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Al-Jazeera America prepares for Tuesday launch

By David Bauder

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 19 2013 9:17 a.m. MDT

NEW YORK — In a warren of offices at a former bank building near Madison Square Garden, dozens of journalists are at work on gleaming new electronic equipment, ready to turn their test runs of Al-Jazeera America into the real thing.

The Qatar-based news organization will finally establish a firm foothold on American television Tuesday after a decade of trying. At 3 p.m. EDT, Al Gore's former Current TV will turn out the lights in more than 45 million TV homes, replaced by the new U.S. affiliate of Al-Jazeera.

The network has hired many veterans of U.S. television, including John Seigenthaler, Joie Chen, Antonio Mora and Sheila MacVicar, and is promising a meaty diet of news that it believes will contrast with the opinionated talk that dominates American news networks.

"We're breaking in with something that we think is unique and are confident, with our guts and some research, that the American people are looking for," said Kate O'Brian, the former ABC News executive who is now Al-Jazeera America's president.

The dozens of flat-screen TVs and occupied desks scattered around marble pillars in AJA's New York office indicate this is no cheap startup. And this is temporary; the network is looking for a larger office in New York but wanted to start quickly after buying out Current in January. Bureaus are also being established in 11 other American cities.

Until Al-Jazeera America revealed a prime-time schedule last week, there were few indications of what the network would look like. Scheduled shows include a nightly newscast anchored by Seigenthaler, a newsmagazine hosted by Chen, a news talk show with Mora and a business program starring Ali Velshi.

It's still not clear what will be shown in the mornings and whether much of the broadcast day will be devoted to documentary-style programming or live news.

With its domestic bureaus, AJA will seek out stories beyond the towers of New York and government buildings in Washington, said Ehab Al Shihabi, the network's interim CEO. Besides those two cities, bureaus are located in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Miami, Seattle, Nashville, Tenn., and New Orleans.

"I am here because the promise of doing good work is just exceptional," said David Doss, a veteran of ABC, NBC and CNN who is Al-Jazeera America's senior vice president of news programming.

Al-Jazeera is well-established overseas, and the American network will take advantage of its 70 bureaus. But executives have been careful to stress that AJA will be geared toward American tastes. They have a careful line to walk: Al-Jazeera doesn't want to remind Americans of when Bush administration officials questioned its independence in the months after the terrorist attacks, and the years when American cable operators wanted nothing to do it. Tight security is evident at the New York office. A visitor last week needed to go through an airport-style metal detector and be checked by two guards.

The American launch has caused some internal dissension. A memo to his bosses from Marwan Bishara, an Al-Jazeera political analyst, suggested that executives have gone too far to ingratiate themselves with a U.S. audience. "How have we moved from the main idea that the strength of (Al-Jazeera) lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists to a channel where only Americans work?" Bishara wrote, his memo made public by The Guardian newspaper in England.

Bishara said that asking potential viewers in a poll whether they consider Al-Jazeera to be anti-American sends a bad message.

Bishara worries that Al-Jazeera will water down its journalism for an American audience, "and nothing could be further from the truth," said Paul Eedle, deputy launch manager. Being bold — not bland — is the secret to success, he said.

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