Al-Jazeera grows boldly, keeps head down in D.C.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - No Al-Jazeera sign will hang outside the network's new offices on K Street. Instead, staffers will enter "Peninsula Productions," the channel's American video production company. Experience has shown them that the Al-Jazeera name tends to attract the wrong kind of attention here.

As a result, the controversial satellite network that is the dominant news source for the Arab world has learned to play a political game worthy of its Washington address: It is keeping fairly quiet about the $7 million Washington digs.

Inside its newsroom, Al-Jazeera is brimming with D.C. ambitions. As early as next month, the 24-hour network will open a gleaming new bureau and studios. The renovation speaks to its grander goal: to expand Washington coverage, double its staff and make D.C. a hub for Western news.

"Given the importance of U.S. politics in the [Middle East], especially after the Iraq war, you're talking about the U.S. now almost being a regional power," said Hafez al-Mirazi, 47, the Washington bureau chief and a former Voice of America and British Broadcasting Corp. reporter who has covered the capital since 1984. "Given the military presence in Iraq, add to that the Arab-Israeli conflict and also the political reform agenda that the Bush administration addressed, it makes any discussion from Washington really very relevant to what our audience would care about."

Al-Jazeera staff members describe a bold new blueprint: The bureau plans to increase its current coverage - a lineup of news packages and a weekly public-affairs program - to include a four-hour nightly news broadcast, shifting the anchor desk to Washington while the news cycle slumbers at the channel's home base in Doha, Qatar.

In addition, the Arabic news service is adding a separate staff for a new English-language channel, Al-Jazeera International - an attempt to rival CNN International and BBC World Service - which will anchor much of its coverage from Washington after its expected debut this fall. Someday, network executives hope, when Americans are in a hotel room in, say, Atlanta, they'll be clicking from CNN to Al-Jazeera.

Washington also is expected to contribute to network spin-offs, such as proposed Al-Jazeera children's, sports and documentary channels.

Much of the appetite, though, is for U.S. politics, a reflection of how large the United States looms in the Arab world. The Arab network plans up to five hours of continuous coverage of President Bush's inauguration Jan. 20 and will cover the balls that night. Last year, during the political conventions, Al-Jazeera aired 14 hours from each party gathering.

While many news organizations are cutting their Washington bureaus, Al-Jazeera is growing. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the network employed just four people here; now, 20. Soon, the Arabic- and English-language D.C. staffs are expected to total more than 70 people, dwarfing its London office and other bureaus outside the Persian Gulf region.

For now, though, the only signs of the D.C. expansion are the construction workers finishing the new bureau and an armed, SWAT-style guard hired last year by the building's management to stand watch by the expensive first-floor studios.

In al-Mirazi's office, a photograph of the bureau chief interviewing national security adviser Condoleezza Rice sits on the bookshelf, near The 9/11 Commission Report and Let's Roll, the 9/11 tale of the passenger revolt aboard Flight 93. Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival, about U.S. imperialism, sits on the desk.

Sense of solidarity

Inside the Al-Jazeera newsroom, it's all bustle. Reporters translate sound bites from U.S. officials and tape Arabic voiceovers for their stories. The offices are strewn with typical D.C. bureau detritus - think an abundance of C-SPAN mugs - and the soon-to-be-replaced studio has a handwritten "On Air" sign taped to its door.

Staff members slide between Arabic and English, trading stories during smoking breaks. Their solidarity seems more than friendship born of a cramped newsroom. The staffers, mostly U.S. citizens of Arab descent, unite in the belief that their work is judged unfairly.

Reporter Wajd Waqfi is close enough to the State Department's press secretary that he calls her "Gigi." But when reporters at his briefings question Al-Jazeera's role - alleging that it over-covers terrorist groups and uses graphic images for propaganda - she's suddenly the face of the network and the room feels combative.

"Some of these colleagues, you can tell from the kinds of questions they insist on asking at the State Department, you wouldn't want to get so close to them," said Waqfi, a 33-year-old Jordanian-born American.

