I have an article in the current edition of Reader’s Digest, but in case you don’t subscribe or you’re not in a doctor’s office, here it is…
In Helmand, Afghanistan, August 2009 (Snorre Wik)
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat in a conference room at a resort in Desert Hot Springs, California, with dozens of other Marines as a tall one-star general in a crisp uniform, Brig. Gen. Andrew B. Davis, presented a well-worn lecture on digital media. It was the annual conference for Marine Corps public affairs officers. Davis was the head. I was a junior officer.
In the corner of the room, a muted television broadcast live images of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on fire. America was under attack — a Pearl Harbor moment for every Marine there — and we looked on in disbelief. Irked by our divided attention, Davis ordered the television turned off and pressed on with his hour-long presentation. (Davis denies this.)
Davis’s seeming blindness to the life-changing magnitude of 9/11 inspired a rare act of rebellion: I walked out and relocated to the empty hotel bar, where I watched the consequences of the attacks unfold until I was called back to my base. (Davis’s own office at the Pentagon was destroyed that day in the aftermath of the crash of American Airlines Flight 77, which slammed into the building, killing 184 soldiers, sailors, and civilians.)
A native Texan and lifelong Marine, I was the only person in the world to be simultaneously inside the U.S. military and Al Jazeera
I had been a Marine for 11 years — my entire adult life — and on that day, especially, I felt fortunate to be one. I knew a military response would soon follow. I decided that if my unit were not called upon to be part of it, I would volunteer and politic my way to the tip of the spear.
But the incongruity of that morning — a yawn-inducing seminar backlit by searing images of mind-boggling destruction — would come to characterize a critical phase of my military career and the beginning of its end.
In January 2003, I deployed to the front lines of the media war at Central Command Forward headquarters — aka CentCom — in Doha, Qatar, hundreds of miles south of the line of troops massing on the southern border of Iraq. From there, I gave daily interviews to the world’s media justifying our pending invasion of Iraq — the weapons of mass destruction supposedly harbored by Saddam, his ties to Al Qaeda. Underpinning the military buildup lay a little-discussed but ambitious goal: The Bush administration hoped to ignite the flames of democracy in the heart of the Middle East and fan them across the region. I recognized that to do this, we would need to reach Arab audiences through their own media, and that meant working with the controversial pan-Arab news channel, Al Jazeera. I argued that CentCom should grant Al Jazeera access to top military officials.
This was not a popular idea. Then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had labeled the channel the mouthpiece of Al Qaeda and accused the network of airing beheadings. So instead of Gen. Tommy Franks, the network got me. I regularly appeared before its reporters, who peppered me with difficult questions. I had a unique vantage point: A native Texan and lifelong Marine, I was the only person in the world to be simultaneously inside the U.S. military and Al Jazeera and — because I worked closely with White House officials — the Bush administration. I came to a hard conclusion: American animosity toward Al Jazeera was not only ill founded but also counter to our strategic interest in the region.
In 2004, in the spring of Abu Ghraib, a documentary about Al Jazeera, Control Room, debuted in American theaters. I was surprised to learn I had been featured prominently and described by reviewers as a Marine sympathetic to Al Jazeera. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon was unhappy with my role in the film and still held tight to its view that in many respects, Al Jazeera was the enemy.
The Pentagon turned down dozens of requests for interviews with me — from Fox News to NPR — and I was ordered to keep silent about the movie and my views on Al Jazeera. That edict felt like a betrayal of the very civic values — standing up for what one believes is right, true, and honest — that had led me into the Marine Corps in the first place. To do nothing would advance my career aspirations in the military but hardly serve America’s best interests. In the fall of 2004, after 14 years in the Corps, I resigned my commission. Six months later, I signed on to help launch Al Jazeera English.
I knew it was risky, but the Corps taught me to do the right thing for the right reason — damn the consequences. As soon as I hired on with Al Jazeera, I was blistered by hate mail and death threats from people who had never seen a minute of the Arabic news channel. Once, to promote my appearance on Hannity & Colmes, Fox News ran a picture of me in uniform. Beneath it the word traitor was punctuated with a question mark. Five years later, that image is still one of the first pictures that pop up in a Google image search of my name — despite the fact that my reporting has taken me to Iraq and Afghanistan ten times, often embedded with soldiers and Marines at the invitation of their commanders.
Since the channel’s shaky beginnings, Al Jazeera and the United States have become strange bedfellows: Both promote democracy bolstered by a free and open media. As revolts from Tunisia to Bahrain press into the palaces of kings and tyrants, the network can count top U.S. officials among its newest converts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Al Jazeera has been the leader in … literally changing people’s minds and attitudes.” Perhaps the most surprising compliment came from former presidential nominee and Republican senator John McCain, who vowed that he was “very proud of the role that Al Jazeera has played” in spreading democracy around the world.
Incongruous? Perhaps, but no more so than the notion that an Arab TV network, once considered an enemy of the United States, is now one of the greatest proponents of freedom in the region. Ten years ago, who’d have thought?
CNN had the gulf war. Fox News had the war on terror. And Al Jazeera English had the Arab Spring.
But six months after widespread protests erupted in the Middle East, the Qatar-based Al Jazeera has not gained distribution on any major cable or satellite systems in the United States. The channel’s supporters say they feel it has been blacklisted; the distributors say they have to contend with limited channel space.
