The Debate Over Al Jazeera English in Burlington, VT.
Issue 14, Summer 2011
Central Burlington and the Al Jazeera logo
Al Jazeera English entered a competitive global news field in late 2006 by claiming to cover stories in regions underrepresented by the most visible international news outlets and agencies. It did not position itself as an Arab network merely broadcasting in English, though it announces it is the “world's first English language news channel to have its headquarters in the Middle East.” It claims a “global” identity, which means representing regions underreported by the western media giants CNN and the BBC. The network operates nearly seventy bureaus around the world; most of them are in developing nations. Its international staff of more than one thousand comes from more than fifty national backgrounds. It seeks to compete by growing its news-gathering reach. This is in stark contrast with patterns in western news media, according to Tony Burman, AJE’s former Managing Director:
The mainstream American networks have cut their bureaus to the bone.... They’re basically only in London now. Even CNN has pulled back. I remember in the ’80s when I covered these events there would be a truckload of American journalists and crews and editors, and now Al Jazeera outnumbers them all..... That’s where, in the absence of alternatives, Al Jazeera English can fill a vacuum, simply because we’re going in the opposite direction (Campbell, 2010).
A global audience may be emerging as well. AJE reaches upwards of 220 million households in more than one hundred countries.
Scholarship concerning AJE has considered the extent to which AJE could subdue “the ongoing discourse of ‘clash of civilizations’ in favor of a new discourse of ‘dialogue between civilizations’” (Khamis, 2007: 49). In a sense, AJE can reconcile the cultural chasm separating “civilizations.” El-Nawawy and Powers found that AJE can serve as a conciliatory media source by moderating viewers’ attitudes towards other cultures (2008; 2010). This could also be understood as AJE possessing counter-hegemonic potential. Formulated as a “counter-hegemonic” alternative to what is described as the dominant news outlets, AJE may be able to break the western hold on mediated narrative power (Al-Najjar, 2009: 2; Gardner, 2009: 19) even if its formatting and style resemble other western media (Boyd-Barrett and Xie, 2008: 214). Others argue that it, along with the Arabic news service, are “alternative” but not counter-hegemonic because of how they are received and treated by mainstream media in the West (Tal-Azran, 2010). While Al Jazeera may be “alternative” for viewers in the West, as a total global brand, the network is mainstream (Iskandar 2005). Questions of alterity in transnational media aside, AJE’s efficacy as a cultural bridge or counter-hegemonic news outlet depends on audience receptivity and access in the global North, especially in the United States.
While AJE has gained wide carriage in the United Kingdom and is growing quickly in Canada, it is yet to gain wide carriage in the United States cable television and broadcasting markets. The United States is an important English-language TV market. As the world’s strongest and most globalized military and cultural power, it is one of the places where conciliatory international media is needed most, where the hardest test of counter-hegemonic media potential lies.
Significant obstacles stand in the way of market penetration in the United States. Al Jazeera was thoroughly painted as a terrorist-affiliated network by the Bush administration (Miles, 2005; DiMaggio, 2008: 241; Marash, 2007: 47). This led some to speculate that US carriers likely refuse AJE “out of fear of alienating themselves from advertisers and angering the Bush administration and other American political leaders.” (Dimaggio 2008: 246). Even in the absence of the heavy criticism of Al Jazeera by American policymakers and opinion leaders, the majority of Americans do not demonstrate an interest in global news (Khamis, 2007: 48). When it comes to news, main carriers see the market as already saturated, and they call into question the value of adding yet another network to the mix. The political pressures probably interact with the political economy of TV distribution and consumer preferences in the United States. As a industry led by the private sector and operating in a deregulated environment, there is little transparency or clarity as to the causes of AJE’s absence. This, along with the inherent difficulties in studying any type of exclusion or absence, suggests more fruitful research opportunities reside in the areas of exception – where AJE has gained carriage within the United States. Studying a place where AJE was made available after a public debate on the subject reveals some of the underlying issues.
Al Jazeera English in the United States
Despite its growth and global appeal, AJE has struggled to reach television sets in the United States. AJE has not been picked up widely on cable or by digital broadcasters, the two most common TV delivery systems in the country. It is on just a few cable providers, including Buckeye Cable in Toledo, Ohio, and Burlington Telecom in Burlington, Vermont. AJE gained a large indirect foothold in Washington, DC though a carriage agreement with the MHz network, a non-commercial, educational broadcaster based in Virginia. The MHz network airs AJE full-time through one of its pre-existing channels and can be seen though satellite, digital over-the-air broadcasting and through the area’s major cable companies, including Comcast, Cox and RCN. MHz’s Worldview channel airs AJE’s news, along with that of other international broadcasters, in several other cities, such as Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and around 30 more local markets. Some AJE programs and news bulletins appear regularly on several other channels, such as LinkTV, which is on the DISH Network, and on cable in San Francisco, New York and other cities. A handful of local public broadcasters, college TV networks and cable access channels also airs programs occasionally. It is also available via some free-to-air satellite systems, such as WorldTV. The major cable operators have not been interested in carrying AJE. Negotiations started with some, such as Time-Warner and Comcast, relatively early on, but they did not produce a deal. Overall, the presence of AJE on American television is sparse. The Al Jazeera network has apparently adapted an incrementalist strategy to US market entry. It appears to be aiming for local footholds, from which to expand its presence. It sought a carriage deal with Pacifica radio network, a listener-supported community radio network known for its generally progressive orientation. If it goes through, radio listeners in major TV markets such as New York, Houston and Los Angeles will be able to listen to AJE’s news. Another element of its strategy is to use new media to build an American audience, thereby circumventing traditional distribution channels. Nearly half of views of its prolific Youtube page and website come from American online users (Marash, 2007: 46-7). By reaching a “selective exposure” audience of limited size, online distribution is not yet a substitute for cable TV carriage. It is hoped the online audience comes to represent public demand for AJE on cable TV.
This paper examines the particular case of AJE in Burlington, Vermont – one of the few places in the United States that AJE is available. There, cable carriage of AJE was subject to an especially intense, public debate. Unlike Buckeye Cable or Link TV, Burlington Telecom (BT) is a quasi-public entity and therefore has a different practice of accountability to its customers. The issue of offering AJE actually produced public mobilizations, which required articulable public justifications for or against the network’s availability on TV sets in the community. AJE was subject to a public discussion that took place in public meetings, local media, and finally before city council and public committees. Whereas Buckeye Cable made the decision to carry, and received angry letters and phone calls, the political contest over AJE in Burlington yielded a fruitful public deliberation. This generated rich, textual documentation of the underlying issues and discourses that were in play over AJE’s market entry in one American city. Although Burlington, VT is renowned for its leftist political disposition and the political economy of Burlington Telecom is unique, the public justifications unearthed in the exchanges over AJE illustrate the underlying principles at stake, the hopes and anxieties the idea of its local transmission evokes.