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."
Such memories returned to him earlier this year, when he heard about openings at Al-Jazeera International. Prior to an interview in March, he energetically researched AJI's parent organization, making sure to draw equally from insulting and complimentary sources. "I read it all," he says, "and I concluded that this was a groundbreaking network doing good, courageous journalism in the Arab world and telling stories that a lot of people in power would rather not have told." This approach extends to the network's willingness to screen shots of dead American soldiers, a tack rejected by virtually every mainstream U.S. news purveyor. "Clearly, Al-Jazeera shows the ugly side of war," Elizondo allows. "It's uncomfortable; it's not fun. But you know what? It's reality."
Before long, Elizondo was offered a programming-producer slot -- but prior to accepting it, he consulted with his wife and parents, knowing they'd be interrogated about his move as often as he was. Once all three of them gave the go-ahead, he took a leap of faith that he doesn't regret in the slightest. "I was really lucky to get in when I did," he says.
Whereas many news organizations are contracting, AJI is expanding into regions that have received little Western media coverage, and Elizondo is part of that process. He's charged with commissioning or purchasing content from documentarians and the like operating in the Americas -- anywhere from northern Canada to the southern tip of Chile. As part of his duties, he spent much of the summer in Colombia (where his wife is working for the International Organization for Migration on a contract basis), and the comments he heard about Al-Jazeera while there weren't derogatory in the slightest. "When I've been outside the States, people have for the most part had a very positive view of the network," he says.
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Not so here, where Rushing's recent media blitz was met with derision by commentators who aren't buying Al-Jazeera's recent reputation-softening efforts. Typical was "A Marine's Dishonorable Service for Al-Jazeera," an October 7 Front Page Magazine piece in which scribe Debbie Schlussel called Rushing "a bigger boob than Anna Nicole Smith's entire chest combined," and pointed out that onetime Al-Jazeera correspondent Taysir Alluni had recently been convicted in Spain of, in her words, "financing, recruiting and logistically supporting Al Qaeda." Al-Jazeera stands behind Alluni and has announced plans to appeal the verdict.
For his part, Elizondo stops short of excusing away everything the Arabic Al-Jazeera has done. "Has the network probably made some mistakes?" he asks. "Yes, but so has the New York Times, so has CNN." Moreover, Al-Jazeera International has the opportunity to make a fresh start, and he feels it will do so evenhandedly. "We're going to offer a truly 360-degree view of the world," he promises.
Next year, viewers -- not to mention TV professionals with whom Elizondo once worked -- will be able to decide for themselves if AJI has accomplished this goal. But he's confident of the company he's now keeping. "There's a reason I joined this network," he says, "and it wasn't because I needed a job, because I had a good job in Denver. I joined it because I believe in what they're doing."