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Will Your 501st Channel Be Al Jazeera English?

Officials from Comcast, which provides cable service to one-fifth of the homes in the United States, met today with representatives of Al Jazeera English (AJE) to discuss the possibility of adding the channel to the Comcast cable lineup. Currently, the 24-hour AJE is not available in most U.S. cable television markets. It is only offered in the United States through MHz Networks multicast channels on Comcast, Verizon Fios, and Cox to 2.4 million subscribers in Washington, D.C., Toledo, Ohio, and Burlington, Vermont.

Al Jazeera came to the meeting with momentum: The channel’s strong reporting on the protests in Egypt and Tunisia has resulted in more than 10 million people, including 3.5 million Americans, viewing the live feed on the AJE website in recent weeks. To boost support, the network is running ads in major newspapers including the New York Times and New York Post encouraging readers to “call your local cable operator to request AJE.”

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who is Jewish, is a practical, no-nonsense chief executive who might see a business opportunity in adding Al Jazeera to his company’s lineup. Members of the Roberts family are philanthropic but are not considered major leaders of the Jewish community in Philadelphia.

Al Anstey, the managing director of AJE, is vocal about wanting more cable operators in America to carry the station. He told CNN that “over 40,000 people have emailed the American [cable] operators in recent weeks demanding access to our coverage. “ AJE also has a window on its website to facilitate these e-mails.

While Al Jazeera has earned widespread admiration for its coverage of the demonstrations in the Middle East, and past news events, much of the rest of its coverage still remains a campaign of disinformation about the Arab world and Israel. Unlike the rest of the foreign media, Al Jazeera did not report on the brutal attack and rape of CBS correspondent Lara Logan. Its typical coverage is anti–Israel; the website advertises a DVD entitled, “Israel: The Truth from Within,” which is packed with falsehoods. AJE did not respond to requests for comment.

Comcast would not give an indication of its future plans regarding adding Al Jazeera to the lineup. Alana Davis from Comcast e-mailed: “We do not have a carriage agreement with Al Jazeera English on our video service. We do regularly examine our channel lineups and talk with a wide range of programmers to ensure that we are bringing the content that our customers want the most.”

Brian Roberts was awarded the Simon Weisenthal Center’s Humanitarian Award in 2004. An accomplished squash player, Roberts also competed in the Maccabiah Games in Israel, earning a gold medal in 2005 and silver medals in 1981, 1985 and 1997.

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