Fresh Perspective

“Fresh perspective” and “new eyes” have been Bush administration buzzwords since the nomination of Robert Gates to be Secretary of Defense was announced. Whether the eyes of Mr. Gates– which saw no evil when he was the Number 2 man at the CIA while the Reagan administration was busy undermining the Constitution with its Iran-Contra scam– manage to see anything new remains to be seen. But starting today there will be a fresh perspective on world events available to Americans.

Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language news channel, is launching Al-Jazeera International, an English language service. “Around the world,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports,

the new channel will be available in 80 million households with cable or satellite access. In deals announced Tuesday, the channel will be transmitted in the United States via satellite and the Internet.

The U.S. is going to be an especially challenging market for the new network, since Al-Jazeera is regularly portrayed by rightwing news outlets like Fox News as nothing more than a propaganda channel for terrorists. (Ironically, today The Huffington Post published an internal Fox News memo, which shows how eager Murdoch's network is to broadcast terrorist propaganda, if the propaganda can be spun as being pro-Democrat.) This has always been nonsense. Al-Jazeera's core personnel are professionals, most of whom learned their trade at the BBC. And people who have actually watched the network, understand that it operates at a higher level of professionalism than Fox News. The Chronicle story quotes Sarah Benson,

a 26-year-old Arabic-speaking development worker in the Washington area who worked in Jordan for two years, [and who] watched Al-Jazeera when she lived there. “It will be nice for Americans to see a little more realism” from war zones, she says. “Before I went to Jordan, I read that (Al-Jazeera) was a horrible network — that it showed terrorist videos. In reality, that's not at all what it is.”

But recognizing that in television, appearance is as important as reality, Al-Jazeera International features faces that should be readily acceptable to American viewers.

Anticipating the skepticism of potential U.S. viewers, Al-Jazeera has hired well-known Western reporters to be the face of its English-language channel, among them [former Nightline report Dave] Marash (who is Jewish); British TV icon Sir David Frost; former CNN International anchor Riz Khan; and ex-Marine spokesman [Josh] Rushing, whose forthright approach made him a hit among reporters who interviewed him in Doha, Qatar, during the run-up to the war in Iraq in 2003.

But a well-scrubbed white face, even when its attached to an ex-Marine, isn't enough to reassure everyone.

Six months ago, a crew from Al-Jazeera International's Washington bureau went to Crosby, N.D., intending to report on the economic conditions of a remote American town. None of the crew was Arab or Muslim. In fact, one of them was Josh Rushing, a former Marine who was a popular spokesman for the U.S. military during the initial phases of the Iraq war. That credential didn't matter to the townspeople, who were suspicious of the crew's affiliation with the Arabic news channel.

“It's a news organization that's basically anti-American,” says Lauren Throntveit, the sheriff of Crosby, whom residents called when they realized the crew was from Al-Jazeera. “I found their visit extremely unusual. They're being financed by the same guy who finances the (Arabic version of) Al-Jazeera. If you study them at all, their (personnel) are always getting arrested for something. And if you look at a map, you see that we are only a couple of miles from the Canadian border.”

Agents from the U.S. Border Patrol interviewed Rushing and his colleagues, then let them resume their reporting.

It looks like a visit to Crosby could have easily added an extra 30 minutes to Borat.

If, unlike Sheriff Throntveit, you're interested in watching Al-Jazeera International, you can find it on the GlobeCast satellite network, or online at JumpTV and VDC (Virtual Digital Cable). Not the most impressive roll out for a new network, admittedly, but perhaps today is an auspicious day for its premiere. It was, after all, 80 years ago today that the NBC network first went on the air.

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