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Kate O'Brian: Al Jazeera America 'about the people'

Updated 3:58 pm, Friday, May 2, 2014

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  • Kate O'Brian, president of Al Jazeera America, speaks about the news channel at the New Canaan Library in New Canaan, Conn., Sunday, April 27, 2014, as part of the Richard Salant Lecture series. Photo: Nelson Oliveira / New Canaan News
    Kate O'Brian, president of Al Jazeera America, speaks about the news channel at the New Canaan Library in New Canaan, Conn., Sunday, April 27, 2014, as part of the Richard Salant Lecture series. Photo: Nelson Oliveira

 

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As Al Jazeera America promises "unbiased, fact-based and in-depth journalism," the cable news channel, which was launched eight months ago, still is facing a hurdle to reach viewers in the U.S.

Kate O'Brian, the president, told a crowd of nearly 200 people at the New Canaan Library Sunday that many Americans have a misconception that Al Jazeera America, which is owned by Qatar-based Al Jazeera Media Network, is biased against the U.S.

"They often think we're something that we're not. I cannot tell you the number of people who think that we are Muslim news, and that we are sent to this country to give the message of the Middle East to this country," O'Brian said. "Frankly, that couldn't be further from the truth. They hired this Irish-American ABC News vet to run the place."

For about 30 years, O'Brian worked at ABC, where her most recent role was vice president of news-gathering operations. She said Al Jazeera America is independent from its parent company when it comes to editorial decisions.

Despite the name challenge, however, Al Jazeera America has many advantages over other American cable news channels, according to O'Brian. One example is the abundance of resources the channel has available around the world. Al Jazeera Media Network has 70 international bureaus, on top of the 12 it has in the U.S.

"The fact is that there are 82 bureaus where we can get our news every day, and it does make a difference when you have that amount of resources at your disposal," O'Brian said. "What you're able to put on the air is a different thing. You don't have to be putting pundits on the air, or just doing talk, talk and talk."

The first Al Jazeera channel was launched in 1996. Shortly after that, O'Brian said, Al Jazeera "became a very well-known brand around the world." In the early 2000s, according to O'Brian, there was an attempt to get Al Jazeera English into the U.S., but those were "not the greatest years for a news channel owned by a country that is Muslim to get into this country." She said there were many business and political hurdles that prevented the move.

However, the company revisited the idea because it wanted to be "global," O'Brian said. "You really can't be truly global if you're not in the U.S.," she said.

Al Jazeera's desire to be in the U.S. was backed up by research and surveys, according to O'Brian.

"It came to be that there are a number of news viewers, who were unsatisfied with the news that was available to them. They weren't getting what they were looking for in the other news channels," she said.

"As you know, cable news has changed in the last 30 years. What you see now is generally pundit-driven, opinionated to the right or to the left, celebrity-driven, very much out of Washington, very much talking heads, not really what Al Jazeera is all about."

The channel's website states, "Al Jazeera America is an American news channel reporting unbiased, fact-based and in-depth journalism that gets you closer to the people at the heart of the news."

"It's part of the mission of Al Jazeera to tell the stories of the people, not to tell the stories of government spokespeople," O'Brian said.

The channel has won two Peabody Awards. One of them was for the documentary "Fault Lines: Haiti in a Time of Cholera," which examined the epidemic that has erupted since the 2010 earthquake and highlighted the probability that United Nations peacekeepers brought the illness there.

O'Brian's presentation at the library was part of the Richard Salant Lecture series. The program was created in 1994 to honor the legacy of Salant, a New Canaan resident who led CBS News for most of the 1960s and '70s.

Sarah Salant Gleason, one of Salant's daughters, said her father would "be pretty pleased" with Al Jazeera America because of how the channel "presents different points of view."

Gleason said he "was known as both a defender of the First Amendment and a critic of the media's excess and failings."

Salant's tenure at CBS coincided with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Susan LaPerla, the library's director of programming, said the lecture series pays "tribute to the values, ideas and principles that set the standards of integrity in broadcast journalism."

To honor his legacy, the Salant Fund was established to raise money for the creation of the Salant Room in the library, dedicated to the study of ethics in journalism. The room was dedicated on Oct. 16, 1994, following a talk by Andy Rooney, the first Salant speaker. The Salant lectures has continued every year since then.

Some of the speakers who joined the lecture in the past 20 years, according to committee members, include Mike Wallace in 1995, Walter Cronkite in 1996, Dan Rather in 1998, Brian Williams in 2000 and Scott Pelley in 2011.

O'Brian's presentation was this year's second Salant lecture, following NBC News anchor Ann Curry, who spoke in New Canaan on Feb. 9.

Typically, the library hosts one Salant lecture a year, but since 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the series, there are a number of journalism events scheduled. At least three events are planned for the fall, including a CBS roundtable, a cable news panel and the first Richard Salant Integrity Award.

O'Brian joined Al Jazeera America in August, two weeks before the channel launched.

Some of her awards include an Emmy for the 2000 Millennium coverage at ABC News and a George Foster Peabody Award for ABC News' 9/11 coverage.

Another challenge she said the channel is facing in America is getting into more television providers. Al Jazeera America reaches 55 million households, through DirecTV, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Dish, Verizon FiOS and Bright House Networks.

O'Brian said the goal is to get to 100 million households.

"We still have some big ones to get to, and we're doing that bit by bit," O'Brian said.

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson