Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Annie Kate Pons knows the South. The Old Miss grad was born in Hereford, Texas, the beef capital of the world, and her dad was a cattle rancher. A committed Christian, she used to work for Fox News in Washington, D.C. Now she works for Al Jazeera English, a 24-hour television channel, broadcast by satellite to 100 million households worldwide.
Pons was hired just six weeks before the Nov. 15, 2006, launch of the station.
"One of the main reasons they hired me is because I am very disarming," she says. "I am from the South. I come from a Republican family. My husband worked for a Republican. I know a lot of people on both sides of the fence. I worked at Fox News. I am clearly not a terrorist."
But many Americans have the misconception that Al Jazeera is connected to terrorism. "I hear this all the time: 'You guys are the ones that get the bin Laden tapes,'" she says. "Yeah, he doesn't drop it off in our office in Doha, you know. CNN always plays it—ABC, NBC, CBS. Why is nobody questioning their networks?"
It is hard to see Al Jazeera English in the U.S., except for short segments on YouTube or on the network's Web site. This may be because Al Jazeera started as an Arab television station, and the Bush administration has criticized its coverage of the war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for showing video released by Osama bin Laden.
When I spoke with Pons by telephone, she had just returned from Iowa and New Hampshire where her unit of journalists was covering the presidential primaries. "I am what you would call an interview producer," Pons, 26, says. "I do all the research for the anchors. I prepare interviews."
She is aware that the people who watch Al Jazeera English are almost entirely from other countries. "Our audience doesn't know (Sen.) Chris Dodd or (Rep.) Tom Tancredo, so ours is not so much a candidate-based show; it is an issue-based show," she says.
Pons studied journalism at Ole Miss under Samir Husni, but didn't know where her degree would take her. "I loved to write, I loved to tell stories, but I wasn't a rising star in the journalism department by any means," she says.
After graduating from Ole Miss in 2003, Pons moved to Charleston, S.C., where she met her husband, Corby. When he moved to D.C. in 2005 to work for U.S. Rep. Walter Jones ("Freedom Fries," anyone?), she followed. She got a job at The Washington Post, but not reporting—in advertising.
"Any opportunity to get into the Post," she says.
Pons got to know the community on Capitol Hill, and her connections eventually led her to her second job in Washington at Fox News, where she was a "booker," working with news producers and anchors to secure guests for the shows.
"As it turned out, it wasn't really that hard," she said. "They want to be on your show. You are not calling to bug them; you are doing them a favor."
Pon recalls Condoleezza Rice coming into the station one morning for Fox News Sunday. As Pons greeted her, she overheard Rice's chief of staff say to the show's executive producer, "Now, you're on board with what we want to talk about, right?"
The executive producer replied: "Oh yeah, we're fine. We got your e-mail."
Pons was dumbfounded. "Journalism is the chance to ask the questions that you want—you're in control, and you're seeking the truth—and yet that is not the way it played out at Fox," she says. "With Fox, it is a lot of car chase, pregnant woman, talk-to-the-families kind of stuff, too. That was never my desire."
Pons was looking for a new job when friends told her about Al Jazeera English. She was nervous after the network contacted her to arrange an interview. "I don't even know where all the Middle Eastern countries are," she recalls. But she didn't have to worry. The people at the network were the most normal she had ever met, she says.
Some of her Mississippi friends gave her a hard time when they learned of her employer, though. "They went berserk," she says. "They started yelling 'Terrorist! Terrorist!' in the middle of this open space, thousands of people walking around. … I was so frustrated."
"I work with a guy from Israel, and I work with people from Palestine, and so it's powerful to walk in my office every day and see two people on different sides of the issues (who) work together," she says. "They go to lunch together; they hang out; they can get along. It's really kind of the tangible thing that everybody wants to see but most people never get to see."
Pons is usually the first person sent to assignments in the South, but was on vacation when Al Jazeera sent a team to Jackson to cover the trial of former Klansman James Ford Seale. "It was hysterical," she says. "We sent a Swedish guy, a ... Chinese Canadian and a girl from Colombia." When Pons got back from vacation, she asked, "Did y'all have a good time down in Jackson?"
"It's a different world," they replied.