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Most of Gabriel Elizondo's colleagues at KMGH-TV/Channel 7, where he served as an assignment editor, were supportive when they learned last May that he'd taken a job as a programming producer with Al-Jazeera International, a spinoff of the controversial Arabic network. Still, he concedes, "When an e-mail came out in the newsroom saying I was going to work for Al-Jazeera, it wasn't exactly like saying I was going to work for our affiliate in Dallas. There were a lot of questions."
That makes sense, since Al-Jazeera, an enterprise based in Doha, Qatar, that runs under the patronage of the country's emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, has taken flak from all sides lately. In June, for example, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld implied that Al-Jazeera promotes attacks against Americans by airing beheadings -- a false claim, as it turns out -- while Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi accused the network of being "a mouthpiece for the Americans." (Qatar is a United States ally.) Nevertheless, Al-Jazeera is pushing ahead with the development of AJI, a 24-hour English-language news service. Its launch isn't anticipated until spring 2006 (carriage agreements are pending), but the outfit's public-relations wing is already trying to counter perceptions that Al-Jazeera is devoted to boosting Osama bin Laden, who's sent numerous videotaped messages to the net. Recent Al-Jazeera hires include Josh Rushing, a former U.S. Marine familiar to movie-goers from his appearance in the 2004 documentary Control Room, and BBC vet David Frost.
Plenty of lesser-knowns are joining AJI, too, with more to come. Elizondo is headquartered in Washington, D.C., one of four full-blown broadcast centers (the others are in Doha, London and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), and he says his office isn't yet fully staffed. Thus far, however, he's extremely impressed by the talent of his new peers and proud to be part of the Al-Jazeera family. "I'm an American, and I have values I grew up with," he emphasizes. "And no matter where I work, whether it be Channel 7 or Al-Jazeera International, my values stay with me, and I'd never jeopardize them. If anything, I'm enforcing my values by coming to this network -- enforcing my values about the free press and the conviction that as journalists, we must be vigilant in pursuing stories that aren't being told."
Elizondo, 30, hails from the Los Angeles area, and when it came time for college, he set out to learn more about the world beyond these shores by enrolling in San Diego State's international-studies program. Along the way, he stumbled into journalism via the campus newspaper, The Daily Aztec. This experience helped him land journalism internships at KFMB-TV, a CBS station in San Diego, and 60 Minutes in Washington, where he was assigned to assist the late Trevor Nelson, a producer for correspondent Lesley Stahl.
CBS went on to use Elizondo for coverage of the 1996 Bill Clinton-Bob Dole presidential debate in San Diego, and he subsequently toiled behind the scenes at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Then, in 1999, he moved to Colorado to seek a master's degree at the University of Denver's Graduate School of International Studies. To earn tuition cash, he drifted back to TV in 2000, signing on as an assistant news director with Fox's Channel 31. News director Bill Dallman remembers Elizondo as an "excellent employee," adding, "It doesn't surprise me that he would end up in an international journalism venue, although that particular one is probably surprising to us all. Hopefully, he'll ensure balance, and maybe provide them with some perspective to help bridge the PR gap a lot of people feel they have."
Despite the ideological gulf between Fox and Al-Jazeera, Elizondo has only good things to say about his time at Channel 31. Likewise, he speaks in glowing terms of his four-plus years at 7 News, where he was occasionally given the opportunity to help assemble stories with global roots. He's particularly proud of a series helmed by anchor Anne Trujillo about three families whose sons died in the Iraq war, for which he did many of the pre-interviews. "Gabe worked on his own on many occasions, pushing me to look for ways to find relevance locally in international stories," says Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy. "And I respected and applauded him for it."
Even so, Elizondo's international-news itch was hard to scratch from Denver. That's a big reason he and his wife, Maria Helena Romero, a native of Colombia whom he met at DU, made the quizzical choice to spend three weeks backpacking -- yes, backpacking -- through Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in 2003, shortly after coalition forces occupied Baghdad.
"Everyone at Channel 7 thought I was crazy," he acknowledges. "But I really wanted to see for myself what the region was like during a tumultuous time, and I came away with a profound belief that the images most Americans are seeing of the Arab world are not an accurate representation. If they'd wanted to kill me because I was an American, they could have done it a thousand times over. But everywhere we went, we met the most hospitable, the friendliest, the most interesting people I ever could have imagined."