Al-Jazeera gains a new voice with American anchor
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The moment Dave Marash told friends and colleagues about his new job, the questions began flying. "Who?" listeners asked skeptically. And why?
Nearly nine months later, he's still hearing those questions — and it turns out answering the first one is simpler.
In February, Marash, a lifelong broadcast newsman, became the Washington-based anchor of Al-Jazeera English (AJE), the English-language spinoff of the Arabic TV news network. Marash is the most prominent American face of AJE, which made its first globe-spanning broadcast Wednesday.
Embedded in "why," however, are two other questions: How can an American work for an operation affiliated with Al-Jazeera, which achieved notoriety — and to some, infamy — by airing video communiqués from Osama bin Laden, images of dead American soldiers and routine denunciations of the United States? Moreover, how could Marash, who is Jewish, work for an organization that has provided a platform for Holocaust denial and hate speech against Israel, Zionism and Judaism?
Marash, burly and affable, seems almost delighted to be on the defensive. His short, glib answer: He was out of a job.
AJE came calling after Marash was let go by ABC News almost a year ago. Marash, 64, had spent 16 years as a globe-trotting reporter for "Nightline" and a sometime substitute host for Ted Koppel. Marash was swept out when Koppel left the program and "Nightline" was overhauled.
The long answer, Marash says, is that Al-Jazeera is little understood in the West.
Al-Jazeera, he says, "has consistently offered a window of opportunity for Israel and Israeli citizens to speak to the Arab world. There is no contradiction between Judaism and Al-Jazeera." What's more, he promises, Al-Jazeera English won't be Al-Jazeera.
"The goal here is to be able to give the best-reported, most transparent report of all the English-language news channels," he says.
In some respects, Al-Jazeera English will be worlds apart from its established, decade-old sibling. Al-Jazeera focuses primarily on news of the Middle East, for an audience of mostly Arabic-speaking Muslims. AJE will have broader horizons, aiming to draw a billion-plus English speakers worldwide — for Muslims and for anyone else seeking another perspective on the day's news.
In other words, AJE, based in Qatar, hopes to become the first non-Western source to challenge the global info-supremacy of CNN and the BBC.
AJE has established four news hubs, in Washington, Qatar, London and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It has positioned many of its 500-plus journalists outside of traditional news centers in Europe and North America, in a necklace of bureaus spanning Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. (Until last week, the channel was known as Al-Jazeera International; the name was changed at the eleventh hour to distinguish it from Al-Jazeera, which reaches viewers in several dozen countries.)
Marash describes something high-minded. Conflict in the Middle East will make it on the air, but so will water-rights battles in India or labor disputes in Mexico. "Our pace will be slower," he says. It's "liberating," he adds, "to be freed of the blonde-of-the-month story."
AJE's viewers will see some Arab faces, but the network has a significant cadre of non-Arabs, too. Sir David Frost will host a weekly public-affairs program. Former CNN and BBC journalist Riz Kahn will head a talk show and interview program. AJE's military-affairs analyst is Josh Rushing, a former Marine Corps captain who served as a military public affairs liaison at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha at the start of the Iraq war.
That is not to suggest that AJE and Al-Jazeera are independent operations. Managers say the channels will share such resources as news crews and footage. Both are funded by the same source, Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who by some Western media accounts has sunk more than $1 billion of Qatar's oil and natural-gas wealth into AJE's launch.
AJE's close association with Al-Jazeera, which might turn out to be its calling card with English-speaking Muslims worldwide, is its biggest liability in the United States. Despite more than a year of trying, the network has been unable to persuade a single U.S. or Canadian cable or satellite TV system to carry it. The only way to see the channel in the United States will be on a computer via the Internet.
The reasons for that are unclear. Jenni Moyer, spokeswoman for Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, says: "We were in discussions with them, but a decision has been made not to carry them. Beyond that, we're not commenting."
AJE officials think they understand: Al-Jazeera English can't escape Al-Jazeera's long shadow.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused Al-Jazeera of "vicious lies" and "a pattern of playing propaganda over and over" in its coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And U.S. officials have been upset by footage of American military deaths and Al-Jazeera's unstinting coverage of the wars' effect on civilians.
Rumsfeld's criticisms are echoed by conservatives, who view Al-Jazeera and its English-language spinoff as anti-American at best and a terrorist house organ at worst.
Cliff Kincaid, who edits the conservative Accuracy in Media Report, notes troubling connections: Al-Jazeera journalist Tayseer Allouni last year was convicted in Spain of collaborating with al-Qaida; Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and has been held at Guantánamo Bay. (Al-Jazeera says the two men are innocent.)
"We haven't seen any evidence that tells us that (AJE) will be significantly different than Al-Jazeera in Arabic," Kincaid says. "It's sponsored by the same people, paid for by the same people and has the same editorial philosophy."
Kincaid all but says Marash is a dupe: "The emir has plenty of Arab oil dollars to buy anyone he wants. They need Western media faces to give them credibility."
Moderate voices also find criticisms. "There are some positives there, but there are plenty of negatives," says Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington-based group that studies Arabic media and describes itself as nonpartisan. "And the negatives outweigh the positives."
Marash thinks much of the criticism misses the longer view.
"Al-Jazeera is one of the most positive and significant cultural events in the Arab world in centuries," he declares. Unlike state-controlled media throughout the Arab world, he says, Al-Jazeera regularly broadcasts dissent and opposing points of view, providing "the broadest spectrum of argument" that many Arab viewers have seen.
"Do they broadcast hate speech?" he asks. "Yes, they do. Is it put in context and is it discussed as hate speech? Yes, it is. Hate speech is part of the dialogue of the Middle East. To censor or to exclude it would be to lose all credibility."
In broadcasting circles, Marash has won credibility with a long, varied and solid reporting career. He has been a local anchor, a network reporter and a sportscaster, as well as a foreign correspondent with so much experience that he's lost count of how many countries he's reported from.
Koppel says Marash's "wildly eclectic" interests and free-ranging curiosity made him an ideal jack-of-all-trades reporter. "Jazz, sports, international affairs, politics — you name it, he could do it," Koppel says.
"The meta message is a humbling one, which is that no one knows it all," Marash says. "The more you know and understand how others see the world, the better you understand the world."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company