Al Jazeera's (Global) Mission

Can an English-language news network with radioactive DNA actually be good for Brand America? U.S. business better hope so.

Josh Rushing has been called a "turncoat," a "pawn," and the "biggest boob in America." Bloggers have suggested that a special-ops team "take him out." On Fox, Sean Hannity posted his face above the caption traitor. It has been a very long year. So how did this earnest, blue-eyed ex-Marine—a former press attaché to General Tommy Franks, no less—invite such vilification? Early last year, he agreed to become an on-air personality on a new 24-hour global news channel. Trouble is, Rushing's new gig isn't on CNN or ABC, and it certainly isn't on Fox. He's about to become the face of Al Jazeera International. The new channel is a sibling of Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language channel based in Qatar, which captured the world's attention during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That station made the Bush administration apoplectic by broadcasting images of war casualties—dead civilians, the burned corpses of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Fallujah—at the same time the United States was touting its precision bombing. It has also been the conduit for a string of videotapes from Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and is the preferred outlet of various radical Islamic groups for putting footage of tearful, pleading hostages before the world.

But Al Jazeera International (AJI) has grander ambitions than to be simply the enfant terrible of the Middle East. For starters, it will broadcast in English, giving it a much broader reach; its staffers are imports from upmarket operations such as the BBC, CNN, and Associated Press Television News (APTN); and it professes a rigorous code of ethics and the loftiest news-gathering goals. "The mission of Al Jazeera International is to provide accurate and impartial news with a global, international perspective," says Will Stebbins, formerly an APTN regional editor and now AJI's Washington bureau chief. "News in the U.S. clearly comes from a very culturally specific viewpoint that eclipses many important stories and issues. We want to provide different points of view from around the world."

The format for the channel, which is currently scheduled to launch in late spring, is itself innovative. Instead of being run out of a central command post, AJI's news day—and news management—will follow the sun: Programming will begin in Doha, Qatar, which will likely host a 12-hour chunk of the day, then shift to London for a four-hour segment, then to Washington, DC, for a 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. (local-time) slot, and finally to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The top of each hour will be hard news; the back half, analysis, chat shows, and documentaries, some of it generated by viewers. There will be only one feed, so viewers worldwide will all see the same broadcast at the same time.

More intriguing, each news desk will be run independently, with the mandate to report international news through its own lens. Imagine, says Stebbins, by way of illustration, the follow-up to Bush's recent State of the Union speech: In Doha, broadcasters might have lined up reaction to the president's warning to Hamas to disarm; in Kuala Lumpur, analysis might have dialed in on Bush's comments on protectionism; and in London, on his admonishment of Iran. And in the States, Stebbins says, instead of the usual pundits, he might have rung up Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's fiery president, or polled Mexicans on Bush's remarks on immigration enforcement.

AJI has already recruited some journalistic heavy hitters for its masthead: Dave Marash, formerly of ABC's Nightline, will be an anchor in the Washington, DC, broadcast center; Sir David Frost, the ex-BBC fixture, will serve as éminence grise in London; Riz Kahn, formerly of CNN International, will bring his Q&A format to the channel; and Veronica Pedrosa, named "Best News Anchor" at the Asian Television Awards in 2004 for her work on CNN International, will hold down the desk in Kuala Lumpur. And, of course, Rushing will extend his 15 minutes of fame.

Just how famous Rushing, 33, becomes in America depends, however, on whether AJI can even find a distributor here, let alone an audience. Al Jazeera, after all, saw one staffer convicted in Spain of running money for Al Qaeda. Its name is so radioactive that it all but precludes debate.

But AJI may actually represent a tremendous opportunity for the United States. Anti-American sentiment, fed by everything from the Iraq war to our position on global warming, has become a concern at both the U.S. State Department and American companies looking to do business overseas. A recent Zogby International poll of key executives at large U.S. multinationals found that most rated the potential impact of anti-Americanism on U.S. companies at between three and four on a scale of one to five, with one representing "no problem" and five an "extreme threat." While some execs considered their brand immune to trouble because they hire local people wherever they operate, there was deep and unanimous concern among thought leaders about a long-term threat to business.

"Given that the global landscape will continue to change with the rise of China, India, and other countries, the United States needs all the help it can get."

"Given that the global landscape will continue to change with the rise of China, India, and other countries, the United States needs all the friends it can get," says pollster John Zogby. "One simply can't overestimate what our country stands to lose in terms of economic power if American companies find it difficult to trade overseas. There are clear signs that American hegemony is faltering."

Which leaves us to contemplate a sort of "Springtime for Hitler" scenario: Could embracing the new Al Jazeera—even though it may well continue to air opinions and priorities the United States and its corporations find toxic—actually burnish our image abroad? It would be a twist worthy of Sun Tzu. Or Jon Stewart.

