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Arab perspective, Vermont audience

Burlington Telecom’s inclusion of Arab station divides opinions

Antigovernment and progovernment crowds clashed in Damascus yesterday as tens of thousands took to the streets across Syria to protest the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Soldiers opened fire on protesters in the south. A3. Antigovernment and progovernment crowds clashed in Damascus yesterday as tens of thousands took to the streets across Syria to protest the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Soldiers opened fire on protesters in the south. A3. (Muzaffar Salman/Associated Press)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / March 26, 2011

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — As political turmoil spread throughout the Middle East in recent weeks, from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, Mousa Ishaq and his wife, Kristin Peterson-Ishaq, began hearing from friends who know the Ishaqs follow overseas news closely, and who wanted their thoughts on what might happen next in that volatile part of the world.

Their opinions are not just highly informed ones. The couple have a personal connection to the region, having met in Cairo in the 1970s. He’s Palestinian-American; she holds a master’s degree in Arabic literature. In addition, unlike the vast majority of Americans, their primary news sources go beyond American newspapers, television networks, and websites to include Al Jazeera English, an offshoot of the Arabic-language news channel. The Ishaqs regularly turn to the station for boots-on-the-ground reporting and analysis.

Based in Qatar, Al Jazeera English reaches 220 million house holds in more than 100 countries, yet it is available on a full-time basis to only a tiny sliver of US cable TV subscribers in three domestic markets: Toledo, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and Burlington, Vt., a modest-sized (population 42,400), university-centric city in the northwestern corner of the state.

Known for its citizens’ progressive political views and interest in global issues, Burlington is nevertheless an odd candidate to have made Al Jazeera a staple of its broadcast news diet. For starters, few Arab-Americans live there.

Yet as Al Jazeera’s profile continues to rise, both in the United States and abroad — news analysts and diplomats regularly cite the “Al Jazeera effect’’ behind media-fueled uprisings in the Arab world — Burlington viewers can claim credit for being ahead of the curve.

In the meantime, Al Jazeera has been expanding its US operations, which are based in the nation’s capital, and recently added a Los Angeles bureau. On its website, visitors are urged to lobby their own cable providers to add the news channel to their programming menus. Over the past several weeks, tens of thousands of such e-mails have poured in, according to an Al Jazeera English spokesperson.

Burlington Telecom, which reaches 15,000 households, began carrying Al Jazeera in 2006 — making Burlington the first US city to offer subscribers 24-hour access to the channel, which is available in two of its premium-channel packages. Other cable carriers provide a condensed version of Al Jazeera’s broadcast, typically an hour or two daily. Al Jazeera is available on the Web, where it is the third most-popular channel on YouTube.

For the Ishaqs, watching Al Jazeera instead of, say, CNN or NBC has been an easy call.

“They cover all areas of the world and with tremendous breadth and depth,’’ Peterson-Ishaq said. “Our own mainstream media are so dumbed down. I’ve been telling everybody ‘If you want context and a full range of opinion, go to Al Jazeera.’ ’’

“Their correspondents are from the area. They speak the language,’’ said her husband. “I love [CNN’s] Anderson Cooper; he’s better than most Western newsmen. But he’s not from the area.’’

Interviews with more than a dozen Vermonters who faithfully watch Al Jazeera yielded similar thoughts on why they do so. Though hardly monolithic in their media habits — many also rely on National Public Radio, the BBC, and other news sources for global coverage — they particularly value getting a non-Western perspective on what’s happening in the Arab world today.

Mark Hage of Montpelier, another loyal viewer, made a 2004 visit to Egypt that sparked a keen interest in Egyptian politics. Beyond that, however, it has been the volume and depth of the network’s coverage that’s most impressed Hage. On a night when Cairo was erupting in nonviolent revolution, he flipped to ABC News’ evening telecast, whose lead story was a blizzard bearing down on the Midwest.

