Inside Look at the Internal Strife Over Al Jazeera America

As the new US network is finally set to launch, serious concerns arise about its brand and intent: especially from within the organization

By Glenn Greenwald

July 14, 2013 “Information Clearing House – “The Guardian” — When Al Jazeera last December purchased Current TV in order to launch its own “Al Jazeera America” (AJAM) network, it seemed clear they had two general options for how the new network’s brand could be built. AJAM could embrace the traditional attributes that has made Al Jazeera, at its best, an intrepid and fearless global news organization: willing to cover stories, air dissident views, and challenge power in ways that many other outlets, especially in the US, are afraid to do. Those excited by the entrance of a new Al Jazeera network into the US marketplace – and I included myself in that group – typically cited the urgent need for such an adversarial, bold and brave approach on the US airways from a large and well-funded TV news organization.

The alternative was that AJAM could try to replicate the inoffensive, neutered, voiceless, pro-US-government model favored by most US news organizations: as a way of appeasing negative perceptions associated with the Al Jazeera brand in the US. Those perceptions in some American precincts – that the network is “anti-American”, “anti-Israel” or even “pro-terrorist”- stem from the network’s coverage of US foreign policy (especially the War on Terror) that has been far more critical (in the best sense of the word) than most US news outlets were willing to be. For years, Bush officials fed this perception by accusing the network of being an anti-American source of terrorist propaganda. The US (accidentally, it claims) attacked al Jazeera bureaus on two occasions, killing its personnel. It even imprisoned an al Jazeera camerman, Sami al-Haj, for six years in Guantanamo without ever charging him with a crime.

Draining al Jazeera of its vibrancy and edginess and turning it into an imitation of CNN would be a way of trying to appease those negative views of the Jazeera brand. The target of such accommodation would be not only the parts of the US public which regard the network with suspicion, but at least as critically, cable carriers and corporate advertisers, whose willingness to be associated with the network is vital to its financial success, as well as US political officials, whom the network wants to appear regularly.

Because AJAM has not launched yet, debates over which course the new network has chosen have been mostly speculative. But one prominent Al Jazeera journalist, Marwan Bishara, the network’s senior political analyst and host of “Empire”, is insistent that the network has chosen the latter course of appeasement, fear and self-neutering.

Earlier this week, Bishara sent a scathing 1,800-word email to multiple Al Jazeera executives, directed particularly at those overseeing the new network. The missive, a copy of which was provided to the Guardian and whose receipt was confirmed by AJAM executives (published here), excoriates network officials for running away from the Jazeera brand due both to “the rush to act out of a personal ambition” and “to appease those who won’t, or don’t necessarily want to be, appeased”. Such a re-branding effort, he wrote, “insult[s] the intelligence of the American people”.

Bishara was especially incensed at the efforts he said the executives have undertaken to avoid having the news network be labeled “anti-American”. Such efforts include, he claimed, promises made to distance the American network from both its flagship network in Doha (AJN) as well as the Al Jazeera English network (AJE) which encountered such difficulty inducing US cable carriers to broadcast it. The network has also scrapped its original plan to include substantial amounts of AJE programming in favor of all original, all-American programming. Bishara wrote:

“Have we signed a deal where AJAM program/content must be substantially different from AJE? Really!!!! What does substantially mean? Who have we made the agreement with and why? I asked several executives and not a single person can give me a categorical answer about the issue, which by itself is mind-boggling!!! (I have issues with AJE’s formats, and at times perspectives, but we have so much to hold onto).

“Does the fear of contractual obligations with carriers etc. mean it’s necessary for some to do whatever they want with Aljazeera, including banning AJE altogether from America and web livestream, just when they themselves try to make the case for a 21st century type television news!!!! . . . .

“And how have we moved from the main idea that the strength of AJN lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists to a channel where only Americans work, when clearly that’s not what American viewership wants, even according to the polls?

“Let me be clear. I reject flat out that we are polled in the United States as AJE journalists-programs-network in order to find out from Americans whether ‘we’ are ‘anti-American’!! As I wrote to those who ran the poll in the US (and never gotten a response back). By merely posing the question we’ve sent the wrong message.

“What does ‘Anti-Americanism’ even mean here? How did you define anti-Americanism to those polled! Do you estimate that criticizing the American government or its policies ‘anti-American’ [or] a fundamental ‘American’ trait and essential element of its democracy and freedom of speech, not to speak of the role of global media.

“Do you think The Guardian newspaper asks whether its columnists are anti-American as it expands its presence in America? Or does John [sic] Stewart ask whether John Oliver is an anti-American Brit considering he’s continuously ridiculing American power and at times culture? Since we are Aljazeera from Muslim Qatar, featuring an entire episode critiquing the Catholic Church, why not ask if we are anti Christian! … Shameful.”

Bishara singled out one AJAM executive in particular, Ehab Al Shihabi, its executive director of international operations. Al Shihabi, whose background is in business and not journalism, has sparked criticism inside al Jazeera by proclaiming that the network “will be the voice of Main Street” and proudly touting a meeting with the Chicago Mayor, former Obama White House chief of staff and vehement “pro-Israel” advocate Rahm Emanuel.

