As Al Jazeera Grows, “People Now Know Who We Are”

The Arab news network has lots of cash, is growing fast, and hopes to be on your living-room TV soon.

By: Harry Jaffe

In Rosiland Jordan’s first week covering the defense and diplomatic beat for Al Jazeera, she fielded frantic calls from editors: “You gotta get in here.”

News was breaking that US special forces had killed Osama bin Laden. Jordan raced to the bureau. A week later, the Pentagon unveiled video showing bin Laden clicking through stations on his TV. Al Jazeera news flashed on his screen. He sat back and settled in to watch.

“Why us?” Jordan said to her colleague.

The image of the most infamous terrorist cozying up to news from Al Jazeera fit neatly into the narrative that Al Jazeera—financed by Qatar and based in Doha—is an “anti-American” network, as Fox’s Bill O’Reilly would later describe it.

When Jordan signed on in February 2008, Al Jazeera was seen in few US households. It was streamed on the Internet, but only a few cable networks carried it. In January of this year, Al Jazeera bought Current TV from Al Gore, and in July it will debut on channels reaching 40 million US households. It’s adding reporters in the DC bureau and opening six bureaus in the US plus four more in Latin America, where it already has four.

“Finally,” Jordan says, “my sister and brothers will be able to see me in Houston.”

Washingtonians will see a news channel with a beefed-up presence and a more robust bureau. Al Jazeera is building a new facility at 1200 New Hampshire Avenue, Northwest, with three studios and three control rooms. The prime-time newscast will air from DC, initially from the Newseum, then from the new bureau, according to Bob Wheelock, who’s running the launch of the channel’s news operation.

Al Jazeera English covers international stories, while Al Jazeera America is the domestic-news service. The network’s Qatar ownership has given many the impression that its coverage is biased, including a congressman who asked the FCC to investigate.

“I would be naive to say that was not a problem in some places,” says Wheelock, who worked as a producer for ABC for 24 years before joining Al Jazeera last year. “But it’s far less of a problem.”

Jordan recalls protesters harassing Al Jazeera crews covering the 2008 presidential campaign. By 2012, the network had won a number of journalism awards and people wanted to be on its news feeds.

“People now know who we are,” she says. “They are more willing to talk to us.”

Jordan started her career in Boston radio in 1990 after graduating from Harvard and Columbia Journalism School. She worked in small TV markets before reporting for NBC’s Washington bureau from 2002 to 2006. Covering the diplomatic beat now, she’s on air a lot during the week, doing live shots and commentary. Patty Culhane covers the White House, Kimberly Halkett handles Congress, and Alan Fisher is the bureau’s senior correspondent. The network will add at least two more reporters.

“I know there’s going to be more work,” says Jordan, 46. “I could be on 24 hours a day.”

Wheelock says Al Jazeera will compete for eyeballs and ratings against all news organizations. But is a channel funded by an Arab government—which can finance new bureaus while US news operations are closing their bureaus—a fair competitor?

“Sure,” says Wheelock, who compares Al Jazeera to Britain’s BBC and China’s CCTV, both of which are financed by their governments. “It’s not just free money. It’s a business.”

And it’s hiring.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.