NEW YORK (AP) — A decade ago the U.S. government attacked Al-Jazeera as a propagator of anti-American propaganda. Now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is citing the network for fine news coverage — and tweaking the U.S. media in the process.
The Arab broadcaster says it's ready to take advantage of what it considers a major boost in its acceptance in the United States.
Clinton, on the week many U.S. television outlets were preoccupied by the spectacle of actor Charlie Sheen, suggested during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that American networks were falling behind in the competition for information.
Al-Jazeera has been a leader in changing people's minds and attitudes, Clinton told lawmakers Wednesday.
"Like it or hate it, it is really effective," Clinton said. "In fact, viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it is real news."
"You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news that is not providing information to us, let alone foreigners."
In fact, Al-Jazeera's television viewership hasn't gone up much in the U.S. because it is still not widely available, seen only on scattered cable systems in Vermont, Ohio and Washington, D.C.
But online viewership of Al-Jazeera English spiked during the demonstrations in Egypt — up 2,500 percent at its peak, with nearly half of the followers from the United States, the network said.
Al-Jazeera has taken advantage of the moment, asking visitors to its website to click a tab that automatically generates a letter to the users' local cable system encouraging them to add the network. More than 40,000 e-mails have been generated, spokeswoman Molly Conroy said.
The network's leaders in the past two weeks have also visited with Time Warner, Comcast and Cablevision executives to seek space on their systems, she said.
"The events in Egypt have convinced an increasing number of Americans, the secretary of state included, that the coverage Al-Jazeera has provided for these events is something that is seen as a dramatic shift in perception of the network," said Abderrahim Foukara, Al-Jazeera's Washington bureau chief.
Fox News Channel's Michael Clemente said he was "surprised and kind of curious" by Clinton's remarks.
"We've got leadership issues there, the safety of people, the safety of our own people," said Clemente, senior vice president for news. "Some big issues. All of a sudden there are headlines about Al-Jazeera versus the news in this country? It's just surprising. Curious more than surprising."
Representatives from CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC news all declined comment Friday on what Clinton said.
But former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno agreed with her assessment.
"She's right," said Sesno, who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
"Cable news has become cable noise. It was intended to be an opportunity to inform people, and instead it has become an opportunity to inflame people."
The cable news shift toward opinion has paid off handsomely for ratings leader Fox News Channel and, to a lesser extent, MSNBC.
CNN has resisted a partisan drift to concentrate more on news and has suffered in the ratings the past couple of years. With budget cuts, the influence of the major broadcast news divisions has been waning.
Even with the move toward opinion, the news networks often provide informative coverage when there is breaking news, such as the Egyptian revolution, Sesno said.
What's lacking is an attention span — a willingness to stick with stories and provide context. There's an addiction to "this just in," he said.
Clinton's complimentary assessment of the Arab broadcaster is an about-face from just a decade ago, when the Bush administration complained that Al-Jazeera promoted those who opposed the United States. Former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld calling it "inexcusably biased."
That hostility played a big role in the network failing to get any traction with U.S. cable systems.
Al-Jazeera's Foukara said that with overseas audiences, particularly in the Arab world, the broadcaster finds a hunger for news.
"You can stay focused on a story for hours or days or even weeks on end," he said, "while in the U.S., the assumption is that people are not as interested in news, particularly news outside of the United States."
Sesno said the unrest in the Arab world could prove as important to Al-Jazeera as the first Gulf War was for establishing CNN in the United States.