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Al Jazeera English Broadcasts St. Paul to the Middle East

Twin Cities Daily Planet, News feature, Art Hughes Posted: Sep 16, 2008

Among the hundreds of news outlets covering Republican National Convention this month, only one was once suggested by the Bush Administration as a target for American bombers.

Al Jazeera brought three dozen reporters, producers and other news personnel to St. Paul, providing a unique international perspective to the speeches by hockey mom governors and independent Connecticut senators.
Were trying to give distinctive coverage. Something that the other western networks, particularly the American networks wont, said Political Program Editor Julian Ingle. For example weve invested a lot of time and resources in reporting on the protests that have been happening outside. One of our company mottos is we give voice to the voiceless.

Ingle works for the English version of the Middle East television channel based in Qatar. He said that, while in St. Paul, the channel sought to not only show the protests that mainstream American networks made only passing reference to, but they sought out smaller groups represented at the conventionsuch as gay or black Republicansthat dont have much of a voice on the podium. The channel did the same at the Democratic National Convention in Denver the previous week.

Al Jazeera editors also have to keep in mind their international audiences, who arent necessarily versed on the intricacies of the American democratic process.

They see this theater, if you like, at the conventions and its fascinating, Ingle said. But its our job to put that into context and explain why thats important and what exactly is going on and I think weve achieved that.

Al Jazeera claims to reach some 120-million homes in more than 80 countries.

While the top stories from the conventions by Al Jazeera were similar to those on American networks, the Arab-based channel tried to bring a fresh perspective.

After Hurricane Gustav weakened and didnt result in the worst-case scenario, nearly every television network reduced their news presence. But Al Jazeera sent additional crews to the area. After RNC speeches by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on September 3 and Senator John McCain on September 4, Al Jazeera got reaction from a panel of New Orleans residents.

We wanted to get reaction to see if Sarah Palin could win the hearts and minds of people in New Orleans, which the evidence suggests she did, Ingle said.

The network covered both major political conventions, but it must clear an additional hurdle with the party that established the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and warrantless wire-tapping. In a secret meeting in 2004, President Bush discussed the possibility of bombing Al Jazeeras broadcast headquarters in Qatar to halt its coverage of the Iraq War. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair (England) explained to Bush why that would be a bad idea, although that hasnt prevented U.S. forces from imprisoning Al Jazeera reporters. The Bush Administration has accused the network of being little more than a propaganda tool for terrorists.

Ingle said if theres any bad blood, it wasnt evident in St. Paul. The channel set up a remote broadcast area at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar in Lowertown in addition to the workspace and studio at the convention hall. In addition to reaction from local citizens and political voices, Al Jazeera aired its popular Riz Kahn talk show from the convention taking viewers calls from all over the world. Guests included convention delegates and people like George Andrews from the Indian American Republican Council.

Weve been very ambitious in our coverage because we think its an important story to tell the world, Ingle said.

Except for the confiscation of some Al Jazeera coffee mugs by convention security, the news organizations stay in St. Paul was largely uneventful.

Al Jazeera had more difficulty while reporting from Colorado during the Democratic National Convention. They set up in Golden, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains a dozen miles west of Denver, in order to get an American small town perspective on the convention. The towns mayor offered to host Al Jazeera at a barbeque in his back yard where the station would broadcast reaction by local residents to the convention proceedings.

Before the event happened, a group of townsfolk, with a large contingent of war veterans, packed a city council meeting to complain. The mayor dis-invited Al Jazeera and apologized for the divisiveness he caused.

While perhaps 100-200 people were very against Al Jazeera being in and broadcasting from the town, the other half of the town rallied behind us, saying we support the First Amendment and we welcome free speech and we welcome Al Jazeera to Golden, Ingle said.

Producers chose a different location and were able to successfully broadcast the Golden, Colorado segment as planned.

The English language version of Al Jazeera was launched in 2006 and has broadcast centers in London, Washington, D.C., Kuala Lumpur and the Qatar capital city, Doha. Its available by satellite, but most viewers in the United States watch it over the internet. Al Jazeera is funded by the Royal Family of Qatar.

Art Hughes is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis, who has previously reported for Minnesota Public Radio.

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