Al-Jazeera Expands Its American Purview With Current TV
The Qatar-based news agency Al-Jazeera recently took over Current TV, the cable channel founded by former Vice President Al Gore. The deal will make Al-Jazeera available in 40 million homes across the U.S. Host Rachel Martin talks with Al-Jazeera's executive producer for the Americas, Bob Wheelock, about what the acquisition means for the agency's future.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This past week, Al-Jazeera made a big move that gave it a bigger slice of the American television audience. The Qatar-based news agency recently took over Current TV - that's the cable channel founded by former Vice President Al Gore. The deal will make Al-Jazeera available in more than 40 million homes across the United States. Until now, Al-Jazeera English has only been available in New York, Washington, D.C. and a handful of other areas. Following the deal, I sat down with Al-Jazeera's executive producer for the Americas, Bob Wheelock, and I asked him if he thought Al-Jazeera would be able to cater to a much broader U.S. market.
BOB WHEELOCK: The biggest challenge you face as a reporter for Al-Jazeera - or a producer - is how to make that story that you're working pertinent to a guy in Istanbul at an Internet cafe, someone in Belfast and someone in Kentland, Indiana.
MARTIN: I imagine all of this still has to be worked out, the particulars of the program...
WHEELOCK: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: ...but anything you can tell us about, you know, what we could expect to see?
WHEELOCK: Well, I think one of the things you will see is still international news. We have an incredibly strong documentary unit, which, you know, ask around and see how many people still have those and we will put those programs on the air - "Witness," "Fault Lines." Our challenge is going to be to come up with new programming that is more tailored to a domestic U.S. and Latin American audience. If I could tell a quick anecdote, because you never know who's watching - I love in New York and Washington. I went to an office supply store in Brooklyn. It's run by Hasidim. The guy says, oh, you're getting some stuff for work. I said yeah. He said, what do you do? And I thought do I go there? And I said I work for Al-Jazeera. And he said channel 92. It's my favorite news channel. Thank you very much. The most honest news I get on TV.
MARTIN: So, there was an Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn, New York...
WHEELOCK: Yeah. You don't know. Every day I meet cab drivers. I had to go to physical therapist the other day. He was sitting there telling me how frustrated he is that he can't get it, you know, easier on TV. You know, I had to keep my mouth shut. But I won't have to keep my mouth shut anymore and it feels great.
MARTIN: There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Al-Jazeera had a reputation, especially in some political circles in the United States, as being sympathetic to al-Qaida. Do you still get that kind of criticism? And does this acquisition represent some kind of turning point, do you think, when it comes to changing minds, changing perceptions?
WHEELOCK: The, quote, "bias," that did exist, clearly. I think our work has wiped a lot of that away. The Royal Television Society last year gave us cable network of the year. You know, it's a largely British audience and award and we won it. That speaks volumes, I think. It really does. We're not going to do anything different because we're on in America. You know, I've told the reporters you're going to do the same thing you've always done - find the best story and tell it.
MARTIN: You talk about the challenges of programming across continents for different cultures. And different demographics have a different tolerance level for certain details, shall we say. And Al-Jazeera has been known to put some graphic stuff out about world events, tragedies, attacks that happen, terrorist events, even airing excerpts of tapes released by al-Qaida or terrorist affiliates. Has the network tamped that down over the years to cater to an American audience, or are there plans to do so with this expansion?
WHEELOCK: No. What we do is try to produce news broadcasts that are editorially correct. They're not always politically correct. We take a couple of hits for that. You know, there's a certain hypocrisy involved in some of the people who've criticized, you know, you got a tape from al-Qaida and you've ran it. First of all, it's not run until it's authenticated, and I happen to know being at another network at the time, you know, the foreign desk was often calling and trying to see if they could get that tape.
MARTIN: The American network.
WHEELOCK: Yeah. The difference was Al-Jazeera made it available. A lot of the networks got those tapes. I think there was a tendency to, you know, let's see who puts it on first and then it's OK if we do it, or we show a clip of it because, you know, they did it. Well, we did it. You can't cover wars, you can't cover droughts and famines, you can't cover rape in India or the shooting of a little girl in Pakistan without sometimes showing some images that are ugly - not and do it right. That's what we do. It's not done easily. It's not done without consultation with an editorial board in Doha. And my producers come to me often, you know, do you think this is too much? And, yeah, I rein them in sometimes 'cause there's certain things that you don't need to show. What's the news value? That's all. What's the news value?
MARTIN: Bob Wheelock. He is Al-Jazeera's executive producer of the Americas. Mr. Wheelock, thanks so much for coming in.
WHEELOCK: Thank you, Rachel.
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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.