Nobody believes in AJI's rehabilitative potential more than Rushing. As part of his mandate to manage the press at CentCom in Doha, Rushing had been assigned Al Jazeera as one of his "accounts" during the Iraq war; as low man on the totem pole, he was also ordered to escort a couple of student filmmakers from the American University in Cairo. It wasn't until he was back in Los Angeles that the telegenic Marine discovered, through a voice mail from a fan, that he'd become an accidental celebrity: The film students had taped his earnest discussions with Al Jazeera reporters about war coverage—and Rushing had become the star of Control Room, a documentary about the network that was screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

"I Googled my name and 'Sundance,' and up comes Control Room," says Rushing over coffee in Washington's posh Mayflower Hotel, near AJI's new offices on K Street. "I started reading Web sites, not about the movie but about me and my role. And I said, 'Oh my gosh, I'm in trouble. They're using me as the anti-Bush poster boy!' "

It got worse. For a supposedly savvy media guy, Rushing made a dumb move: Shortly before the movie was to open nationally, he gave an interview to none other than The Village Voice, commenting on the pictures from Abu Ghraib. "I said, 'If we're Americans, war isn't hell. We don't see blood, we don't see guts, we don't see the human cost. It's like it's brand marketing here.' I said I was really struggling because what I was seeing on the news was not what I saw over there."

Needless to say, the Pentagon wasn't happy with how Captain Rushing exercised his right to free speech. While in New York for the film's premiere, he got a call from his boss at Marine headquarters. "You can't speak to the media," he said, according to Rushing. "If a reporter puts a mike in your face, walk away silently." Rushing, recognizing an order when he heard one, shut up.

But the more Rushing didn't talk, the more famous he got. "When I couldn't speak, it took the story from the E1 section [entertainment news] to A1 [front page]," he says.

In August, he was about to give a keynote address at a military-information symposium in San Diego when his phone rang again. This time it was a buddy from L.A. "Dude," he said to Rushing, "you're screwed." The Los Angeles Times had run a front-page article portraying Rushing as a First Amendment martyr and an op-ed piece calling him "a credit to the Corps." Tired of being muzzled during a national conversation that involved his behavior and reputation, Rushing resigned his commission.

Recounting it now, 16 months later, Rushing still gets emotional. "It was tough economically for my family," he says. By leaving six years short of his 20th anniversary, he gave up his pension and his health insurance; suddenly, he had no job. But for a guy who had been a Marine since graduating from high school, the emotional toll of his decision was even greater. "It was scary to separate myself from that identity," he says softly, "to take the uniform off, to lose the security of the brotherhood, and to know that what I was going to do wasn't going to sit well with the institution I felt so loyal to. I knew I was going out into the world to get on a box and say that in the way America deals with Al Jazeera, there is nothing less than our national security at stake—and we're screwing up."

Although it has been around since 1996, the original Arabic-language Al Jazeera first registered on most Americans' radar after September 11, when the station began beaming up images from inside Taliban-controlled Kabul. Al Jazeera built its reputation by bringing us tapes of a cave-dwelling Osama, as well as clips of Nicholas Berg and Daniel Pearl shortly before they were beheaded. Its commentators were similarly incendiary, with a penchant for describing suicide bombers as "martyrs" and American forces as "neocolonial occupiers." And while the station's tone is less inflammatory these days—partly as a result of competition from the more moderate Al Arabiya, which is based in Dubai—it's still the world's most dependable source for up-to-the-minute hostage videos. Al Jazeera, which is underwritten by the emir of Qatar, claims some 50 million viewers worldwide, about 200,000 of them here in the United States, where it can be seen on the Dish Network.

The U.S. government initially supported these fledgling efforts at free speech, banking on their transformative potential in societies that had been in informational lockdown for decades. But it soon discovered that free speech meant a license to vent all kinds of news unflattering—if not downright hostile—to our various adventures. U.S. forces actually bombed Al Jazeera bureaus twice, once in Kabul and once in Baghdad, where a reporter was killed; both times, the United States insisted the bombings were accidental. In April 2004, according to British press reports, President Bush considered bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar, until British prime minister Tony Blair talked him off the ledge. At the height of the Iraq conflict, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Al Jazeera's reporting "vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable."

Ours isn't the only government to be exasperated by Al Jazeera. Its impertinent broadcasts have gotten it tossed out of Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Tunisia, among other countries. The only place in the region where it hasn't yet been banned is Israel, despite routinely airing commentary that is brutally anti-Semitic.

As noxious as it found Al Jazeera's message, however, the Bush administration couldn't help but see its power, and in early 2004, it launched its own channel, Al Hurra, as a Muslim-run, pro-American counterpoint. But the station faced deep skepticism from the public and never found much of an audience. It is currently under investigation for various financial shenanigans.

