Egypt Crisis Brings Al-Jazeera U.S. Footing

Al-Jazeera journalists gather at the pan-Arab television channel's bureau in Cairo, Jan. 30, 2011.
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Al-Jazeera English has temporarily gained a long-sought American television outlet for its coverage of the Egyptian turmoil, an event that the Qatar-based news network hopes is a turning point for its acceptance in the U.S. market.

Link TV, an independent broadcaster seen primarily on the DirecTV and Dish satellite systems, said Wednesday it is simulcasting about 12 hours a day of live Al-Jazeera coverage to about 33 million of the nation's nearly 116 million homes with televisions. Al-Jazeera's in-depth treatment of the story has won praise from journalists and hostility from Egyptian authorities, who closed the channel's Cairo office and briefly detained six of its journalists.

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When the story calms down, Al-Jazeera plans go back to cable operators in the U.S. to seek permanent spots on the air, said Al Anstey, the network's managing director.

"This is a really important moment for us in the United States," Anstey said. "To me, this is evidence that there is a clear demand for Al-Jazeera English and the content that we put out."

Link already airs documentaries from Al-Jazeera, includes some of its material in its daily "Mosaic" program about news from the Arab world, and once a week it airs a half-hour Al-Jazeera newscast. It is part of the Link's mission to provide news and information from across the world through difference perspectives, said Kim Spencer, chief content officer of the San Francisco-based network.

Al-Jazeera offers a perspective that Americans need to see, with a wealth of contacts in the Middle East, he said.

"They're a credible news organization," he said. "They've demonstrated that."

Spencer said he noticed a difference during Wednesday's coverage of violence in Cairo. An NPR account described Egyptian army tanks leaving the square where most of the violence was taking place, giving the impression that soldiers were quietly supporting loyalists to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who were attacking demonstrators. An Al-Jazeera reporter suggested the tanks backed away to avoid inadvertently helping people trying to foment violence.

You can't be sure which interpretation is correct, Spencer said, but having the different points of view is valuable.

Since its launch as the English-language offshoot of the Arabic Al-Jazeera Network, AJE has found it virtually impossible to win space on American cable or satellite systems as a stand-alone network. It is currently available only on cable systems in Washington, D.C., in Toledo, Ohio, and in Burlington, Vt. Its operators blamed hostility from the Bush administration for making cable system operators reluctant to pick it up. Cable executives said they had little room for it.

Facing this reality, Al-Jazeera English has made its telecast and other content available online for more than two years. During the Egyptian crisis, it has seen its online traffic increase by 2,500 percent, with computer users from the United States responsible for half of it, Anstey said.

Any misconceptions about Al-Jazeera having an agenda can quickly be dispelled, he said. "You see high-quality information and sharp-edged reporting the minute you switch us on," he said.

Besides having aggressive, street-smart reporters on the ground in various Egyptian cities, Al-Jazeera has the reach to show how popular unrest is spreading to the rest of the Arab world, he said.

During a discussion of the Egyptian crisis Sunday on ABC News' "This Week," Sam Donaldson made it a point to turn to an Al-Jazeera representative in a panel discussion to thank him for the network's coverage. Shortly after Mubarak announced he would not seek another term in office, a CNN anchor asked correspondent Ben Wedeman what protesters were shouting about and he wryly noted that they were talking about Al-Jazeera.

Al-Jazeera officials hope that the response to the Egyptian story will convince cable operators that there is a market not just for its network, but for international news in general, Anstey said.

"We're trying to be a public service so people can see it in the moment," said Link's Spencer. "I wouldn't be surprised if they work out some new arrangements so they can be seen widely."