Amjad Atallah of Al Jazeera English, on Reporting in Libya and Their New TV Presence in New York City


Last night, as fighting raged in Tripoli and Muammar Gaddafi’s son Mohammed was captured live on television by rebel forces, Twitter was abuzz with talk of who was — and who was not — covering the news in Libya — and who was doing it best. There was a newcomer in the midst.

Earlier this month, Al Jazeera English launched its television presence in the New York area, becoming available to approximately two million cable subscribers in New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey via WRNN’s RISE, which is channel 92 on Time Warner Cable. (AJE will also be available via Verizon FiOS, Channel 466.) And last night, Channel 92 was what a lot of New Yorkers seemed to be watching. But while perceptions of the news organization have certainly shifted since 9/11, its management is still working to convince distributors that there is an interest for international news in America, and to debunk remaining stereotypes.

We spoke with Amjad Atallah, bureau chief for the Americas and former co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, who’s stationed in D.C., about AJE’s recent Libya coverage, the challenges they face, and how he hopes to impact journalism in the U.S.

Your Libya coverage yesterday was pretty fantastic. Tell us about it.
Yesterday, there were two seminal moments. We had a split-screen showing Benghazi and Tripoli, and in Benghazi, demonstrators were watching Al Jazeera in the square. They started cheering because they saw, on TV, that the rebels had entered Tripoli. I think this is unique in revolutions; the ability to see things in real time and for populations to participate.

Another moment was when Mohammed Gaddafi called us to say basically that he felt really bad about what was happening, and then you could hear gunshots on the phone. He said there were people coming into his house, and he started saying the Islamic Testimony of Faith, which people say when they think they are about to die. Later he called back to say that he and his family were okay but that they were under rebel custody. The fact that he felt the need to call Al Jazeera shows that people understand the way to have their voice reflected is through the news.

Our reporters were with the rebels entering the city, and that level of street reporting has been a tremendous risk to our correspondents. I don’t think anyone should underestimate that risk. We did lose a cameraman in Libya, Ali Hassan Al Jaber, on March 12, 2011. It’s been at a high cost, but the ability to present the story to an international audience and also a domestic audience — Libyans are watching their story in real time — that’s what we all aspire to do.

What do you consider your greatest obstacle in being picked up by distributors in the U.S.?
One question everyone has is, is there really a market in the U.S., and do the American people really care about international news? The assumption elsewhere in the world is that there is a market for it. The U.S. is one of the most educated and one of the most diverse markets, but we will hear things like, “The audience only has a one-minute attention span and doesn’t care about international news, and we don’t need to give it to them.”

I was born in this country and I remember watching Peter Jennings as a kid. I’m not sure this belief about Americans and international news is accurate. I can understand that if profit is your motive, you might be afraid, but I think the history of American journalism is that Americans do care. I think in a way we’ve found our niche in the U.S.

Do you feel that post-9/11 stereotypes of Al Jazeera, a/k/a, the “mouthpiece of terror” stuff that happened in the Bush administration, are still around?
I think it’s behind us for most people, but I don’t think it’s behind us for everyone. Even though there were members of the Bush administration who, at the same time they were vilifying Jazeera, were still willing to put people on…. But I think the talking points for the government have changed, even for former Bush administration officials. And, the simple fact is, anybody who’s had an opportunity to watch us for even five minutes no longer has those stereotypes.

Does your web readership reflect the American interest in international news that distributors are disputing?
It’s one of the things that convinced us that Americans were interested. You could argue that people elsewhere can watch us on TV, but people in New York are watching and reading us online more than anywhere else in the world. We’ve had online on-demand campaigns with people in local communities sending emails and asking for the channel.

I think it did make a difference that in New York we were able to show that one out of every 10 people have visited our website since January of this year. It showed that as the Arab Spring was happening, people in New York were watching. New York sets the trends culturally in the U.S., and financially in the world. Now that we’re available in the policy-wonk capital, D.C., and the cultural/financial capital of the world, it’s only a matter of time.

How many people are now watching Al Jazeera English on TV in the New York area?
I don’t have numbers so far. Anecdotally, the responses that we’ve received have been overwhelmingly positive, if not 100% so. One of the things we’re seeing about people who may have had a stereotype is that once they watched it, they’re like, Hey, this is news. They thought it would be a Middle East perspective.

How did the arrangement with Time Warner/RISE happen?
RISE approached us, convinced there was a market for our international news in New York.

Are you on 24 hours a day?
RISE runs one hour of local programming — children’s programming and a news show — on Channel 92. During that one-hour slot we’re shown on RNN’s sister channel, so we are on 24-7, but you might find a cartoon on Channel 92 at some point.

What’s the current global presence of Al Jazeera English?
We’re the most-watched English news station in Africa, and we believe, in South Africa. We’re in Hong Kong, New York, D.C…. We just launched in Mexico a few weeks ago, and in Peru a month ago. In any world capital, you can find Al Jazeera English. The U.S. is actually a late-comer: We’re in D.C., New York, and for three hours a day in L.A., as well as online. We’re also in Burlington, Vermont; Toledo, Ohio; and Bristol, Rhode Island. Our conversations with distributors are going well; I think eventually we will be everywhere. Why should Canadians get to watch Al Jazeera English, and not Americans?

How do you determine what stories you’ll cover?
Our take on every story, whether it’s drug wars in Mexico or what’s happening in Syria, is that the audience that’s watching has a global focus. We start our day or the night before working on stories from all the world, thinking about how we cover them, what priority we give. That’s complicated. We could be looking at 30 or 40 news stories, and trying to decide how much time to give and how to be fair to all. We’ll get criticism, as people want their news stories to be the key news stories. Yemen isn’t over yet, and the Yemenese will tell us, “You’ve been covering Syria more.” We can’t give equal time to all the revolutions at the same time. It helps that we have multiple bureaus.

Since we started reporting on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, we’ve seen a huge pickup in people watching. With Egypt, the rapid increase was a 2,500% increase in web traffic. I don’t think we’re going to sustain that, but we’re getting viewers and they know we’re the site to go to if something is happening in Japan, Bahrain, Egypt, etc. (In the days following the Egypt uprising, traffic fell to about a 400% steady increase as compared with traffic beforehand.)

What kind of national coverage can New Yorkers expect from you?
We have a bureau in New York. We have one in D.C. We’re opening in Chicago, L.A., and Miami. In New York, I think we have six people in the bureau, and all together in the Western Hemisphere, there are 220 journalists and staff. We’re going to be pulling in more. [Al Jazeera English employs more than 1,000 people worldwide.]

We expect to do heavy coverage of the election and a lot of the issues that go on here. But compared to other 24-7 news programs in the U.S., we don’t do so much of the he-said/she-said inside politicking game. The whole point for us is to give context and explain the news story, but not in a facilitator role. We’re journalists, so we need to tell what the facts are. We get criticized in the the Middle East that we give too much time to the demonstrators and not enough to the government. We try to describe what’s happening on the ground, from everybody’s perspective, but the news story isn’t about the spin. I don’t think we’re the only one doing this internationally, but I think in the U.S. market, it does make us unique. If you watch us and another news station at the same time, you’ll see a lot of the same events being covered, but you’ll see them in a different way. Our goal is to provide news that the American public can come away with and say, “I know more than before I watched this.”

Can you give examples of some recent and upcoming coverage?
Secretary Clinton and President Obama’s statements on Syria, for example. We’ve also done an entire series on the drug wars. That’s not a U.S. story, but it is an American impact story. The anniversary of 9/11, that’s a global story. We’ll be traveling around the country, talking to Americans about how their lives have changed as a result of 9/11. We have a White House correspondent, we have a congressional beat. But we didn’t cover the Casey Anthony story. That’s not to say it’s not a legitimate news story, but for us, a story has to have international resonance. We have an entertainment segment that covers Hollywood but also Bollywood and entertainment all over the world. The guiding vision is that it’s something that is relevant to everyone. It helps that we have access to 70 bureaus around the world, giving us access to stories from Somalia, Sudan, Syria, South Africa….

Who do you consider your main competitors?
Competitor is the wrong word; we’re not attempting to beat other news agencies. We’re attempting to raise the bar of journalism in the U.S. overall. If we can convince people that there is a market for serious international news — if Jazeera can do that, other journalists can say, “Why are we not running those stories?” In terms of investigative journalism, I think, in terms of what compares, you’re looking only at Frontline in the U.S. and maybe NPR. That’s the type of depth we try to give.

The biggest challenge we have is to let people know we’re available everywhere, and, increasingly, we’re on their TV. We want them to make up their own mind, give them the freedom of choice. One thing we’re really pleased by is, in the last year in particular, we’ve really been winning a lot of journalism awards. We won a New York Press Club Award for our work on Haiti, and the Columbia School of Journalism Award for 2011. Our journalists are some of the best in the world.

Finally, a very important question: Do you have commercials?
There are a few commercials. I’d guess that there will be more!