That has left the Bush administration to try to shape public opinion through news channels it can't control. And indeed, State Department public diplomacy chief Karen Hughes has since appeared on Al Jazeera, as have secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and even Rumsfeld. That's as it should be, says Marc Lynch, a political science professor at Williams College and author of Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today. "Though no friend of U.S. foreign policy," he says, Al Jazeera "is perhaps the single most powerful ally America can have in pursuit of democratic change in the Middle East."

It's early January, and Cathy Rasenberger, a grizzled cable-industry consultant, is hosting a media lunch for her client at her Chrysler Building offices in Manhattan. On the agenda: an update on Al Jazeera's progress in securing U.S. distribution deals. The star of the meet-and-greet is Lindsey Oliver, a pleasant British barrister who could easily pass for headmistress at a girls' school. Rushing is at her side, but this is Oliver's show, a chance to get the word out that Al Jazeera is coming to town.

Oliver may have the toughest job in show business: As Al Jazeera's commercial director, she's responsible for finding a home for the channel on airwaves or broadband around the globe. But while she's perky and positive about the channel's progress, there's precious little news. No U.S. distribution deals have been signed, although many are reportedly "pending"; meanwhile, the launch date has slipped from its March target to sometime in "late spring." There have been a couple of high-profile hires—Nightline's Marash, and Mark Seddon from the UK's Tribune to cover the United Nations—but details on even Rushing's precise on-air role are still under wraps.

Oliver says not to worry. Things are going well enough in the rest of the world that she's anticipating reaching 30 million to 40 million viewers from the get-go. And she's cocky enough about the channel's prospects in the Unites States to have turned down a slot on one cable company's Arabic tier in the hope of something more mainstream. The problem, she insists, is lack of bandwidth, an issue that affects anybody looking for distribution in a tight market.

Still, AJI faces hurdles that, say, Al Gore's new cable channel, Current, didn't. As one young reporter attending the lunch observed, "Most networks don't have to go and explain first that they don't do beheadings."

At that, Oliver stifles her exasperation and patiently explains that even the old Al Jazeera never showed a beheading and never would. But she concedes that, in America, it's a misperception that's lodged in the public psyche as firmly as the belief that Saddam was behind September 11. And it surely wasn't helped by the latest string of hostage videotapes—each branded with Al Jazeera's filigreed logo.

So, even assuming there's space on the dial for AJI, it still looks like a pretty tough sell to the cable companies, says Simon Applebaum, editor at large of CableWORLD magazine. "One of the things [AJI has] to deal with is whether cable operators are going to want to take a chance on being associated with a very controversial channel at a very volatile time in the Mideast." We called a number of them—Comcast, RCN, Verizon, Time Warner, among others—to ask just that. None returned our calls.

The hurdles to finding advertisers promise to be even higher. Another unscientific poll of top media-buying agencies—the ones responsible for buying commercial time for the Procter & Gambles and Chryslers of the world—produced still more howling silence. Most agencies we called (OMD, Starcom, MediaVest, MindShare, Carat) either refused to respond or politely declined to comment. One account executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Politically, this is a nightmare. Never in a billion years would I bring this to our client."

Marketing guru Ernest Lupinacci, formerly CEO of the hot ad shop Anomaly, spells out the hazard: "If you're a marketer, your worst nightmare is to wake up and read a headline on the Drudge Report: 'U.S.Widgets to Buy Airtime on Al Jazeera.' Next thing you know, you're a tape loop on Howard Stern."

Rushing, who has gone on a number of sales calls, says the problem with selling AJI isn't so much its dodgy parentage as the cable operators' cold eye to a P&L. "I go into distribution meetings ready for a fight," he says. "But they cut me short because they don't care. They say, 'Americans aren't interested in international news, and I'm not going to make a lot of money off it.' "

AJI claims to have research contradicting that assessment, particularly among its target market: news-hungry gen-Xers who are currently getting their information from the Internet. And if it really has found a way to get young Americans to turn off their iPods and start watching cable news, well, hats off to them. That would officially make them the smartest folks in the news biz.

Of course, AJI is well aware of its image problem in the U.S. market. "I'm thankful I don't have Lindsey's job," Rushing admits. And it's certainly nice at times like these to have your own emir (he's floating AJI's reported $85 million annual budget). But right now, the mantra around AJI is that their job is to produce quality journalism, not worry about snagging the Tide account. Oliver concedes she'd like to sell advertising in the United States in the future but knows it won't come easy. To hedge its bets, AJI, like most networks, is developing other properties—a sports channel, a children's channel, an Arabic version of C-Span—to help keep the news division afloat.

