The cable news network is building a new broadcast center in Washington and planning bureaus in eight cities across the USA.
Bob Wheelock oversees the Al Jazeera Washington bureau, which is going through a major expansion as part of the network's new presence in the U.S.(Photo: Paul Singer, USA TODAY)
- U.S. operation will be editorially separate from Arab-language network
- Al Jazeera was viewed with suspicion by the U.S. government after 2001 terror attacks
- Network is owned by the government of Qatar
Seven years after it arrived in the U.S., Al Jazeera is putting up its sign.
As it launches a major expansion to become a full-fledged cable news channel in the U.S., the Qatar-owned network believes animosity toward its sister Arabic-language news operation has waned. Or at least it has dissipated enough to allow Al Jazeera to splash its name across its new Washington broadcast center, which is currently housed in a dingy, unmarked office building.
"Imagine six or seven years ago, trying to find real estate for Al Jazeera in Washington. I'm sure it wasn't easy,'' says Bob Wheelock, a former ABC executive now in charge of setting up Al Jazeera America, as the network will be called. But now "we're going to have signage, you know, just like CBS, ABC, CNN, CBN, just like everybody else,'' he says. "We're psyched.''
With the $500 million purchase of Current TV from former vice president Al Gore and other investors last year, Al Jazeera bought a place on cable boxes in 41 million homes. Now the network plans to grow from a news operation of 13 people to 200 people working in cities across the country.
To do so, the network recently posted job listings for more than 100 reporters, producers, videographers and the like. It received 13,000 applications.
Because it is owned by the Qatari government, the network has deep pockets: It also has a name with painful baggage for U.S. viewers, thanks to its corporate sibling, the Arabic-language Al Jazeera network. And its forte, international news, has historically been a tough sell to American viewers.
"We hope to bring international news and more in-depth storytelling for the viewers. Do we think there's an appetite for that? Yes, we do,'' Wheelock says. "There's an appetite for news from elsewhere and for the documentaries we do and the type of coverage we do.''
Wheelock says the channel will have fewer chat shows than do U.S. cable news channels and will continue to have a strong international focus: 60% of its coverage will come from its U.S. and Latin American bureaus and the rest from Al Jazeera's networks overseas. "It's what we've become known for, and we have the assets to do it.''
Al Jazeera English launched in 2006, and until now, viewers could find the network on just a few cable systems or online. Many American Al Jazeera viewers, Wheelock says, have served in the military. "They've all been there. They've been to the places we cover heavily, and they want to know what's going on.''
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Al Jazeera Arabic-language network aired videos from Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials accused it of promoting terrorism.
Time has mellowed the hostility somewhat, and Al Jazeera English's coverage of Arab Spring political upheavals brought it an appreciative audience in Washington — including then-secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.