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Can Al Jazeera English Leverage its 'Egypt Moment' into an American Audience?

Issue 13, Spring 2011

By William Youmans and Katie Brown

Al Jazeera in American Homes? - picture by Mike Licht

Al Jazeera in American Homes? - picture by Mike Licht

 

Introduction

Al Jazeera English (AJE)1 entered the competitive global news field in late 2006, claiming to give a “voice to the voiceless” as the “world's first English language news channel to have its headquarters in the Middle East.” AJE nonetheless did not position itself as an Arab network merely broadcasting in English – a natural assumption given the prominence of its older, Arabic language sister channel. Rather, AJE declared and maintains a “global” identity, contending in its public materials that it covers regions under-reported by western media giants CNN International (CNNI) and the BBC (Painter, 2008). Despite filling a gap in the global market for televised international news, AJE did not receive a welcome reception in the United States. This position as media outlet non grata persisted until the early 2011 uprisings in the Arab world, when AJE’s coverage was acclaimed even by Western media giants (Kristof 2011; Ferguson, 2011). With its coverage of Egypt in particular, AJE distinguished itself from competitors to become a central source of information for American observers, media, and interested members of the public. This study considers how Americans received and evaluated AJE in the weeks after the Egyptian protesters deposed the long-time ruler, Hosni Mubarak.

 

As of early 2011, AJE reached upwards of 250 million households in more than one hundred countries. This reach continues to expand; in December 2010, AJE received a downlinking license for carriage in India, the largest English-language TV market in the world. Yet AJE has struggled to gain access to television audiences in the United States. By early 2011, AJE was only fully2 available in cable systems in Washington, DC, Toledo, OH, and Burlington, VT, or roughly 1.7 percent of American households. Significant obstacles stand in the way of American TV market penetration, in which cable is still the dominant means of distribution. AJE, as a network, was painted as a terrorist-affiliated network by the George W. Bush administration (Miles, 2005; DiMaggio, 2008: 241; Marash, 2007: 47). This led some to speculate that US carriers refuse to include AJE in their offerings “out of fear of alienating themselves from advertisers and angering the Bush administration and other American political leaders.” (Dimaggio 2008: 246). Despite efforts to position itself as a global media destination, many in the United States continued to associate AJE with Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and America’s adversaries in the “war on terror.” Even in the absence of the heavy criticism of AJE by American policymakers and opinion leaders, the majority of Americans do not demonstrate an interest in global news – another hurdle (Khamis, 2007: 48). Cable carriers also see the news market as saturated, questioning the value of adding yet another network to the mix. The cable industry is inclined to suggest the decision is a purely commercial, apolitical one. Following talks between AJE and Comcast, the country’s largest cable carrier, reports cited an anonymous insider source who claimed that not carrying AJE “is strictly a business decision” (Wilkerson, 2011).

 

Additionally, political discourse about AJE, often framed within the question of cable carriage, is increasingly polarized. High-profile pundits and various organizations claim that AJE has no place on American televisions, citing allegations that AJ and AJE are anti-American and supportive of terrorists. The Washington D.C.-based media advocacy group Accuracy in Media (AIM) and Fox News program host Bill O’Reilly have challenged AJE’s efforts to sign distribution deals with large cable companies such as Comcast and Time-Warner (Loeb, 2011; Kincaid, 2011). AIM launched an online petition calling for cable companies to shut out AJE due to what it deemed propagandistic content.3 AIM calls on “Comcast, and other cable and satellite companies” to “not help to provide Al-Jazeera English the audience and the exposure that they seek” because “America is at war with radical Islam.” Smaller local groups have likewise lobbied to have AJE excluded from places where it or its news bulletins are carried, including in Daytona Beach, FL, where a local college TV station carries AJE news bulletins (Circelli, 2010).

 

There is, however, a vibrant counter-current in the American public wanting to see AJE on US television screens. As AJE became a primary news source for Americans after Arab protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other Arab countries in early 2011, demand for AJE grew. Online viewing, the primary means for Americans to watch AJE, skyrocketed, according to members of the channel’s online team. Of those watching online around the world, around half were Americans (Elder, 2011). American public thinkers, columnists (Rich, 2011), and government officials (Kayyem, 2011) began asking why the channel was not available. For the first time in roughly a decade, American officials were commending an AJ news division. News reports indicated that the White House was keeping abreast of the protests in Egypt through both CNN and AJE (MacNicol, 2011). Significantly, during a Senate committee meeting on American foreign policy priorities, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that AJE was gaining an audience in the United States because it was “real news,” which she contrasted with American television news. Clinton said, “Al Jazeera has been the leader in that they are literally changing people’s minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective” (Radia, 2011; Bauder, 2011). Prominent media figures, from ABC News’s Sam Donaldson to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, have likewise lauded the channel’s coverage (Kaplan, 2011).

