American sentiment.

Major cable companies such as Time Warner and Comcast declined to comment Monday on whether they would be interested in carrying Al Jazeera English.

But Al Anstey, Al Jazeera English's managing director, said the channel would use this event to press its case with American cable and satellite operators.

"What has been demonstrated is a genuine demand for what we are doing," he said in an interview from Doha. "This does prove that once you lay down the content, once people actually see it, any misconceptions about what Al Jazeera stands for are dispelled immediately."

Since its launch, the channel has struggled to gain standing in the United States, dogged by the perceptions of its Arabic counterpart, which Bush administration officials accused of fomenting anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.

In recent years, the channel garnered plaudits for its coverage, particularly its comprehensive coverage of Israel's bombing of the Gaza Strip in 2008-09 and a recent scoop of secret Palestinian documents related to the peace process.

"It's good that we're finally getting some play," Nick Toksvig, acting executive producer of the Americas for Al Jazeera English, said during a break at the channel's Washington newsroom. "I really would like to see American viewers experience a different form of news coverage than they may receive from the American networks."

But its newfound buzz in the United States comes as Al Jazeera English and its sister channel are facing a severe crackdown in Egypt. Authorities shut down their offices Sunday and yanked the credentials of reporters for both channels, telling them to stop broadcasting, Anstey said.

On Monday, six Al Jazeera English staff members were detained briefly and their equipment confiscated.

The network is now having reporters speak live on the air via cellphones and has asked Egyptian citizens to share videos from the ground.

matea.gold@latimes.com

Times staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.

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