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Al Jazeera America Chief: ‘We Will Get There in This Country’

Nearly a year after the launch, Al Jazeera America president Kate O’Brian is still dealing with the same question: How are you going to get over the inherent distrust among many Americans when they see the Al Jazeera moniker?

In the cabler’s first Television Critics Assn. session, O’Brian (pictured) emphasized that the channel is focused on delivering solid, objective journalism with a focus on how major news events, social issues and cultural changes impact everyday people. She noted that the Al Jazeera brand has gained respect in the U.K., Europe and other territories.

“We will get there in this country,” O’Brian told journos Tuesday at the Beverly Hilton. “We will get there by doing what we well do every single day. It will come in time. I firmly believe it will come in time.”

AJA is seen as a linchpin of the parent org’s goal of building a global news org to rival the BBC or CNN in reach and respect. Al Jazeera is funded through the state of Qatar. AJA has so far delivered miniscule ratings, which undoubtedly means there’s no significant advertising revenue to offset considerable startup costs. AJA has hundreds of journos and staffers based in New York and 12 bureaus around the U.S.

Tony Harris, the CNN alum who anchors one of the AJA’s prime newscasts, joked that he will “robo-call” people to get the word out about the channel’s programming. AJA is currently on track to be in about 50 million households after a recent distribution deal with AT&T’s U-Verse service.

O’Brian and others said they have been surprised at how quickly the channel gained recognition in journalism circles. AJA landed a Peabody earlier this year, among other kudos. Alex Gibney is among the high-profile documentary filmmakers working on original projects for the channel.

“We all walked in with eyes open that we had brand challenges here,” said Shannon High, an NBC News and CNN alum who is AJA’s senior VP of programs and documentaries. “We’ve been much faster than I thought in overcoming them.”

The AJA team also stressed the importance of pressing other journalism orgs to continue covering the story of the three reporters for its sibling outlet, Al Jazeera English, who were sentenced to prison in Egypt this year. AJA has a running clock on air noting the number of days the trio has been incarcerated.

“We are doing our level best to keep this story in front of the viewer,” O’Brian said.

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