“People You Should Know” is a series of interviews with emerging players and creative talents who will help determine where American Politics, Media, Entertainment and Entrepreneurism heads in our future. After journeying for nearly eight years producing and distributing the politically themed documentary FEAR OF A BLACK REPUBLICAN, I will be starting with some great, smart folks whom I have met along the way
Bob Wheelock is the Executive Producer for Al Jazeera Americas. He has won four Emmy’s, a Dupont, and two Peabody Awards over the course of his career including for coverage of the September 11 attacks on the United States. Most recently, prior to joining Al Jazeera, Bob was the Coordinating Producer for ABC News’ coverage of the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Bob is a 25-year veteran of ABC News and has held many positions over the years.
Between 2003-2010, he was the Senior Broadcast Producer
for ABC News’ Special Events unit. There, he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the network’s breaking news and political coverage as well as having presence in the control room during planned and live events. Among the breaking news events he has covered are: the election of President Barack Obama, Pope John Paul II’s funeral, President Ronald Reagan’s funeral and the Iraq War.
KW: Congratulations on your new opportunity at Al Jazeera America. How did you get started in the TV News business? Could you tell us what was your first TV news job and did you learn anything from that job that stays with you today?
BW: I began at ABC News at age 26 as a “gopher” assigned to the 1980 Presidential Inauguration. I had been trying for almost 3 years to break [into] TV News but had no contacts or connections. At the time I joined ABC as a part-time Desk Assistant I was working two other jobs. One at a Securities research company and the other at a local wine store that had some customers from ABC and CBS News. That [is] where I finally made some contacts! My first job was as a Desk Assistant, ripping wire copy for news editors and helping on the weekends with the launch of THIS WEEK WITH DAVID BRINKLEY. Mr. Brinkley became a mentor to me. A great writer and a wonderful man.
KW: I would imagine that starting a U.S.–based news network from nearly “the ground up” is likely to be a great challenge. After working for NBC News and ABC News for nearly three decades, what motivated you to take on Al Jazeera Americas?
BW: My unit at ABC News was disbanded in April 2010. All told, about 350 employees at ABC News were let go. I worked freelance for a year, mostly with ABC doing in effect my old job. I had many interviews, but did not want to do a cable talk show and frankly needed a break. I was in London for ABC News coordinating the coverage of the Royal Wedding and I was able to see Al Jazeera regularly. Their coverage of demonstrations in Tunis and Libya was very compelling and I thought maybe, if the chance ever arose, I would see if I could work there as I love international news.
KW: Could you explain in layman’s terms what will occur during this year as Al Jazeera takes over Current TV’s operations in New York and San Francisco?
BW: It’s very complicated but the short and sweet is that the purchase of Current TV gives Al Jazeera much desired and needed carriage in the United States. Potentially another 50 million homes. We will make every effort to integrate the best of the Current TV staff who are interested in working for Al Jazeera America. They have some very alert, smart people and that is what we are looking for. Not everyone may be a perfect fit, but we have interviewed many of the staff and hope to bring on as many as we can. We will use some of their facilities, certainly until we have some more permanent facilities.
KW: Will Al Jazeera Americas be much different from the main Al Jazeera network that many Americans have read or heard about previously? If so, how?
BW: It will be different, but we hope to keep true to what makes Al Jazeera different. More in-depth coverage, documentaries and a commitment to seeking the truth and hearing from those who are not coveted on the existing news channels. Al Jazeera America will focus more on the stories of the people of the Americas, north and south, but still have a good amount of news from all over the globe.
KW: One of the misconceptions that some Americans may have is that Al Jazeera is mainly a propaganda tool working against U.S. interests. The idea that your parent network is actually a real news organization seems to have never gotten across to many people. How will Al Jazeera Americas work through any pre-conceived notions or misconceptions to win viewers?
BW: I believe that when people watch us or see us they like us. The negative comments tend to come I have found from people who have never seen the channel. Now that it will be more available, I think we can let our content speak itself. It’s not pro- or anti- anything. It’s good old fashioned journalism.
KW: On most cable systems, Americans already have MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News Channel. How do you envision Al Jazeera Americas finding its own niche amongst these three established news channels? Are there any markets or audiences not being served by MSNBC, CNN and Fox?