 

Voices within the mainstream media, including AJE officials, began to refer to AJE’s Egypt coverage as “AJE’s moment” (Kirkpatrick and Worth, 2011; Burman, 2011; Bauder, 2011). This is a reference to “CNN’s moment” during the 1990-91 Gulf War, when advanced technology, 24-hour news coverage, on-the-ground reporting, and stunning visuals took CNN to the fore of international news. CNN has since maintained its position as a global news giant. A “moment” in this sense refers to a turning point in a news network’s standing and popularity due to leading coverage of an important event. It remains to be seen, however, whether “AJE’s moment” will translate into greater American viewership or carriage through traditional, and still dominant 4, distribution channels in the United States – specifically, cable. AJE sought to parlay its new online popularity into a grassroots-style campaign to pressure cable companies through demonstrated demand. Using a specially designed webpage, social media, and emails, they generated over 40,000 letters to American cable companies demanding AJE be made available (Bauder, 2011). Student and community groups began letter-writing campaigns asking their local cable operators to carry the station (Buletti, 2011). While previous negotiations with the largest companies failed to produce results, AJE met them again in late February with the momentum of heightened, positive publicity. Though no distribution deals have been announced in the weeks after the meetings, such deals take months and are largely carried out in secret. While AJE faces an uphill battle, some industry observers speculate that the cable industry wants to see if interest in AJE sustains beyond the period of Arab uprisings (Wilkerson, 2011).

 

Despite the new visibility and prominence, criticism that the network is biased and driven by an anti-American agenda continues. For instance, charges of bias at AJE circulated after a Washington Post columnist argued that AJE buried the story about CBS News reporter Lara Logan, who was sexually assaulted and attacked in Egypt after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak (Capehart, 2011; 2011b). AIM put out more material against AJE and re-launched a web-based campaign against the network. AJE’s managing director, Al Anstey, says the criticism is based on “misconceptions” and optimistically contends that perceptions can be changed through exposure to the channel: “Those misconceptions are being addressed now with every viewer that’s switching us on and sees the content. And I always lay down the gauntlet and say if you watch the content of Al-Jazeera English, those misconceptions, if they apply, are immediately dispelled” (quoted in Robichaux, 2011).

 

The present study puts Anstey’s claim to the test. The first study to experimentally test the effects of watching AJE on individuals, it will shed empirical light on: 1) how the public evaluates AJE; 2) how their evaluations compare with perceptions of an American competitor, CNN International (CNNI), and: 3) how these evaluations relate to prejudice against Arab-Americans and political ideology. The results suggest that, even in the aftermath of “AJE’s moment,” a considerable segment of Americans is cognitively predisposed against the channel.

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1 For ease of reading purposes, Al Jazeera English is referred to as “AJE” and Al Jazeera’s flagship Arabic channel is shortened to “AJ.”

 

2 Some of AJE’s programs, including its hour-long news bulletin, are carried on various public and local access channels, as well as by Pacifica radio, in a patchwork of places around the country.

 

3 http://www.aim.org/al-jazeera-english/

 

4 Trends suggest, however, that cable subscriptions are slowly declining annually, while the number of those viewing online increases.

5 The term “prejudice” is used literally in this analysis to mean to the use of pre-conceived associations, judgments or presumptions that impact one’s evaluation of some given thing. The more popular connotation refers to unfairly negative views of other people or social groups (Dovidio, 2001: 829), but we use the term here in relation to a brand and news network.

6 This study is part of a larger experiment that included a clip condition administered before the clip condition presented here. All results presented were not influenced by the first clip condition and so we focus here on the procedures relevant to the present paper.

 

7 “Taliban 'rejects' Afghan peace offer,” uploaded to YouTube on June 6, 2010, was filed by James Bays, an AJE correspondent who reported from both Kabul and Baghdad. The video is posted at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZnBrniJGDg

 

8 Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) is a statistical method for testing whether the means of two or more groups are equal – whether the groups are on average different.

9 There is a marginal effect of a condition not discussed in the present paper.

 

10 Political ideology and Arab American prejudice also correlate (r = .38, < .001), such that conservatism and prejudice increase in tandem.

 

11 It should be noted that some conservative websites lauded AJE. For example, the Drudge Report site (http://www.drudgereport.com/) kept a link to AJE at the top during the Egypt protest coverage in early 2011.