Speaking directly to al Shihabi in his email, Bishara wrote: “personal ambition is leading you astray”. He added: “You should make no more appearances in public forums or photo-ups with political characters, shady or otherwise, that would only hurt us on the long run.” He also recommended: “stay clear of our content. Journalism is not your thing; do whatever you know how to do.” Bishara concluded his email by highlighting the stakes: “If we fail America around the launch time, it will be ever more difficult to salvage a tarnished image and compromised credibility.”

In an interview with me yesterday, Paul Eedle, AJAM’s deputy news and editorial director responsible for programming, disputed many of Bishara’s claims. “Marwan is a talented intellectual and these reflect his opinions,” said Eedle, “but he hasn’t been involved in the planning of AJAM from the inside”. Eedle did, however, acknowledge that he has heard the same concerns and complaints from others both inside and outside the network.

Eedle referenced a recent column in the Toronto Star by former Al Jazeera English chief Tony Burman, opining that “the Al Jazeera America project has the odour of potential disaster”. Burman cited a New York Times article by TV reporter Brian Stelter that began: “While it has a foreign name, the forthcoming Al Jazeera cable channel in the United States wants to be American through and through.”

Stelter noted that AJAM scrapped its original plan to include content from AJE and instead: “now Al Jazeera America is aiming to have virtually all of its programming originate from the United States.” Wrote Stelter: “It will, in other words, operate much like CNN (though the employees say they won’t be as sensational) and Fox News (though they say they won’t be opinion-driven).”

Based on that report and others, Burman wrote that one must have “completely lost your marbles” to believe that “American viewers will turn away from their current channels and switch to Al Jazeera to get their American news”. Moreover, said the former AJE chief, “the rumoured shortlist of potential ‘presidents’ includes several of the people who have driven US cable networks, including CNN, to a level of utter mediocrity.” It has been reported that the list of finalists to run the network include former CNN executives along with one from ABC.

The same concerns were raised in May when AJE silently removed an Op-Ed by Columbia Professor Joseph Massad that pro-Israel advocates such as Jeffrey Goldberg had attacked. Only after a week of controversy did AJE re-publish the Op-Ed,apologizing for having handled the matter so poorly.

One Al Jazeera insider, granted anonymity to speak critically of his employer, said one central problem was that the new network was relying heavily on risk-adverse US consulting and lobbying firms such as DLA Piper, Qorvis Communications, and David Alexrod’s consulting group, “all of whom don’t understand the Jazeera brand or the industry.” He added that the consultants guiding network officials are squarely “from the American mainstream, not the critical left or even a critical movement that could speak for millions of people.” He added that the Massad Op-Ed was taken down at the urging of a DLA Piper consultant, petrified of what impact it would have on the new AJAM brand. Al Shihabi’s publicly trumpeted meeting with Emanuel was arranged by people who worked for Alexrod, he said.

It’s “an identity issue”, the Al Jazeera employee added, “and we’ll likely end up being somewhere between MSNBC and CNN, which nobody will watch.” Moreover, “they’re very concerned about the Israel Lobby.”

I asked Eedle about this perception that AJAM was, out of fear, attempting to embrace the inoffensive CNN model in order to placate an American audience and avoid offending anyone. I cited the fact that the network’s most prominent on-air hires were fairly conventional former CNN hosts, including Ali Velshi and Soledad O’Brien (as disclosure: I had several discussions with AJAM officials back in January and February about doing some work with the new network, though those discussions never advanced beyond the preliminary stage; I also covered the US elections for AJE last November from Doha and have appeared on that network many times).

Eedle insisted that there was no attempt to distance the new US network from the Jazeera brand nor any attempt to copy CNN. To the contrary, he said, “the Jazeera brand is central to what we are doing”, citing the fact that AJAM is using the well-known Jazeera logo. Moreover, he said, executives are “building a newsroom culture to embody the Jazeera spirit” by training its new hires, including those from CNN, “to break free of inhibitions they might have had and feel liberated and go for the story”. He added that there is “no point in being a pale imitation of what others are doing”.

Eedle said that after scuttling several planned starts, the network finally has a definitive launch date, though he would say only that it is scheduled “before the end of August”. The network is retaining roughly 150 employees of Current TV, but none of its on-air personalities. As for al Shihabi’s proclamation that the network will channel “the voice of Main Street,” Eedle said al Shihabi’s responsibilities are confined exclusively to business matters and that he has no role whatsoever to play in the content of programming.

As for negative perceptions of al Jazeera, Eedle said his message to US viewers will be simple: “give us a try and make up your own mind”. While denying that the network’s goal was to mainstream itself, he proudly pointed to the praise heaped on Al Jazeera by Hillary Clinton during the Arab Spring, and also said that “leading people on the Hill” consider al Jazeera to be good, solid journalism.

He acknowledged that they are attempting to Americanize the network in order “to avoid the fate that befell BBC America: being pigeonholed as an international channel way at bottom of the cable guide.” Instead, he said, they “want to build an American channel for an American audience”, one that will “compete with MSNBC, Fox, and CNN as a comprehensive news source for US viewers,” though with a “more international dimension than most US networks”. But, he insisted, “we are not stepping away from Al Jazeera core values.”

There is certainly a gaping need for strong, fearless, adversarial journalism in the American TV landscape. There is a huge audience hungry for that type of TV journalism inside the US. A well-funded TV network with a new, aggressive, fearless investigative approach and a well-recognized global brand name could certainly succeed. Whether AJAM will seek to fill that need, or will run away from it, remains to be seen.

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