How Al Jazeera Outlasted Donald Rumsfeld

The day after his first round of testimony to Congress, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was on a press tour. First stop was National Public Radio, with its internationally inflected American elite audience. Second stop was the obligatory sitdown with the dean of the world press corps, Christianne Amanpour at CNN. Interview number three took place in an ordinary-looking Nixon-era office building in downtown, D.C.

At about 3:00 pm, McChrystal and a small retinue of aides arrived at the American broadcast center of Al Jazeera English, the three-year old cousin of the Qatar-based Arabic language news channel. (Robert Kaplan wrote about AJE here.)
This was an important day for "English," as its employees call it, perhaps the most self-validating since the beginning of the Obama administration. The Defense Department asked Jazeera for its time, not the other way around. A reporter was invited to watch behind the scenes. Jazeera's publicists took the Acela down from New York. A staff photographer was on hand.

In his corner office, Riz Khan, host of the program on which McChrystal was to appear, scrolled through a list of questions, many submitted by readers. His producer, Carolyn Robinson, pointed to one from a viewer in Pashtun. She had had it made into a graphic.

Khan is a pioneer of international broadcast journalism. He was one of the founding anchors of BBC World Service's television component in 1991. He joined Al Jazeera English upon its launch in 2006 and hosts a daily question and answer show.

Khan is used to answering questions about his employer. He has a set of disarming anecdotes at the ready, and his enthusiasm, for such a grizzled veteran of broadcasting, outweighs any annoyance he must feel at having to reflexively defend Al Jazeera in every external interview he gives.

"Bill Caldwell came here a while ago," he says, referring to the number two general in Afghanistan. "He told me that had he forced all new recruits to watch Al Jazeera because that's the way they can watch international perspective. So we've broadened our coverage. The fact that a lot of us are from the BBC, CNN, ITN -- people get to know us, and that helped. No one ever becomes a radical; we're not a radical channel."

The channel's image was defined by the Arabic version's defiant and critical coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and for the means by which it used to obtain Osama Bin Laden's communiques before anyone else. The Defense Department hated it. Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, was witheringly critical. Jazeera Arabic regularly lied, he told reporters. The Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq kept a list of the channel's alleged falsehoods. In an Oval Office meeting with Tony Blair, President Bush once reportedly joked that he wished he could bomb the Jazeera's Doha headquarters. (The military had twice hit Jazeera facilities and personnel -- by accident -- they insisted -- earlier in the war.)

"It used to be Al Jazeera, the voice of Osama," Khan says of its reputation. "The fact is, we've gone way past that now. People who watch us know what we do."

Khan carries around a clipping in his wallet from the Guardian newspaper in Britain. It is a correction -- rare for a British publication -- acknowledging that, no, despite what it had reported, Al Jazeera had not shown its viewers a particular beheading. (Al Jazeera has never shown any beheading.)

Still, Jazeera's producers hadn't noticed too much of an attitude change since the inauguration. The decided unfriendliness of the early Bush era had morphed into sort of a benign neglect by the time Bush left office, although the State Department had grown a bit chummier, albeit still stingy with the interviews.

The English-language news channel employs 150 people in its Washington, D.C., offices alone. It is known for its aggressive coverage of breaking news worldwide. Khan was in Mumbai when terrorists attacked there; Al Jazeera had the first and best footage. It was the only television network with correspondents in Gaza after Israel attacked militants there in late 2008.

Over the past few years, as the BBC began to downsize its bureaus in the developing world, Jazeera's Arabic and English journalists and producers flew in to fill the gap. Jazeera is now a bona fide international news force, competing with CNN International and BBC World. (Rupert Murdoch's Sky News service -- that's a bit of a Euro-centric concern, Jazeera's producers say.)

Khan talked about the channel's forays into U.S. politics. It credentialed reporters at both political conventions in 2008. It sent a reporter and former U.S. Marine, Josh Rushing, to Golden, Colorado when Democrats gathered in Denver. The Hell's Angels turned out to protest Al Jazeera. "But it's a funny thing, you know. The beauty of America -- why those of us who live here love it so much and why we like being here is that the people of the town came out and said, 'We believe in the freedom of expression,' and some of the town folks created one of their own protests to counter the Hell's Angels."

Khan is interrupted by an assistant. "We have to go down and meet the General at 3," he says.  "I know, I know," Khan says. "You'll have to go from there straight to the studio to do the Doha thing. So I'll come back at five of."

"Great. Cheers." The assistant exits.

"So even though..." Khan begins.

His longtime producer, James Wright, bounds through the door and apologizes.

"The general is going to be here at 3," he says. "So we should be ready to say hello to him."

Khan smiles wanly. Everyone wants to make sure the choreography is perfect.

He jokes about how Jazeera's employees used to wonder whether they'd have trouble applying for a mortgage or getting through TSA checkpoints at the airport. Nothing of that sort happened, of course. He is (mostly) joking.

"The proof is in the pudding. You get to see it and based on facts and figures rather than 
based on speculation, which is where the negative image came from."

A few minutes later, Kahn is on set, chatting with McChrystal as the technicians make their final preparations for the broadcast.

McChrystal informs Khan that he's a huge fan of Monty Python.

Wright escorts McChyrstal's press aide and chief information officer into the control room. The two McChyrstal men whisper and confer.

"Just one thing," one of them tells Wright. "How are you going to font him?"

He's referring to the superimposed title that will appear under the general's chest in the head-on shot.

On screen, it says "Gen. Stanley McChrystal."

"Sometimes people call him the commander of U.S. forces, but he's the commander of both the U.S. and NATO forces. He [the general] purposely chooses not to make a distinction."

Wright promises that Khan will make sure to get this point right, which of course he does.

Khan's questions are tough and probing. He refers to an Al Jazeera English investigation of the readiness of Afghan troops and plays a clip from an Afghan soldier who admits as much.

After a commercial break, he opens the phone lines to "Sameer from South America," who asks a largely inaudible question about Muslims and America and Afghanistan.

Khan: "Sumeer, let me put it in these terms to the general. What Sumeer is saying is a sentiment reflected over a lot of people, and that is that, what right does America have to be there?"

McChrystal: "I think the most important thing is the acceptance and the desire of the Afghan people for the coalition to help them. And it's a coalition of 43 nations. It's not just the United States. I think if the Afghan people, through their government and popularly, did not support this effort then I think that the viewer would be right. But I think that they do."

Later, Khan reads the e-mail from the Pashtun viewer. Why won't the Americans convince a neutral Muslim force to keep the peace? Another question: why does it seem like Turkey is the only country whose troops are working to rebuild Afghanistan, rather than fight in it?

McChrystal praises Turkey -- and answers very carefully. It's clear that he doesn't get questions like these very often.

It was a tough interview, to be sure, but there are smiles and handshakes when it is over.

And there is evidence that it was effective -- both for Jazeera's English's reputation and for the strategic communication needs of the U.S.

Within three hours of McChystal's interview, Khan's producer got a call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office. Could Khan come over and interview her?

Earlier in his office, Khan had mentioned Donald Rumsfeld: "I bump him into him from time to time to time. His office is around the corner. And I keep thinking, we're still here, and he's not."