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Tempest Brews Over Al Jazeera English

Allan Block was accused of being “a traitor” for adding Al Jazeera English to the lineup at his cable operation, Buckeye CableSystem, just over a month ago.

“One letter said that I should be prosecuted because I’m a traitor in wartime,” said Block, who is chairman of Block Communications, the media company that owns Toledo, Ohio-based Buckeye. “I’m certainly not a traitor to the United States.”

Buckeye’s March 19 launch of the controversial news network, sister channel to Arab-language Al Jazeera, prompted some 50 letters. It also earned Block and Buckeye a critical March 30 press release — and subsequent blistering column on April 3 — from Accuracy in Media, a media-watchdog group.

AIM alleges that Al Jazeera English is essentially “a mouthpiece” and “recruitment vehicle” for several terrorist groups — a charge that both the network and Block deny. AIM has waged a vigorous campaign to block the network’s distribution in the states.

But once Buckeye digital subscribers in Toledo, which has a sizable Middle Eastern population, actually got to see the network, complaints petered off, according to cable-system officials.

“We had minimal, maybe one or two customer disconnects at best, because of it,” said Florence Buchanan, Buckeye’s vice president of sales and marketing.

According to Tom Dawson, Buckeye’s director of government and community affairs, “Since we launched, we probably got as many compliments as we got complaints.”

Al Jazeera English debuted last November with a talent roster that includes domestic TV-news veterans David Frost and Dave Marash. But so far Buckeye, which has 150,000 customers at two cable systems, is the largest U.S. cable company to roll out the network. Aside from Buckeye, Al Jazeera English has little U.S. cable carriage.

Burlington Telecom, a 1,200-subscriber municipal-owned cable system in Vermont, has carried it since December. Washington Cable, a satellite master-antenna television (SMATV) operation, also has it, and the Pentagon airs it on closed-circuit TV. Optical Entertainment Network — an Internet-Protocol TV, fiber-to-the-home overbuilder — offers the network a la carte in Houston.

Right now, a couple of bigger cable companies are doing due diligence, pulling down the network’s signal internally to decide if they should carry it.

“There are several MSOs who are actively evaluating this service,” said Cathy Rasenberger, president of New York-based Rasenberger Media, which handles distribution for the network. “They’re giving it a lot of attention. One has hired a consultant to actually appraise it.”

It’s difficult for any new network to secure distribution, but more so for Al Jazeera English. Its executives said they must overcome what they claim are misconceptions and innuendo about the channel, which they describe as a global news network, as well as distributors’ fears about consumer backlash for carrying it.

“This is the most serious attempt at objective journalism to come out of the Middle East,” Block said. “They provide a different perspective. It is not anti-Western. It is not anti-American.”

The network aims to “bridge cultures and countries,” according to Parsons.

In contrast, the channel’s critics, lead by AIM, allege that Al Jazeera English is sympathetic to terrorist groups and acts as their “mouthpiece.” The network is funded by the emirate in Qatar, which should spark skepticism about its independence, according to AIM editor Cliff Kincaid.

“The bottom line is this is a foreign-government-funded propaganda operation,” Kincaid said. “And during a time of war, it smacks of national suicide to give them a platform in the United States. It would be like during World War II, putting Tokyo Rose on an American broadcasting network.”

Al Jazeera officials deny the allegations being made by the watchdog group.

“I can only describe most of them as rants, and ill-informed ones at that,” Nigel Parsons, managing director for Al Jazeera English, said from Qatar. “It’s kind of beneath contempt to answer it. … Why did Al Qaeda call us and accuse us of being Mossad agents, the same time as Donald Rumsfeld is accusing us of being the mouthpiece for Al Qaeda?”

According to Block: “Accuracy in Media has been trying to do a smear job on Al Jazeera English, basically calling anyone who’d even consider carrying it a traitor. There’s a McCarthy-like smear campaign to keep this channel off. But this channel is not a threat to America. It is not helping terrorists.”

