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American Al-Jazeera channel shifts focus to US

NEW YORK — While it has a foreign name, the forthcoming Al-Jazeera cable channel in the United States wants to be American through and through.

When Al-Jazeera’s owners in Qatar acquired Al Gore’s Current TV in January, they said that Current would be replaced by Al-Jazeera America, an international news channel with 60 percent new programming from the United States. The remaining 40 percent, they said, would come from Al-Jazeera English, their news channel in Doha, Qatar, that is available in much of the rest of the world.

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That plan is no more. Now Al-Jazeera America is aiming to have virtually all of its programming originate from the United States, according to staff members and others associated with the channel who were interviewed in recent weeks. It will, in other words, operate much like CNN (though the employees say they won’t be as sensational) and Fox News (though they say they won’t be opinion-driven).

The programming strategy is partly a bid to gain acceptance and give Americans a reason to tune in. It may help explain why Al-Jazeera America’s start date has been delayed once already, to August from July, and why some employees predict it will be delayed again.

Al-Jazeera also has yet to hire a president or a slate of vice presidents to run the channel on a day-to-day basis, which has spurred uncomfortable questions about whether earlier controversies involving the pan-Arab news giant are creating difficulties for the new channel.

The Arabic-language Al-Jazeera was condemned by the US government a decade ago for broadcasting videotapes from Osama bin Laden and other materials deemed to be terrorist propaganda.

Others have criticized the Arabic and English channels for being a mouthpiece for Qatar, though the channel’s representatives insist that is not the case. Other questions about bias persist; as recently as last week, the Al-Jazeera website was accused of publishing an anti-Semitic article by a guest columnist.

But some Al-Jazeera America staff members are already rehearsing with mock newscasts. Others are fanning out to report news stories from parts of the country rarely visited by camera crews. Still others are setting up new studios in New York, where the channel will have a home inside the New Yorker Hotel, and in Washington, where it will take over space previously occupied by ABC at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“We expect to have approximately 800 employees when we launch,” said Ehab Al Shihabi, the Al-Jazeera executive in charge of international operations, including the American channel.

The American channel’s daily schedule will consist mainly of live newscasts, with some talk shows and taped documentaries as well, according to an internal presentation reviewed by The New York Times. Three Al-Jazeera English programs that are based in Washington, “The Stream,” “Inside Story Americas,” and “Fault Lines,” are on the tentative schedule.

Its flagship nighttime show is to be titled “Main Street Journal,” according to the presentation, though that is still subject to change. Al Shihabi said it would be a “five-night-a-week prime-time newsmagazine that will present the day’s news in Al-Jazeera’s typical unbiased, objective, long-form style,” including “stories that are not covered elsewhere.”

The channel has hired Kim Bondy, a former executive producer for CNN, to run the new show, but it has yet to hire an anchor for it. In fact, the only anchor identified by Al-Jazeera so far is business reporter Ali Velshi, who left CNN in April.

The news organization has multiple recruiting firms lining up anchors, correspondents and executives, though, and Al Shihabi said “discussions are well under way for all senior positions.” For the president position, Al-Jazeera wants a journalist who is also a “statesman,” several employees said, owing to the political realities of the job.

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