Catching up with Al Jazeera’s Jeff Ballou

March 1, 2011 at 10:47 am 2 comments

When the Egyptian protests broke out in January, Al Jazeera English quickly emerged as one of the top sources for 24/7 news coverage. Thanks to the network’s live online broadcasts, web traffic to the Al Jazeera English website exploded, with an increase of more than 2,500 percent, with 50 percent of those web visitors coming from the U.S. There’s now talk of the network landing a spot on U.S. cable and dish lineups.

Jeff Ballou ’90 is deputy news editor for Al Jazeera English. Since 2006, Ballou has worked from the network’s Washington, D.C., bureau, vetting and gathering news from the Western hemisphere for its global news bulletins. We checked in with Jeff this week to hear about his experience covering Egypt’s revolution (spoiler alert: no sleep) and the future of Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera English seemed to “scoop” many of its competitors with the live broadcast from Egypt. Why was providing this coverage important?

I think what’s really interesting is that events have been unfolding so fast across the region that from the time I finally had time to address Egypt, we had gone full-on covering Libya—thanks to actions attributed to Muammar Gaddafi, a far more violent, graphic, and disturbing story. And we still have to keep Tunisia, Yemen, and Bahrain on the radar.

We provided in-depth coverage on Egypt first because it was an enormous story. There has not been this kind of recent popular uprising in at least two decades a la Eastern Europe. Second, as the one major independent global news network not based in the West, we felt it important to not only cover the unfolding events, but explain them with the experience and analysis like no one else could.

In the past, Al Jazeera has been criticized for having an anti-American bias. How do you respond to that?

That depends on whether you agree with the validity of the criticism. I respect it but disagree with such characterizations. The misperception of who we are and what we do has been largely caused by the false characterizations of what we do by some politicians, other parties, and frankly a lack of will by some to educate themselves about us. The reality has been and remains that Al Jazeera gives a global platform for all voices—including, of course, American ones.

We were accused of being anti-Jewish when in 2005 we were the first Arab network to ever broadcast interviews with Israeli officials who still appear frequently on the network. We were accused of showing beheadings. We have never broadcast a beheading. We were accused of giving countless hours of airtime to Osama bin Laden, unfiltered and irresponsibly. In 2005 alone, the airtime ratio of then President George W. Bush versus that of bin Laden was at least, by fair analysis, 100 to one. Even then we subjected the tapes with at least the same great rigorous debate, analysis, care and editorial publication worthiness as that of how the New York Times treated David Kaczynski, the Unabomber. I do not think that folks go running around in large numbers saying that the New York Times is un-American.

How is Al Jazeera English different from other American news sources?

First is the level and sophistication of the analysis. We won’t always get this right, but it’s part of our stock and trade and what past critics who focused on our New York Times style of dealing with the bin Laden tapes failed to focus on how we actually analyzed their meaning—something we strive to do with most of what we cover.  We also like to get a number of perspectives on the stories we cover. This too is an imperfect art. Simply put, we don’t like to oversimplify complex issues.  We respect the brains of our audience.

When will Al Jazeera English be available on cable?

Our managing director, Al Anstey, has been meeting with several potential distributors in the U.S. over the past several days, so we hope it happens soon. There is a strong appetite for international news despite what has been said by some cable and dish operators. We have no doubt that there is a market for us.

I’m guessing the past few weeks have been pretty fast-paced for you.

Yes. Long days, skipped lunch breaks, and changed sleep patterns due to short turnarounds, which wreck body clocks but hopefully not news judgment. My counterparts at headquarters in Doha, Qatar have it much tougher than I do, and my colleagues in the field have it infinitely worse than any of us on the inside and actually faced harm’s way. It’s a privilege to have a window on the world and share that view with others.

Mary Murphy, associate editor

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