Parsons also maintained that the Qatar doesn’t try to influence Al Jazeera English’s content.

“The government knows very well the day they interfere over the editorial, that’s the end of the brand,” he said.

Qatar is a U.S. ally in the Mideast, Block said, so disparaging that nation is a slap that undermines U.S. interests.

But Block is “going to have to take the heat” for putting on Al Jazeera English, according to Kincaid, who doesn’t believe things have settled down in Toledo.

“We’ve heard from a number of people in his area who think he’s aiding the enemy,” Kincaid said. “He’s got a significant Arab-Muslim population there, and I think he’s going to increase the anti-American sentiments of those people.”

And AIM doesn’t plan to let up on its campaign.

“You can rest assured we will continue our efforts,” Kincaid said. “I can’t be specific, though.”

Block believes that AIM’s anti-Al Jazeera effort has had a big impact. Back in November he received what appeared to be a form letter from Kincaid, thanking him for not carrying Al Jazeera English. Block said he hadn’t ever been contacted by AIM before getting that written correspondence.

Kincaid acknowledged that he wrote to distributors about Al Jazeera English last fall.

“The American people don’t want it,” he said. “We did a poll on it. We had simply sent a letter — together with some of our materials, including our DVD — to the various U.S. cable and satellite providers, saying just that: 'Thank you for not carrying it.’ ”

Currently, the Internet is Al Jazeera English’s main U.S. distribution outlet. The network is available on the service’s web site, www.aljazeera.net/english, for a $5.95 monthly fee, and as streaming video through Real Networks. Earlier this month, Al Jazeera English announced a deal to offer a branded channel on YouTube.

EchoStar Communications’ Dish Network offers the Arab-language Al Jazeera network as part of an Arabic tier, but doesn’t carry the English spinoff.

Last November, Al Jazeera English was in final talks on a carriage deal with Comcast, but that fell through.

It was a big blow to the network, Parsons conceded, and he believes the nation’s largest cable company succumbed to pressure.

“They [Comcast] are commercially driven, that’s fair enough, and they’re always going to question what a news-and-current-affairs channel brings,” said Parsons, though he added: “I suspect they were subjected to some sort of lobby campaign, and decided not to take a punt after all. They were probably worried about consumer backlash. But the more consumers who see it, the feedback from the U.S., apart from AIM, has just been all positive.”

Despite speculation about pressure, Comcast said it opted not to carry Al Jazeera English because there was more consumer demand for other products in markets like Detroit, where there’s a large Arab population.

“We looked at the local lineup and determined that the channel capacity would be better used to add other channels and services that our customers have been asking for, like more HD and HD On Demand programming,” Comcast senior director of corporate communications Jenni Moyer said.

Burlington Telecom, a startup, first heard about Al Jazeera English last November, after stories appeared about Comcast’s talks to carry it falling through, according to Richard Donnelly, the Vermont system’s marketing and sales manager.

As part of his due diligence, Donnelly watched the channel for a week, and said, “It seemed like CNN, but on the other side of the world. It didn’t seem very volatile or controversial, in terms of its production and content.”

Some potential subscribers called to complain that they would not sign up with Burlington Telecom because it was “carrying that terrorist channel,” according to Donnelly.

“We’ve invited them to come down and watch it before they jump to conclusions,” Donnelly said.

Some of the network’s critics later signed up for Burlington Telecom service, he added.

Buckeye has a five-year deal to carry Al Jazeera English, with free carriage for the initial years of the contract, with a monthly three-cent, per-subscriber license fee the final year.

Both Donnelly and Block said that they added Al Jazeera English to their lineups as part of their effort to give subscribers diversity in programming.

“We’ve had a couple of people say, 'Thank you, we really appreciate the perspective that this news provides,’ ” Donnelly said. “We’ve also had people say that this is the conduit for the terrorist Al Qaeda and that slippery slope.”