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As it grows, Al Jazeera risks losing touch

DOHA, Qatar

Al Jazeera's global headquarters fill a sandy patch of land on the outskirts of Doha. Only the security is impressive; the campus itself is just a series of flat, unadorned buildings, each host to one of the dozens of separate stations dedicated to news, sports (seven of them), documentaries, and children's programs. There is electronic gear everywhere and a disconcerting number of stray cats. The scene has the feel of a Benetton advertisement: An Italian cameramen and dark-haired Jordanian women wait for an Egyptian colleague outside the home of Al Jazeera English, the made-for-the-West channel. Once inside the lobby, awards typical for any major media institution are displayed: Peabody, Foreign Press, Amnesty International.


For many Americans, the 15-year-old network began to hit its stride two years ago, as the Arab Spring began in Tunisia. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a ringing endorsement to the network, which is funded by the Qatari royal family, for its comprehensive coverage. Then, AJE, as the channel is known, had high hopes for penetrating the highly competitive American market for cable news, as the world's attention turned towards the Middle East. In the end, at least in terms of broadcast exposure, there was little movement. AJE has only a minimal number of cable contracts in the United States. It has always been unclear whether the cable operators' decisions to skip the channel are based on economic viability or concerns over its editorial content.

So, AJE simply decided to bypass old media. It is streamed live on its official site as well as on YouTube; no cable box necessary. Its social media team talks about maximizing platforms on Facebook and Twitter; they host virtual "meetups" across the United States to discuss the Middle East. Google TV, Rockbox, and xbox gaming consoles are being engaged. AJE also relies on Ushahidi, an open crowdsourcing outlet which allows users to share crisis information through phones. Today, 40 percent of AJE's web traffic comes from the United States.


Its emergence in the United States has only enhanced Al Jazeera's status as both a driver and platform for changes in the Middle East. It has reporters throughout the region, even in Tel Aviv, and is the go-to station for events in the Arab world. Al Jazeera is so pervasive that the "Al Jazeera effect" is now a political science term, describing the network's impact on global politics by bypassing the government communications monopoly in the Middle East.

And yet, as the Arab Spring continues past a single season, Al Jazeera's very success is revealing some of its vulnerabilities. Its power has others wanting in on the action. As the movement towards democratic reform becomes more pervasive, the network's ownership by a conservative monarchy has become its Achilles' heel. The emir of Qatar recently placed a member of the royal family as director-general of news on Al Jazeera, a reminder to its staff of who pays the bills. In a region where conspiracy theories are rampant, the network's ownership makes it a target for reformers who feel it's mainly catering to the existing power structure.

Meanwhile, its willingness to take iPhone video has also made it a magnet for the most savvy street-side storytellers. The recent protests against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's edicts against the judiciary were often debated through user-generated content. Usually, those voices were from people rich enough to be carrying iPhones, leading to complaints that Al Jazeera was giving disproportionate voice to one side of a complicated dynamic. To compensate, says Riyaad Minty, the AJE's head of social media, accurate reporting "will always be needed to fill in the context." With so much noise, that is a growing challenge.


For anyone interested in the Arab Spring, AJE is still the station to follow. But AJE is well aware that its English-speaking audience won't keep coming back if it, too, becomes just a mouthpiece for the Arab establishment or its noisiest critics. So while American cable operators continue to shun Al Jazeera as the biased voice of the Arab street, its challenge today is more complex: There are simply too many streets, and it's hard to be on them all.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.