Al Jazeera's English-language staff prepares to broadcast from its Doha newsroom in Qatar in November 2006. The network announced this week that it had purchased cable-news channel Current TV and plans to transform it into a news channel called Al Jazeera America later this year. Though it remains uncertain, access to the broadcasts may be severely limited in Maine.
By Ray Routhier
When Dave Rowe heard that Time Warner Cable, Maine's largest cable TV provider, was dropping a channel owned by the Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera, he was disappointed.
Not so much for himself, since he watches Al Jazeera's international news coverage online whenever he wants. His disappointment was more connected to the world view of some Americans -- or lack thereof.
"It's a very myopic thing to do. We can't go on thinking we're the only ones on the planet," said Rowe, 39, a professional musician who lives in Raymond. "I think it's important for us to know what the world thinks of us."
Al Jazeera announced this week that it's buying Current TV -- which was started by former Vice President Al Gore in 2005 and reaches 60 million U.S. households -- and plans to transform it into a news channel called Al Jazeera America this year.
Al Jazeera, known to many Americans only for its coverage of events in the Middle East, now reaches about 4.7 million households. Current TV will allow it to reach millions more American homes, though it won't necessarily bring Al Jazeera to many more Mainers.
Time Warner, which has more than 360,000 customers in Maine, announced this week that it's dropping Current TV immediately. It has indicated that it will keep an "open mind" about carrying Al Jazeera in the future.
Andrew Russell, a spokesman for Time Warner in Maine, said in a written statement: "We are keeping an open mind and as the service develops we will evaluate whether it makes sense, for our customers, to launch the network."
Russell said Time Warner was prepared to drop Current TV before it was sold "due to incredibly low ratings."
The network was seen in Greater Portland on Time Warner Channel 148. On Thursday, that channel aired a message directing viewers to a website -- www.TWCConversations.com -- to find "other sources for similar programming."
Current TV is available in Maine on Comcast cable -- mostly in the Brunswick area -- and on the satellite services Dish Network and DirecTV.
A Comcast spokesperson said Thursday that the provider will continue to carry Current TV "per our agreement."
A Dish spokesperson said the company will be "evaluating the future plans for Current TV."
No one from DirecTV could be reached for comment.
While some Mainers who are interested in world news from various sources said Thursday that they would like to see Al Jazeera, others posted comments on Facebook saying they don't think Al Jazeera would be popular here. Some accused it of giving positive attention to "terrorists."
None of those people responded to requests to be interviewed for this story.
"I think there are a lot of misconceptions about it, just because it is based in the Middle East," said Reza Jalali, a native of Iran who works as coordinator of multicultural student affairs at the University of Southern Maine. "It is in the unfortunate situation of being disliked by both sides. Militant Muslims think it is too pro-Western, and people in the West might have an opposite opinion. That in itself speaks to its balance."
When a journalist from Al Jazeera was invited to speak at an event hosted by the General Henry Knox Museum in Thomaston in 2011, it drew protests from tea party movement members in Maine. Pete Harring, who ran the website themaineteaparty.com, called the invitation "insulting."
Harring could not be reached for comment Thursday.
People in Maine who have watched Al Jazeera or read its English language content online say it is known in most countries for being fair and balanced, and presenting more in-depth reporting than many other news outlets.
"It's really a lot like CNN, in terms of being a strong source of information on international affairs," said Chomba Kaluba, a native of Zambia who teaches sociology at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. "In Zambia, Al Jazeera and the BBC are probably the most popular channels, for international news. They actually dig a lot deeper into issues than some (networks) do."
Whether Al Jazeera could attract a large audience in Maine or other states remains to be seen.
Ron Schmidt, who teaches American politics at USM, is not sure that American viewers would embrace Al Jazeera, mainly because they seem to prefer news about their own country over news of the world.
"When 24-hour news channels started, I think there was a sense that there would be a lot more global coverage, but instead we see a lot of the same stories repeated during the same cycle," said Schmidt. "I think there's a reason for that, and it's probably that when you start talking about the Congo, ratings go down."
Although the purchase price of Current TV was not disclosed, it was estimated to be $500 million, which means Gore would stand to make about $100 million because he had a 20 percent ownership stake.
Current TV has been heavy on American politics and issues, with shows like "Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer," "The War Room," which recently featured fiscal cliff debates, and "Talking Liberally."
Al Jazeera, while often focusing in the Middle East, covers stories around the world. It was started and funded by the emir of Qatar and his family, and an Al Jazeera English network was started in 2006. It has gotten very few cable providers to carry it.
Maine has a significant population of recent immigrants, and Jalali thinks many would welcome news of their homelands on TV.
"As an immigrant advocate, I know many people would love to get more information about the homelands they left behind," he said.
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:
A Qatari staff member of al-Jazeera points out the newsroom of the TV network in Doha, Qatar, in February 2005.