A foreign dictator’s media operation, right in your living room.
Joie Chen, host of the new Al Jazeera America nightly news program 'America Tonight,' sits at the anchor desk in the network's studio space at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Al Jazeera America will have 12 bureaus in major cities in the US, three broadcast centers, a headquarters in New York City, and some 900 journalists and staff. (AFP/Getty Images)
Al Jazeera America launched last week. The new television station features such broadcast luminaries as Soledad O’Brien, Joie Chen, Sheila MacVicar, John Seigenthaler, David Shuster, and Ali Velshi.
Paul Beban, a regional correspondent, told the Denver Post’s Joanne Ostrow that he “defuses suspicions about Al Jazeera America with ‘a little bit of humor and friendliness.’” For example, when asked whether he is required to wear a burqa, Beban replies: “You know what? They were out of 42 long.”
Such drollery notwithstanding, “Some of the viewing public is more than a little wary of the latest entry in the field,” Ostrow notes. Why do you suppose that might that be?
Perhaps start with the fact that Al Jazeera America, like its well-established Arabic-language sister station, Al Jazeera, is owned, lavishly funded, and operated by “the royal family of Qatar,” the politest way of describing the petroleum-rich emirate’s dynastic dictators — who also happen to be funders of Hamas, a U.S. government-designated terrorist group, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani had been the tiny nation’s ruling emir for only a year when he founded Al Jazeera in 1996. The network quickly became — in the words of Walter Russell Mead, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College — Qatar’s “press poodle.”
Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, observed: “Even as Qatar emerged as a key ally of the United States, Al Jazeera gave voice to Osama bin Laden.”
MacArthur Fellowship–winning professor Fouad Ajami came to the same conclusion in an appraisal of Al Jazeera for the New York Times. The network, Ajami wrote, “is not subtle television.” Among the examples he cited: a documentary that presented Che Guevara as a “romantic, doomed hero.” The point, he said, was to evoke a similar view of Osama bin Laden, “the Islamic rebel.”
For years, Al Jazeera has featured Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, star of the hit show Sharia and Life. Qaradawi has praised Imad Mughniyah, the terrorist mastermind behind the 1983 suicide bombings in Beirut, in which 241 U.S. Marines were killed.
A few years back, he issued a fatwa saying that the “abduction and killing of Americans in Iraq is a [religious] obligation.” Qaradawi favors the “spread of Islam until it conquers the entire world and includes both the East and West [marking] the beginning of the return of the Islamic Caliphate.” He has extolled Hitler, saying the Führer “managed to put [Jews] in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers [Muslims].”
In June, Sheikh Hamad abdicated, turning power over to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The new emir, 33 years old and British educated, may be quite different from his 61-year-old father — but it’s too soon to know.
What we do know: Qaradawi has not been given his walking papers. Last month, 22 Al Jazeera staffers in Egypt resigned over their employers’ “biased” pro-Brotherhood coverage. And earlier this month, a former Brotherhood official was given time on Al Jazeera to claim that Egypt’s current strongman, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is Jewish, and that the crisis in Egypt is a Zionist plot based on the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The interviewer did not challenge those claims.
Al Jazeera America’s reporters, producers, and publicists will protest that their operation is completely separate from that of Al Jazeera Arabic. You decide: The two Al Jazeeras have the same owners (formally the Al Jazeera Media Network) who also provide the funding. Imagine an American corporation that exploited workers in some third-world country telling reporters: “But that division is completely separate from the division in the U.S.!” (Actually, you don’t have to imagine — but more on that in a moment.)
I’m not suggesting Al Jazeera America will be an echo of Al Jazeera Arabic. I am suggesting that, like its sister station, AJAM — as it’s affectionately called – will have a mission, drive specific messages, and observe certain prohibitions.
Soledad, Joie, Sheila, John, David, Ali: I’m sure you’ve heard the persistent rumors that Qatar is financing al-Qaeda groups in Syria. What would your employers say if you proposed to investigate? And how about the treatment of foreign workers in Qatar? Are you not curious to learn if reporting on that situation would be considered out of bounds?
I suspect Al Jazeera America will be subtle television. Christopher Harper, a longtime print and broadcast journalist, now a professor at Temple University, spent many long hours watching AJAM’s first week of broadcasts — which were widely advertised in other media, e.g.: “Support for NPR comes from Al Jazeera America.” He found the coverage had “an anti-American undercurrent.”
For example, there was a story on the force-feeding of hunger strikers at a California prison (to make a point about the hunger strike taking place at Guantanamo?), and one about “Bangladeshi workers in allegedly substandard conditions making pants for Old Navy, which again allegedly ended up in the United States” (an example of Muslims being oppressed with Americans to blame). And, yet, if Old Navy’s executives in the U.S. had said: “But our Bangladeshi division is completely separate from our division in the U.S.!” would AJAM’s reporters have bought it?
Also noteworthy: AJAM’s first guest was Stephen Walt, the Harvard professor who, in the words of The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “makes his living scapegoating Jews.” What he said on this occasion — that the situation in Egypt is “a triumph of stupidity” — struck me as unobjectionable, but I expect he will be a frequent AJAM talking head on a range of topics.
AJAM was available last week in about 48 million households via Comcast, Verizon, FiOS, DirecTV, and Dish Network. We customers don’t get to decide which networks we receive (a situation I wish Congress would address). But AJAM’s executives also don’t want providers to decide. So last week, their attorneys filed a lawsuit to compel AT&T to carry the network, in order to “enforce Al Jazeera America’s rights.”
A media operation owned by a foreign dictator now has the “right” to be in your living room? What an innovative new form of “lawfare” — the use of American laws and courts to restrict Americans’ freedoms.
In recent years, the number of lawsuits and threats of lawsuits directed at journalists, researchers, and publications has been increasing, chilling inquiry into a range of questions pertaining to some of the most powerful figures in the Middle East. This trend has received little coverage.
Soledad, Joie, Sheila, John, David, Ali: You’ve all done serious reporting in the past. Wouldn’t now be the time to find out whether your employers see you as real journalists free to go where the stories take you — or just instruments of Qatari foreign policy?
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.