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Domestic news, foreign owners

WASHINGTON

A countdown clock in the control room is ticking dangerously close to zero as technicians scramble around a desk. "We're restarting the computer!"

News anchor Elaine Reyes looks into the camera, unaided by the TelePrompTer that was supposed to deliver her lines, and begins a report on turmoil in Egypt. She manages not to stumble and the computer is soon back up.

It could be any major news broadcast, a tightly choreographed production rolling with the unexpected, but this is CCTV America, the Chinese government's attempt to plant a flag in the vast U.S. media landscape. Blocks away, in the shadow of the nation's Capitol, Qatar-financed Al Jazeera just opened a studio.

The newcomers employ a back-to-the-future approach: letting fact-based reporting, not screaming partisan pundits, drive news reports. But getting anyone to watch, as well as overcoming concerns of bias, is a challenge.

CCTV, short for China Central Television, began airing English-language programs in February 2012 and has about 100 staff members occupying three floors of a glassy building in downtown Washington. It has an operation in Nairobi, Kenya, and next year will open a studio in London. Al Jazeera America launched last month after spending a breathtaking amount to get off the ground. It has hired 800 people, 50 based in Washington, and has 12 bureaus across the country, including Nashville, Detroit and Miami.

The goal of the Chinese and Qataris is to build prestige and grow the influence and viewpoints of two parts of the world that are increasingly intertwined with U.S. interests.

"There's a real sense of what happens in the U.S. affects them more directly," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"We're no longer seeing a world dominated by Western media views," said Mohammed el-Nawawy, a professor at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, who has written a book on Al Jazeera. "There is no longer this one-way flow of information."

The enterprises are pursuing different paths — CCTV reflecting an international outlook, a la the BBC, and Al Jazeera focusing on domestic issues with a goal of competing with CNN — but share obstacles in expanding viewership.

In China, state-run CCTV is a mouthpiece of the Communist government and critics fret Beijing's hand in the U.S. operation. Qatari leaders have had a hands-off approach to Al Jazeera, but the network has to contend with a history of airing speeches by Osama bin Laden and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.

"Perception is more than reality," el-Nawawy said of Al Jazeera. "Some people are making a predetermined decision not to watch. It's a serious challenge, particularly during these early days."

CCTV and Al Jazeera are trying to win over viewers by emphasizing objective, in-depth reporting and eschewing the partisan shoutfests that have come to define cable news.

"We're going to do this in a way differently than any other U.S. news organization," said Joie Chen, a veteran of CNN and CBS News who hosts America Tonight, Al Jazeera's prime-time offering based in Washington. "Our stars are going to be ordinary people."

In recent days America Tonight aired a piece on why doctors are making more misdiagnoses of patients' health problems; told the inside story of a prison in New Orleans; and completed a four-part series on gang violence in Chicago.

It also covered the unfolding crisis in Syria, differing little from CNN, Fox News or MSNBC, according to a Pew Research study. Al Jazeera said it underscores to viewers that it is an "American news channel that provides unbiased, fact-based reporting that doesn't have a partisan or other point of view."

But what good is a quality broadcast if no one is tuning in?

Al Jazeera's $500 million purchase of Current TV, the network started by Al Gore, gave it access to about 50 million households, half of what CNN and Fox command. But not all cable providers, including Time Warner in Tampa Bay, have picked up the channel. Al Jazeera has also puzzled some by its heavy domestic focus; the channel built a reputation and gained fans here based on strong coverage of the Middle East.

Though Qatar has deep pockets, the channel is struggling to attract advertisers. Al Jazeera says it is purposefully limiting commercials to six minutes per hour, less than the industry standard 15 minutes.

The Chinese have more modest aims, eyeing an audience in the 40 million range. "What they expect is a small and hopefully influential audience of educated people who have a curiosity about global issues," said Jim Laurie, a veteran TV newsman who was once ABC's correspondent in China and now consults for CCTV in Washington.

China, Laurie said, wants a media presence commensurate with its economic might and to counter what it sees as a bias in other coverage. During the 2012 U.S. presidential race, for example, there was frequent China-bashing and accusations of currency manipulation. The Chinese want to show the other side of the story, Laurie said.

Though the U.S. and Chinese economies are increasingly related, the occasional diplomatic tension between the countries adds a dynamic to CCTV's expansion.

"CCTV's U.S. presence and their expansion worldwide is part of China's use of soft power," said Peter Herford, a former CBS News executive who just finished a 10-year stint teaching journalism in China. "The Chinese came to realize they knew little about the world they have moved into and need far more feedback than was available to them through foreign sources."

The influence of the Communist government raises questions. "To be very honest there are some no-go areas. We're not going to have the Dalai Lama on this channel," Laurie acknowledged. "You're not going to have the head of the Falun Gong appear."

But Laurie and reporters at CCTV say they have pushed for editorial control. The Chinese seem to understand that to be taken seriously, CCTV America can't be seen as a purveyor of propaganda. (Russia's RT network set up shop in Washington in 2010 on a smaller scale and has faced persistent claims of pro-Kremlin bias.)

"Some people call it the big elephant in the room. I don't look at it that way," said Phillip Yin, a CCTV business news anchor hired away from Bloomberg. "My biggest thing with the critics is, compare it to what it used to be, compare it to what else is on the air on other comparable channels in Asia."

Sean Callebs, a CNN veteran now with CCTV — when he got the cold call he thought it was Canadian TV — said he has had reporting opportunities that surpassed other jobs. Last year he went on a three-week trip to examine Greenland's melting ice sheet, a 45-minute piece that won awards.

"I wouldn't get that opportunity at CNN. That would go to an Anderson Cooper," Callebs said. "It's actually kind of rejuvenated me as a reporter."

"There is an appetite out there for those stories, but it's a challenge," Callebs conceded. "People say, 'Where can I see you again?' We're on the dark side of the moon. But that's going to come. People who stumble into us, and that happens a lot, are pretty pleased with the overall product."

Domestic news, foreign owners 09/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 27, 2013 2:45pm]

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