“Newsworthy? Sure,’’ Hage said. “But couldn’t it be the second story? Particularly when there’s a revolution unfolding that affects us all? Diane Sawyer’s talking about a snowstorm? It was one example where Al Jazeera can open a window on the world that the US media can’t. Even they admit they’re playing catchup.’’

Burlington resident Greg Epler-Wood, a media consultant and former communications professor, watches for much the same reason. Following developments in Libya one night, he heard from three Libyan ambassadors explaining why they’d resigned from Moammar Khadafy’s government. “There were no interruptions, no fluff stories,’’ said Epler-Wood, who calls it his “go-to source’’ for Middle East and North African news.

Testimonials like these aside, access to the channel, never mind trusting it as a news source, remains controversial here. Three years ago, a threatened cancellation by Burlington Telecom, a municipally chartered provider of phone, Internet, and cable TV services, caused an uproar, pitting free-speech advocates against critics who accused Al Jazeera of promoting pro-Muslim; anti-Israel and, in some cases, anti-American views.

Burlington Telecom’s manager of government and regulatory affairs, Amber Thibeault, could not provide the number of subscribers getting Al Jazeera but estimated it at one in five.

Comcast Corp., the country’s largest cable provider, with 23 million customers, does not carry Al Jazeera and declined to discuss whether it might someday. However, reports surfaced this month that Comcast and Al Jazeera representatives had met to discuss future arrangements. Al Anstey, Al Jazeera English’s managing director, presented 13,000 viewer e-mails to Comcast in support of his channel and told MarketWatch.com, “We engaged in good discussions.’’

The controversy over Burlington Telecom’s initial decision to carry Al Jazeera intensified two years after its launch, in 2008, when its original contract with the news channel expired. New management at Burlington Telecom proposed dropping the channel. After hundreds of subscribers protested, public hearings were held and the proposal scrapped.

Critics like Jeffrey Kaufman were not mollified, however. A retired physician who serves on Burlington Telecom’s advisory board, Kaufman has been calling for a public referendum on the issue, saying he will not subscribe to Burlington Telecom as a matter of principle until the city puts the matter to a vote. He is hopeful that then Al Jazeera would be canceled for good.

“They’re taking our name collectively to support Al Jazeera, but they’re doing it without public approval,’’ Kaufman said. He’s especially troubled by what he calls Al Jazeera’s “agenda’’ to promote Sharia, the sacred law of Islam, as worldwide law.

Nonsense, say many Vermonters who not only defend Burlington Telecom’s decision to carry Al Jazeera but contend that its critics have not even watched the channel.

“Without citizens — I mean normal citizens — really getting involved, it would have been taken off the air,’’ said Burlington attorney Sandy Baird, who also serves on the advisory board. A Burlington College professor, Baird has assigned students in her history course to watch Al Jazeera, something she’s been doing herself each night lately. For most young Americans unfamiliar with non-Western news sources, Baird added, the experience has been “consciousness-raising.’’

Zach York, a Burlington College freshman enrolled in one of Baird’s classes, has been closely following reporting from countries like Egypt and Libya. York lives in student housing, where cable TV is not available, but has been a frequent visitor to the channel’s website. At a recent campus panel discussion on Middle East politics, he says, Al Jazeera’s coverage was both watched and discussed.

“They just seem to know the local customs better,’’ he commented.

Another cluster of viewers lives at Burlington Cohousing East Village, a mixed-aged residential complex near the University of Vermont campus. Residents Peter Lackowski and Barbara Grant say communal dinner discussions have been enlivened by the overseas news they’ve been processing.

“Al Jazeera doesn’t have the usual biases that American news sources have,’’ said Lackowski. Not long ago, he drove round-trip to New York City, spending his day listening to NPR and BBC reports on Libya. None explored the country’s tribal makeup and how it might affect a potential civil war, he recalls. The next day, Al Jazeera English reported extensively on tribal Libya.

“Our regular media either miss these stories,’’ Lackowski said, “or they don’t care.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.