David Zurawik

Al Jazeera America opens strong onscreen Tuesday

Anchor Joie Chewn moments before the curtain rises Aug. 20 on "America Tonight."

The heart of Al Jazeera America's prime-time lineup is an attractive one if you are looking for news, context and a fresh visual perspective on U.S. and world events.

At least that's the way it looked premiere night Tuesday as the Qatar-based channel unveiled a solidly-reported and skillfully packaged hour of news at 8 p.m. followed by "America Tonight," its flagship broadcast of in-depth, magazine-style pieces.


And yet, even as this promising addition to the American TV news landscape arrived, AT&T announced Tuesday that it would not carry the channel on its U-verse pay-TV service with an estimated 5 million viewers.

Al Jazeera responded late Tuesday by suing AT&T for what it describes as failure to honor a contractual obligation to carry the new channel. Al Jazeera claims it purchased carriage by AT&T when it paid $500 million to Al Gore for his Current TV channel.


Al Jazeera paid that amount for what was by every definition of the word a failed TV operation, because it wanted the access provided by such contracts as the one with AT&T into what was expected to be 50 million American homes.

With Time Warner Cable and AT&T not carrying Al Jazeera America, even though they had carried Current, it appears that Al Jazeera might have debuted in only 40 million homes, which will make it all that much harder to sell ads. Al Jazeera and Time Warner Cable are still negotiating.

But that's business, and Al Jazeera had to know the giant American corporations it was going up against were going to play rough.

Beyond the accountants and lawyers, what will ultimately spell the success or failure of this channel is programming. And the slice of content I saw Tuesday night looked good.

The newscast feels more like the BBC than any of the major American networks or cable channels -- and I mean that in a good way. Only, the visuals are a lot better on Al Jazeera. Some of the camera work almost takes your breath away.

Perhaps the best comparison would be to the PBS NewsHour. But whereas the NewsHour does very little original reporting and has some of the longest, dullest interviews with a very narrow range of what it considers experts, the 8 p.m. news anchored deftly by John Seigenthaler hardly ever stopped popping with vivid on-the ground reports and analysis from Al Jazeera America correspondents.

While the title of the channel stresses America, and there was some fine U.S. reporting Tuesday, the real treat for this viewer was the opening report on Egypt. I learned more about the political upheaval in Egypt in one report on Al Jazeera America Tuesday than I have in the last two weeks of watching network news. I mean that.

For example, Mohamed ElBaradei, the diplomat who until Aug. 14 was Egypt's acting vice president, was treated with none of the deference I am accustomed to seeing him enjoy on American TV news programs. Instead, he was presented as being more European than Egyptian in his lifestyle and orientation.


A statement that ElBaradei was in Europe was followed by the Al Jazeera America correspondent saying of Egyptians who are facing chaos, violence and a struggle for survival amid the turmoil, "These people don't have that luxury."

Most compelling was the way the correspondents were regularly shown in the streets among the crowds -- establishing a point of view of being among the people and on the street. That from-the-ground-up perspective is instantly engaging and powerful.

"America Tonight," the channel's 9 o'clock show anchored by the sure-handed presence of Joie Chen,  also opened with Egypt. The title of this piece: "Egypt in Turmoil."

"When we arrived in Cairo," correspondent Christof Putzel said at the open of his piece, "the city was on fire."

Fine writing, and his words were matched with superb visuals of tall buildings burning from the inside out as if they had been hit by bombs during the London Blitz. I had seen nothing like these images anywhere else on American network or cable TV until Tuesday night.

The piece on Egypt was followed by Baltimore's Adam May reporting on prison conditions in New Orleans.


The storytelling was every bit as compelling, as May and the photographer matched words and pictures to give the viewer a sense of descending into another realm -- a dangerous world the authorities would rather not have Americans know about.

I'll have more on Al Jazeera America in coming days.

Executives at the channel should be feeling good about their onscreen debut even as the backstage battle for access into American homes gets down and dirtier.

That's an important story about giant communications companies trying to keep the range of information Americans receive controlled and narrow. And I'll keep reporting on that story as well. It's an important one for democracy.