Qatar-based Al-Jazeera America debuts today

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NEW YORK– In a warren of offices at a former bank building near Madison Square Garden, dozens of journalists are at work on gleaming new electronic equipment, ready to turn their test runs of Al-Jazeera America into the real thing.


The Qatar-based news organization will finally establish a firm foothold on American television today after a decade of trying. At 3 p.m., Al Gore’s former Current TV will turn out the lights in more than 45 million TV homes, replaced by the new U.S. affiliate of Al-Jazeera.


The network has hired many veterans of U.S. television, including John Seigenthaler, Joie Chen, Antonio Mora and Sheila MacVicar, and is promising a meaty diet of news that it believes will contrast with the opinionated talk that dominates American news networks.


“We’re breaking in with something that we think is unique and are confident, with our guts and some research, that the American people are looking for,” said Kate O’Brian, the former ABC News executive who is now Al-Jazeera America’s president.


The dozens of flat-screen TVs and occupied desks scattered around marble pillars in AJA’s New York office indicate this is no cheap startup. And this is temporary; the network is looking for a larger office in New York but wanted to start quickly after buying out Current in January. Bureaus are also being established in 11 other American cities.


Until Al-Jazeera America revealed a prime-time schedule last week, there were few indications of what the network would look like. Scheduled shows include a nightly newscast anchored by Seigenthaler, a newsmagazine hosted by Chen, a news talk show with Mora and a business program starring Ali Velshi.


It’s still not clear what will be shown in the mornings and whether much of the broadcast day will be devoted to documentary-style programming or live news.


With its domestic bureaus, AJA will seek out stories beyond the towers of New York and government buildings in Washington, said Ehab Al Shihabi, the network’s interim CEO. Besides those two cities, bureaus are located in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Miami, Seattle, Nashville, Tenn., and New Orleans.


“I am here because the promise of doing good work is just exceptional,” said David Doss, a veteran of ABC, NBC and CNN who is Al-Jazeera America’s senior vice president of news programming.


Al-Jazeera is well-established overseas, and the American network will take advantage of its 70 bureaus. But executives have been careful to stress that AJA will be geared toward American tastes. They have a careful line to walk: Al-Jazeera doesn’t want to remind Americans of when Bush administration officials questioned its independence in the months after the terrorist attacks, and the years when American cable operators wanted nothing to do it. Tight security is evident at the New York office. A visitor last week needed to go through an airport-style metal detector and be checked by two guards.


The American launch has caused some internal dissension. A memo to his bosses from Marwan Bishara, an Al-Jazeera political analyst, suggested that executives have gone too far to ingratiate themselves with a U.S. audience. “How have we moved from the main idea that the strength of (Al-Jazeera) lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists to a channel where only Americans work?” Bishara wrote, his memo made public by The Guardian newspaper in England.


Bishara said that asking potential viewers in a poll whether they consider Al-Jazeera to be anti-American sends a bad message.


Bishara worries that Al-Jazeera will water down its journalism for an American audience, “and nothing could be further from the truth,” said Paul Eedle, deputy launch manager. Being bold – not bland – is the secret to success, he said.


The Al-Jazeera English network, which has disseminated its programming online and over some widely scattered cable systems during the past decade, is generally straightforward in its news coverage, said Philip Seib, a professor of journalism and public policy at the University of Southern California, who has written a book about Al-Jazeera.


“That’s what’s encouraging about Al-Jazeera America,” Seib said. A focus on technology and science-oriented programs indicate an effort to reach smart, younger viewers, he said.


Dave Marash, a former Al-Jazeera English reporter, said he believes that AJA will be able to produce the solid news reporting it is counting on to distinguish itself from its competition.


“Almost all of their hires are respectable people with real careers and real records,” Marash said. “Several are flat-out outstanding – Sheila MacVicar is outstanding. I’m optimistic.”


AJA will be available in less than half of American homes at its launch. The Time Warner cable system, for example, dropped Current when the sale was announced. AJA is negotiating with Time Warner and carriers like Cablevision that didn’t carry Current in the first place, to get in more homes. But people at the network expect a wait-and-see period.


Another handicap is the channel’s location on cable systems. Current was often given a high-numbered channel that makes it much less likely that viewers would find it by chance; AJA said it is working to improve that.


Even with Al-Jazeera rarely available on TV in the U.S., the Al-Jazeera English network had a substantial following online. But that will end; as a condition of being carried on cable systems, Al-Jazeera will no longer be able to send out a live Internet stream of its programming.


That seems unwise, Marash said. Essentially, Al-Jazeera will be trading a young and growing audience online – the distribution form that best represents the industry’s future – for a smaller, older television audience, he said.


“None of this makes any sense unless you talk about it in the context of ego,” Marash said.


AJA has said little about its online plans. Al Shihabi said the company’s goal is to get near-universal carriage on television, making the worries about the online audience moot.


“We are not coming here to compete,” Al Shihabi said. “We are coming here to win.”


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