Undeterred, Al Jazeera English executives say they are making headway. On Monday, the channel will be carried in New York City for the first time, though only by subletting space from a channel owner. The channel has a foothold in Washington through a similar arrangement.
“We will get on in the U.S.,” Al Anstey, the channel’s managing director, said confidently in an interview in Manhattan, where he came late last week to celebrate the carriage deal.
Al Jazeera English was lauded by the United States government and even by a few competitors for its broadcasts from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries earlier this year. But it is finding out that cable and satellite distributors like Comcast, DirecTV and Dish Network wield an enormous amount of control over the channels that viewers in the United States can and cannot see. “It’s all about leverage in this business, and they don’t have any,” said Paul Maxwell, the head of a cable industry consulting firm.
Al Jazeera does not have a parent company with powerful assets, as the News Corporation did when it used the huge popularity of Fox News to gain channel space for a spinoff, Fox Business, a few years ago. Nor does it have proof that millions are clamoring to watch, as most Americans have not been exposed to the channel.
Reflecting what some distribution executives said on condition of anonymity, Mr. Maxwell suggested that the dearth of evident demand was the main reason for Al Jazeera’s being shut out. Still, he said, “I think it should be carried; there is a public interest reason for it.”
The channel was founded in 2006 as a competitor to CNN International and the BBC. It was an offshoot of Al Jazeera Arabic, the popular Arab satellite news network that was demonized by the Bush administration as a platform for anti-American propaganda, in part because it broadcast Al Qaeda videotapes. Furthering the tensions, American missiles struck Al Jazeera offices in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 during the wars in those countries. In both cases United States officials said the strikes were mistakes.
The tensions began to ease toward the end of the Bush administration. But Al Jazeera officials say they believe that American impressions of both the Arabic and the English channels were harmed. Early meetings with distributors were about correcting “myths and misperceptions” of the English channel, Mr. Anstey said. Now, he added, those myths never come up.
The channel and its lobbyists have worked hard to change perceptions in Washington and in the media out of a conviction, Mr. Anstey said, that once people watch Al Jazeera English, they come to recognize that “what we’re putting out is high-quality information, well told.”
The lobbying effort was helped by the channel’s exhaustive and in some cases exclusive coverage of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere this year. Al Jazeera immediately began an advertising campaign and encouraged viewers to write to United States distributors to demand carriage, and Mr. Anstey traveled to the United States to meet with distributors like Comcast and DirecTV.
“We had some very fruitful meetings,” he said over a double espresso at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown Manhattan last week. “We’re making some very good headway.”
He disputed the suggestion that the channel was not in demand, citing 70,000 supporter letters that were sent to distributors via the Al Jazeera Web site. He and others at the channel were electrified in March when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton labeled Al Jazeera “real news”and contrasted it with the commercials and “arguments between talking heads” on United States-based channels. Ms. Clinton’s comments raised the ire of some conservatives, but overall criticism of the channel has been limited.
The country’s biggest cable and satellite companies each declined requests for interviews about Al Jazeera last week; most cited policies against talking about any specific carriage decisions. But they expressed no public concerns about Al Jazeera’s content.
One of them, Cox, said the lack of carriage was “less about them and more indicative of the business environment.” In a statement, Cox said, “the incremental value of adding one channel to the hundreds in our lineup rarely offsets the broader challenges of rising programming costs and bandwidth management.”
By bandwidth management, Cox means the finite space that the company has for new channels. Al Jazeera is not the only international news channel seeking space; the BBC is trying to persuade the companies to carry BBC World News, too, so far with little luck.
Without commenting directly on conversations with distributors, Mr. Anstey indicated that Al Jazeera was not asking for the sort of per-subscriber fee that most channels depend on. “Revenue is not our priority. It’s being seen,” he said. Al Jazeera does not necessarily need the fees, since it receives funds from the finance ministry of Qatar, though it says it is not influenced by the Qatari government.
In New York City, starting Monday, Al Jazeera English will be simulcast for 23 hours a day on RISE, a cable channel adjunct to WRNN, a broadcast station in suburban New York. RISE had shown a Spanish-language network previously.
RISE is carried by Time Warner Cable (Channel 92) and Verizon FiOS (Channel 466) in New York City. The channel is a product of leverage: when Time Warner Cable wanted to move WRNN from an analog to a digital channel, the station negotiated for a second channel, RISE.
RISE will carry one hour of local programming a day, as it is required to do under its carriage agreements. The other 23 hours it will have Al Jazeera English. Richard E. French Jr., the president of WRNN, said in an interview that he was impressed by Al Jazeera’s extensive news infrastructure, including 70 bureaus.
WRNN and Al Jazeera declined to comment on the business arrangement, though typically in such circumstances the subletter pays a fee to the channel owner. Al Jazeera sublets space on a channel owned by MHz Networks in the Washington area as well, and its newscasts are carried by a handful of other outlets, including cable services in Ohio and Vermont, the Link TV network and a public TV station in Los Angeles.
“They’ve learned how to piggyback,” Mr. Maxwell said. But that is not equivalent to having full carriage on its own channel across the country.
Al Jazeera English’s live signal and its individual news reports have been streamed free on the Internet for years. Some distributors privately point to the live streaming as an alternative to cable or satellite carriage, but streaming excludes people without broadband Internet or those who prefer watching on TV.
“I think every American should have the right to watch Al Jazeera English in any medium they want,” Amjad Atallah, the channel’s new bureau chief for the Americas, said.
He added, “As an American, what grates is that I’m prevented from watching something.”