The Occupational Hazards of Being a Reporter for the Arab Press in America: Al Jazeera English

Feet in 2 Worlds doesn’t generally rely on the Daily News’ Rush & Malloy gossip page as a credible source, period, let alone on immigrant and ethnic media. But an election-related headline caught our eye yesterday.

When an Al Jazeera English reporter attempted last week to interview an Iraq war veteran running for Congress in Florida, the candidate called the FBI, saying he feared a potential terrorist hit. See the whole story here.

The candidate, Republican retired Lt. Col. Allen West, reported he was suspicious of Al Jazeera English’s request to interview him on the recent ‘perceived uptick in violence in Afghanistan’. West said he suspected the interview request was a ploy to kidnap him in the dangerous confines of South Florida, where he is hoping to unseat Rep. Ron Klein, a first-term Democratic incumbent in a district that is also home to Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

Though Congressional candidates in Florida may be suspicious of Al Jazeera English, Burlington, VT’s City Council voted last week to continue to offer the channel through the municipal cable system. The unanimous decision came after local residents groups challenged the channel’s coverage of world events as anti-Semitic and anti-American. (Click here to listen to an NPR story about the controversy.) Burlington’s decision still makes it only one of two American cities that carry the channel: Toledo, OH is the other.

It might seem strange that Al Jazeera, the phenomenally popular Qatar-based Arab-language network famously portrayed in the 2004 documentary ‘Control Room’ is covering U.S. Congressional candidates.

Launched in 2006 as an editorially separate news outlet, the network’s affiliate, Al Jazeera English, boasts over 110 million viewers, making it the third-largest English-language news channel worldwide. (The two most popular English channels worldwide are BBC News and CNN International.) Even the iconic BBC journalist Sir David Frost has his own show on Al Jazeera English. The channel and its news coverage, its producers and anchors say, specialize in looking at world events through a lens that, while it is in English, is nevertheless not an American point of view.

The rest of the world and the ethnic media are mesmerized by the US presidential election this year in addition to immigration policy, and Al Jazeera English is no different. The station is doing in-depth reporting on the candidates’ stances on foreign policy, trade, and Israeli-Palestinian relations. Click here to check out their ‘Election 08 Diary’, which features regular dispatches from their Washington, DC correspondent.

For example, the channel’s weekly show, ‘Inside USA’, aired a segment earlier this spring that examined the businesses behind constructing the controversial US-Mexico border fence. The segment found Boeing and Blackwater, the same multinational defense contractors who have drawn criticism for behemoth and expensive contracts in Iraq, are now preparing to build the multibillion dollar border fence and operate high-tech security and screening facilities to discourage immigrants from unlawfully crossing the border. Another segment focused on resurgent white supremacist groups and their increasingly Latino targets in Arkansas, home to the nation’s fastest-growing group of undocumented immigrants. According to the segment, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the FBI also found the nation experienced a simultaneous 35 percent increase in hate crimes against Latinos between 2003 and 2006.

Al Jazeera English’s webpage is largely accessed by people in North America. It appears American and Canadian audiences are determined to diversify their news sources – even online.

Despite Al Jazeera English’s international popularity, the international mega-channel has had great difficulty penetrating the US cable television market. Major providers such as Comcast and Time Warner do not offer the controversial network on their menu of cable channels.

Hence, perhaps, Col. West’s suspicion of the channel, despite his having returned less than a year ago from Iraq, where Al Jazeera reigns supreme.

While the Al Jazeera English incident in Florida may veer into the tragicomic, the subtext of how the ethnic media is often pooh-poohed by candidates, elected officials, and government agencies is a serious one, addressed in New York by the advocacy efforts of the New York Community Media Alliance.

Last weekend, the Unity Conference wrapped up in Chicago – the nation’s largest gathering of journalists of color, which increasingly includes many from the nation’s ethnic and immigrant press. Both presidential candidates were invited to address the conference; McCain cancelled at the last minute, and Obama spoke to a packed house. No word yet on whether Al Jazeera English was there.

Stay tuned for a first-person report later on this week with more from the Unity Conference on the Feet in 2 Worlds blog…