Al Jazeera launches in Seattle … and runs into the ‘branding’ problem

Al Jazeera America launched its Seattle bureau yesterday in a small office on Lake Union.

So I wanted to ask its lead correspondent Allen Schauffler, a well-known and widely respected journalist formerly with NBC’s local affiliate KING TV, what it felt like to work for a news organization supported by those who some say foster militant extremism around the world and armed struggles in the Middle East.

Kristin Fraser, Seattle bureau chief for Al Jazeera America, discusses a developing story with lead correspondent Allen Schauffler
Kristin Fraser, Seattle bureau chief for Al Jazeera America, discusses a developing story with lead correspondent Allen Schauffler

I was talking about NBC, of course, which for most of Schauffler’s career was owned by General Electric – one of the world’s largest corporations, a player in the global arms trade that occasionally gets into hot water for things like illegally selling military hardware to Israel or, in the old days, making nuclear bombs (and lots of nuclear waste). GE helped launch Ronald Reagan’s political career, ran the chronically troubled Hanford Nuclear Reservation and also made the now disabled leaking nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan.

Schauffler mistakenly thought I meant Al Jazeera. Understandable.

“The name Al Jazeera carries a lot of baggage with some people,” Schauffler said. “There were some quiet moments, raised eyebrows, when I told people I was taking this job. We’re going to have to deal with that as a challenge of branding.”

They are dealing with it already.

One of the first stories for the bureau is a report on the use of drones — aka, unmanned aerial vehicles — by Northwest farmers to monitor the health of their crops. Sounds like a cool story (so stay tuned)! But just as Schauffler and his crew were heading out to film, the pilot of the drone called and said they couldn’t come.

“When he found out we were from Al Jazeera, he said no,” Schauffler said. They had to email him their American passports and eventually convinced him, later upon arrival being asked to show their IDs again. The pilot said he regarded them as foreign media.

“I think we’re going to get that from people, for a while at least,” he said. “During the war in Iraq, some people are going to remember how the US government characterized Al Jazeera.” (Not to mention that we also bombed the news organization’s office in Baghdad.)

aljazeera logoMany do believe that Al Jazeera’s coverage is simply pro-Arab or Muslim propaganda and hostile to Western interests in general. A critical report last fall claimed the Qatar government had too much influence over the network. Nearly two dozen Al Jazeera staff quit the news organization recently to protest what they felt were orders to report favorably on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. These are legitimate concerns, if taken in context.

But neglected in all this is how often Al Jazeera is attacked as ‘pro-Western’ or even ‘pro-Israel’ by Muslim extremists and authoritarian governments.

My friend and former Seattle PI colleague Dorothy (aka D) Parvaz is an Al Jazeera reporter. In 2011, D was thrown in a Syrian prison for reporting on the popular uprising and then secretly deported to Iran, for one harrowing example of just how serious Al Jazeera is about its journalism.

Also ignored by many in the media critiques of Al Jazeera is the bias demonstrated on a daily basis by many American media organizations. Why didn’t the staff of the New York Times quit in protest after that newspaper acknowledged its left-leaning bias or when, in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, the Times published numerous unverified and false reports (like Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction) that actually cost lives?

Eh, I guess it’s easier to point at the other guy’s bias. Especially if the other guy has a name like Al Jazeera.

When word came out that Al Jazeera was launching a new cable news network, AJ America, some of the responses were fairly predictable. The LA Times noted some still call it Jihad TV; others contained more muted critiques. Some were even celebratory of this as the latest — or only — piece of good news in the media industry in years. But nearly all of the stories included some mention of this concern for bias or undue influence – a Qatari emir behind the curtain.

“The proof will be on air,” said Kristen Fraser, a former CNN reporter and producer who is Seattle bureau chief for Al Jazeera America. “We can talk about it all we want, but what will matter is our stories. We intend to do great news reporting, cover this region well and do the stories that aren’t being told.”

Added Schauffler: “We’re going to do the best we can to walk right down the middle of the road, with a lot less yowling and celebrity crap…. Al Jazeera does serious journalism. Is it perfect? No. But this is now one of the biggest, or arguably biggest, news operations in the world today with more than 70 bureaus around the world.”

And now, one in Seattle. As a reporter (and editor, publisher, office manager and janitor) at a somewhat smaller news organization, Humanosphere, devoted to broadening our global perspective and enhancing our knowledge about all of humanity, this can only be good news. Humanosphere often cites Al Jazeera for stories we can’t find anywhere else. Most of them are well done. Some are biased. Some are just badly done. Like all media ….

Watch Al Jazeera and decide for yourself.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.