But she is unintimidated. Though recovering from a root canal, she insisted on covering a State Department report on global anti-Semitism last week, eager to ask why officials hadn't produced a similar Islamophobia report. They directed her to their International Religious Freedom report. But she pressed on, noting that officials had called certain cartoons of Israeli leaders anti-Semitic.

"We watch David Letterman and Jay Leno make fun of the president with cartoons and we don't call that anti-Bush, we don't make a report out of it," she said. "Who is anti-Semitic? Is it safe to say anti-Semitism is anybody who is anti-Judaism or anti-Zionism?"

Capital outsiders

Washington offers Al-Jazeera an embrace one minute, a brushoff the next. Top Bush advisers offer occasional interviews, such as the appearance by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell not long ago. But the network said it was denied requests to travel with Sen. John Kerry's campaign last year.

"They're not pariahs, but they are marked men," says Matthew Felling, media director of the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs. "They're categorized as outsiders. Some international figures court them because of this, others keep them at arm's length, but to some countries, in the current anti-American climate, that can be a badge of honor."

In a city built on connections, Al-Jazeera is not always on the inside.

"Al-Jazeera has only called me in the last year about three or four times and it was never to come here and do a feature piece - they were coordinating calls, like what time a briefing would be," said Army spokesman Dov Schwartz. "Relationships often develop because you get to know somebody, so having a presence is important."

In Washington, Al-Jazeera's polarizing reputation often draws more attention than its coverage. The Democratic Party's refusal to allow Al-Jazeera to post its name on its skybox at the convention last summer - even as Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe appeared on its air - was one typically conflicted reaction to the channel.

The network's correspondents say they get media credentials easily enough, although one cameraman complained that he was barred from the vice presidential debate last year by officials who said his name was on a security list. And there have been other headaches: Al-Jazeera's former Washington landlord complained that the network could draw trouble and forced it to move (the channel sued and settled out of court).

A makeover for U.S.?

Al-Jazeera is the leading network in the Persian Gulf region; it claims 40 million viewers. Funded by the emir of the tiny gulf nation of Qatar, it has outraged all sides - reporters have been banned from some Arab countries and, for a time, from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Some viewers condemn the channel for recognizing Israel on its on-air map; others object to how it calls Palestinian suicide bombers "martyrs."

With Al-Jazeera's expanded Washington coverage and its new English-language channel, the network may try to move further into the mainstream.

The global channel would employ 240 journalists with D.C. as one of four news hubs. The content, officials said, will be different from the Arabic service, appealing to international viewers, not just Arab audiences.

A U.S.-friendly makeover for Al-Jazeera? Maybe not.

"I suspect the radical element will not disappear," said Charles A. Krohn, a University of Michigan journalism professor who served as an Army public affairs liaison in Iraq last year. "The question is, will they insert clips from radical Islamic leaders, things that reflect adversely on the United States and other things that appeal to a radicalized audience?"

Staffers counter that their coverage from Washington is similar to U.S. cable news.

"The problem is, people have this misperception," said al-Mirazi. "You don't take the significance that this is an Arab network and we are going to the pains of covering Bush with simultaneous interpretation. That doesn't make news, but it makes news that [Osama] bin Laden spoke on Al-Jazeera today."

'Beheadings channel'

With Al-Jazeera's image problems - CNN's Jack Cafferty called it the "beheadings channel" - the Washington staff sees public relations as part of the job.

Before Christmas, al-Mirazi urged the network to offer $10,000 to anyone who could find footage of a beheading on Al-Jazeera. The channel has aired longer clips than Western networks, but argues that it has never shown the actual act.

At first, headquarters joked that the award should be bigger. Why not $100,000? Why not $1 million? Since the images never aired, executives argued, why limit the prize?

But ultimately Al-Jazeera dropped the idea. It turns out, nobody wanted the press.

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