Inside Al Jazeera with Kamahl Santamaria

Martine Dennis was standing on the Al Jazeera presenter stage getting her hair and makeup fixed before delivering an update on the terror attacks in Paris. It was a Sunday morning and my group and I watched from the control room as Dennis prepared for broadcast and-- inside the adjoining control room-- a team of people monitored computers screens displaying camera shots and teleprompter scripts. Above all the chaos, a red clock counted down from a minute until the show was set to go live. For my group, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. For Al Jazeera, it was simply another hour of news.

My group was brought into Al Jazeera after months of back and forth emails between staff members and my professor. Just when it seemed that every door had closed and we wouldn’t be allowed in the studio, my professor heard back from Kamahl Santamaria. Santamaria has been a journalist for nineteen years, most recently working for Al Jazeera English where he hosts the segment Newshour and the business program Counting the Cost. He was going to let us in.

Trying to hide my horrible henna with a blazer and terrified my phone would ring, I looked around Al Jazeera’s studio. I had to agree with the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who exclaimed, “All this noise is coming out of this matchbox?” upon seeing the studio. The place was kind of a matchbox, even fifteen year’s after Mubarak’s visit. The matchbox was truly breathtaking, however. I looked around in reverence at the circular stage, rows of computers, and digital news board. Being in a place with some much influence and importance in the media world sent me into silent awe, almost like a visit to church.

After showing us around, Santamaria sat down with my group to answer questions and ask us a few of his own. He told us the story of his career, (which surprisingly didn’t include college!) meeting his wife, and the decision to move to Doha, saying, “It’s not that scary. There’s McDonalds and Burger King here, too!”

Eventually the questions strayed from fast food and moved to objectivity—more specifically, if Santamaria felt the channel was objective, despite the criticism it receives (most recently in a series of leaked emails debating the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo shooting.) His short answer was yes.

“We have as many clashes of ideas as I think any newsroom has, but I think people have got it in their heads that we’re not objective—that we are biased,” he said referencing the station’s location in Qatar and in an Islamic region as potential reasoning.

He stated that every station and journalist likely has a bias, but that it shouldn’t sway reporting, also adding that it seems many American stations have a slight political agenda that is celebrated rather than condemned.

“You try to be as impartial as you can in journalism, but you’re always going to have some inherent view that you come from,” Santamaria said. “I know that I’ve got certain ideas in my head and it might be up to that guest to correct me or to just give me another idea, and that’s fine as long as we get all sides out.”

The rest of the hour was filled with talk ranging from the Al Jazeera journalists being jailed in Egypt, to an average day on the job, to the groups own reasons for coming to Doha. And after a discussion that changed that way I view television news, I got to stand in the same spot where the news was reported only minutes earlier. I left Al Jazeera with renewed excitement for the future of journalism and even more excited than ever to find my place in the profession.

Sending a special thanks to Kamahl Santamaria for the once in a lifetime opportunity!

Gina Van ThommeComment