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Al-Jazeera finds its English voice

Al-Jazeera, which is launching an English-language network with Washington as a major hub, has landed its first big-name Western journalist: veteran BBC interviewer David Frost.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Al-Jazeera, which is launching an English-language network with Washington as a major hub, has landed its first big-name Western journalist: David Frost. And the veteran BBC interviewer says he's perfectly comfortable with the unlikely marriage.

"I love new frontiers and new challenges," Frost, 66, said yesterday from London. He said the new network, al-Jazeera International, has promised him "total editorial control" and that he had checked out the company with U.S. and British government officials, "all of which gave al-Jazeera a clean bill of health in terms of its lack of links with terrorism."

But the Bush administration has repeatedly denounced al-Jazeera. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused the Qatar-based operation of promoting terrorism and "vicious lies" and has banned its reporters from Iraq. The State Department has complained about "false" and "inflammatory" reporting.

Said Frost, who will host a weekly interview program: "For all the people who think it's anti-American, there are various countries in the Middle East who think it's too pro-Western. I would say the jury's out on al-Jazeera. Obviously, we all suffer from the handicap of not being able to sit there and watch in Arabic."

The Thursday announcement of the hiring of Frost, who will continue to work for the BBC, comes as al-Jazeera is looking for a few good Americans — anchors, correspondents and producers — for the network as it prepares to launch early next year. From a nondescript office building on K Street, where an armed guard mans the lobby, staffers have been calling television agents about their clients. But a number of those approached, including several well-known personalities whose agent would not identify them by name, have quickly rebuffed the overture.

‘Image problem to be overcome’
"Some are a bit leery," said Nigel Parsons, the former staffer for BBC and Associated Press Television News who is running al-Jazeera International. "There is an image problem to be overcome."

Al-Jazeera's reputation wasn't helped when a Spanish court last month sentenced former correspondent Taysir Alouni to seven years in prison on charges of collaborating with al Qaeda.

But such developments have not deterred some recruits. Josh Rushing, a former Marine spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Qatar who was featured in the documentary "Control Room," is joining as a reporter, as first reported by USA Today.

Parsons dismisses the U.S. criticism and says Rumsfeld wrongly accused the network of airing pictures of beheadings.

"We're certainly not anti-West or anti-American," he said. Parsons said the network is "not always the first recipient" of Osama bin Laden's videotaped threats, and while it does air what it deems newsworthy excerpts, "it's slightly hypocritical to say we run them and no one else does." As for Middle East coverage, "people forget most Arabs had never seen an Israeli before al-Jazeera, and we allow Israelis to give their side of the story."

A different perspective
At a minimum, al-Jazeera offers a different perspective. Recent stories on its English-language Web site were headlined "Al-Qaeda in Iraq says two marines killed," "Israel accused of skewing elections" and "Hamas: U.S., Israel provoking tensions." An article on Alouni says he was the only journalist based on Afghanistan "to show the world what the U.S. war machine was doing to one of the world's poorest countries."

Al-Jazeera International plans for the Washington bureau to broadcast four hours of programming each day, with London, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, and Doha, Qatar, handling the rest of the load.

Parsons sees no problem in hiring the 40 staffers envisioned for the Washington office: "By and large, people have been approaching us. We have well over 4,000 applications for editorial jobs from people who've worked at CNN, BBC, Fox, Sky News and Australian television."

As for salaries, Parsons said, "some people expect us to be handing out gold bars. We're not awash with petrodollars." He says that while more than half of the network's funding comes from the emir of Qatar, the government has never tried to interfere with programming.

One journalist who will anchor a Washington call-in program is Riz Kahn, a former BBC staffer and CNN International host.

Kahn said he is aware of al-Jazeera's reputation in the United States but views this as a "new channel" staffed by credible journalists, including his friend Parsons. "Any concern people have that it's going to be slanted one way or anti-American, they'll be appeased once they realize it's a proper international channel," he said.

Parsons has taken his case to Washington, paying courtesy calls on such skeptics as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney, the vice president's daughter, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who was not persuaded.

"They've become a platform for a bunch of nuts and radical Islamists that are damaging to the United States and put our people at risk," Rohrabacher said. "Al-Jazeera is anathema to people who believe in responsible journalism. . . . It is hate-based reporting."

‘Useful idiot’
Clifford May, president of the advocacy group Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said any American who goes on al-Jazeera "is misguided. He thinks he'll be able to tell the truth. I think he's going to be used and be seen as a useful idiot."

Even without al-Jazeera's controversial reputation, it will be difficult for the new network — which has deals to be carried in Europe, Asia and Africa — to get widespread access to U.S. cable and satellite outlets. "We don't expect to be on in 25 or 30 million homes on Day One," Parsons said. "I'll be delighted if we've got 5 million homes and can build on that."

Al-Jazeera claims to be the world's fifth-most recognizable brand. But Parsons concedes that U.S. cable operators may make the commercial decision that their audience isn't terribly interested in foreign news.

"We feel America has a fairly poor understanding of the outside world, and the outside world has a fairly poor understanding of the United States. . . . All we're asking is to be judged on our own merits," he said.

Fame in U.S. for Nixon interviews
Frost, who added to his considerable fame in America nearly three decades ago by conducting the first post-Watergate interviews with Richard Nixon, said he finds the new channel "a perfectly friendly environment" because there are so many ex-BBC staffers.

Frost said he had seen a script for a promotional tape that contains some supportive comments from Bill Clinton. Clinton spokesman Jay Carson said these must have been taken from a recent al-Jazeera interview with the former president, and that since Clinton never does commercial promotions, his office would send a cease-and-desist letter if the network used excerpts for that purpose.

"I'm not an apologist for al-Jazeera Arabic," Frost said. "I think it's good to have another 24-hour news network in the world bringing a different point of view, a 360-degree point of view."