But the truth is, while AJI would be delighted to run ads from U.S.-based companies, it can actually do just fine without our commercial support. Oliver estimates her potential market as the "1 billion English speakers around the world," including some of the fastest-growing economies on the planet, many of which are not particularly enamored of U.S. policy. The channel has already struck a distribution deal with Sky, Rupert Murdoch's global satellite-TV outfit, which AJI is counting on for an immediate 8 million viewers. As Oliver delicately points out, "The U.S., while very important, is only one country." And AJI's market is the world, where money from Lenovo, Sony, Nokia, and United Arab Emirates Airlines is just as good as greenbacks from Pepsi or Dell.

In fact, says Simon Anholt, a UK-based brand consultant and author of Brand America, the old Al Jazeera's latent brand equity translates into a tremendous opportunity for its English-language station to deliver a platform for certain kinds of brands. "Benetton, Diesel, Camper—any kind of global youth fashion brand that's desperate to be edgy and ironically non-Western would likely do well," he says.

From an American perspective, that prospect evokes the possibility of a larger, more disturbing transformation. AJI will, in essence, be running a superfunded media lab to test a revolutionary proposition: Can a channel that employs the language of global commerce—English—but consciously eschews its natural Anglo-American worldview, become a new transnational cultural and economic force? In other words, once each region of the world can step to the mike on an equal footing and tell its story through the lens of its own audience, the world will be that much flatter. Remote parts of China, Indonesia, and the Indian subcontinent, for example, will be able to get their world news—and their advertising and, presumably, their actual products—filtered not by London (via the BBC) and Atlanta (on CNN) but by a new, independent, global vision. No one's saying that's AJI's explicit objective. But its success—or failure—will make a powerful statement about the mood of the world and about America's place in it.

Prior to being hired, Rushing learned an embarrassing lesson in the blinding effects of cultural myopia. At a lunch with AJI managing director Nigel Parsons, he'd suggested that the channel consider changing its name before launching in the United States. Parsons just laughed: Because of the Al Jazeera name, "it will gain access that other media outlets won't have, not just in the Middle East but in other places in the world," he told the young Marine. "It's not all about America." As Rushing says now, that was "a perception-shattering moment."

It's the second day of the Sundance Film Festival, and Keith Reinhard, chairman of DDB Worldwide, is on his way to a premiere. But first, he urgently wants to talk about AJI.

In addition to his work at the big Omnicom ad agency, Reinhard devotes much of his time to Business for Diplomatic Action, a task force of high-voltage marketing, political science, research, and media types that he founded to raise the alarm about growing anti-Americanism abroad—and to urge U.S. businesses to find ways to address it. Reinhard is such a key thinker in this arena that he spoke before the 9/11 Commission: In the Arab world, he said, "the United States government is simply not a credible messenger."

Reinhard sees America's problems in the region much as he would those of a brand in crisis and believes that only by reaching out can we begin to recoup our loss of prestige and political and economic influence. If America were a product, he says, a rehabilitation strategy might go like this: Take the brand's positives and amplify them; then take its negatives and try to fix either the faulty messaging or the faulty product. He strongly believes that AJI could help America change those negatives based on misunderstanding. As for those negatives that are actually true—well, "maybe we should rethink what we say and how we behave."

But these are not just liberal platitudes from a blue-state ad man. A recent survey by the Anholt-GMI Nation Brands Index produced grim results about the U.S. ranking among 25 developed and developing countries. While the United States is still recognized as the No. 1 place to do business in the world, as well as home to an attractive popular culture (No. 4), and crator of desirable brands (second only to Germany), it ranks dead last in cultural heritage—a score associated with maturity, wisdom, cultivation, humanity, and intelligence. That's below Turkey, China, and Egypt. "The U.S. rankings indicate that in certain respects, Brand America is still envied," says Anholt, developer of the index and also executive editor of the journal Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. "But the historic love affair that has been waning over the past several years has now ended. Younger generations around the world do not have a historical reservoir of goodwill toward the U.S."

America needs more friends, not more power, says Anholt. "If Americans start watching Al Jazeera International and start absorbing and appreciating other cultures, they may start to recuperate global respect," he says. "If there ever were a chance to break down the terrifying ignorance that's beginning to rise up—this black and dangerous chasm between Islam and Christianity—then this channel has the potential to do that."

America's stake in bridging that chasm grows larger every day. Rushing, who gave up his dream of being a lifelong Marine, took up this particular banner because he thinks that AJI could be the "Iwo Jima of information battlefields." Asked how he would define success, particularly given all he's sacrificed, he pauses, fixing his pale blue eyes on the questioner: "Nigel told me, 'America doesn't understand the world very well, but the world doesn't understand America, either.' If this network and I personally could be some kind of conduit between America and the world—and the world and America—that would be 'mission accomplished.' "

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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