BW: We do believe and have research to support it, that many Americans – as many as 50 million, are dissatisfied with what they get now on cable and broadcast news. We believe that Americans are more interested in international news than is the conventional wisdom. We will offer expanded news from the US and Latin America and more international news than any other channel. We think there is an appetite for news that is not being met.
KW: With American Media already so polarized by partisan politics and much of our news becoming entertainment/opinion and web-based, do you think that Al Jazeera English’s almost “old-school” news delivery is actually an asset?
BW: We believe it is. [There is] too much partisan yelling on TV now – we prefer news and story-telling. Take the viewers places that they may otherwise never go.
KW: I was fortunate enough to be on one of Al Jazeera English’s INSIDE STORY during our Washington, D.C. Premiere of FEAR OF A BLACK REPUBLICAN. For almost thirty-minutes we discussed the Republican Party’s lack of success with African Americans and Minority voters. Needless to say, it would be very difficult to get more than a few minutes of such coverage from any of our American TV networks. Will Al Jazeera Americas continue having such long-form Shows focusing on a different topic each night?
BW: We are proud of INSIDE STORY and are expanding what we do on it. We have some shows in the planning stages, but it’s too early to say anything. We are aiming for smart News and current affairs shows.
KW: Coming from ABC News most recently, what do you
see as the major differences in how Al Jazeera covers news versus our American news networks?BW: It’s obvious, I think. The commitment to global news coverage. Small teams, but staffed with smart, aggressive journalists. We have “boots on the ground” where no one else does. It’s the major difference. And we still do documentaries and we do them very well.
KW: One of the concerns raised by some Americans is that stories shown on Al Jazeera Americas here will not be
shown or will be heavily edited for broadcast on Al Jazeera to viewers in the Middle East. Can you speak to any editorial differences there might be in covering the same stories on both networks?
BW: Again, much is being sorted out, but the stories that we produce in the US and Latin America now for Al Jazeera English are broadcast globally and not edited for the Middle East audience. They get the same coverage as our viewers get in London, Istanbul and Nairobi. I don’t see that changing.
KW: There was a great documentary film called CONTROL ROOM which chronicled the media differences between U.S. Media, U.S. Military Communications personnel and Al Jazeera at the Iraq War’s start. It was fascinating to see the differences in how the same story might get covered here in the U.S. by our networks versus how Al Jazeera would cover it. These differences even included the broadcast of graphic war footage. Going forward, do you foresee Al Jazeera America’s moving more towards Western-style broadcasting or will it move towards Al Jazeera’s style in order to distinguish itself amongst its American competitors?
BW: Al Jazeera Americas will be geared for more US and Western Hemisphere audiences, so it will be a little different. A quicker pace, sharper look… it’s still way too soon to say what the on-air product will look like.
KW: In the past, many Republicans in the Washington Beltway wouldn’t appear on or be interviewed for Al Jazeera English for fear of upsetting their constituents back home. Hopefully, this attitude will change in the future. Is there anything you can say to Americans who may be Republican or Conservative regarding Al Jazeera Americas and your upcoming launch?
BW: A viewer who called in on a talk show interview I did recently said it best… ” Don’t be afraid of information.” We aim to provide information, editorially-correct if not always politically-correct. We believe that an informed citizenry is good for this country .
KW: Our U.S. Military has a term called “Information Operations” for its coordinated news-producing operations and is very careful to not produce propaganda. How much sourcing goes on at American networks regarding governmental sources of information to make sure it is reliable and accurate? Especially with so many viewers who like to see themselves as “debunkers”?
BW: I think all the networks do everything they can to insure that what is being reported is true. Some channels cater to certain political constituencies. Al Jazeera America will not.
BW: I have been very fortunate and [have] been all over the world.
My son once asked me what was the best and the worst. Somalia when the US Marines landed… It was the hardest place ever to work and we saw some awful things happening to some very decent people. It was also the most fascinating and rewarding assignment.
KW: One last question… if there are one or two qualities or beliefs you have had which helped you be so successful in your career, what are they?
BW: I am curious about everything, how things work and why they don’t. Why some cultures thrive and others struggle. And I like people and care about them. Pretty simple.
This Story was Mentioned in the Baltimore Sun
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