Keep a skeptical eye on Al Jazeera America

Miami HeraldAugust 27, 2013 

A journalist friend of mine posted on Facebook last week, proclaiming her joy at two bits of media news: that the libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch have given up on the idea of buying the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers, and that an American subsidiary of the Arab news channel Al Jazeera has gone on the air.

When I asked her why it’s a good thing that the royal family of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, will be able to deliver news to Americans, but the Kochs will not, she retorted smartly: “Because the Americans I’m judging have already shown how they operate.”

That is, the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani — who arrests his domestic critics, jails homosexuals, bans political parties and refuses to hold legislative elections in defiance of his country’s constitution — is morally qualified to practice journalism. But the Kochs, whose main sin is to have made a pile of money in the oil industry (so did the emir, though my friend seems blissfully unaware of that) and donated it to libertarian and conservative political causes, are not.

My friend isn’t alone. When the original report surfaced, a few months ago, that the Kochs were interested in the Los Angeles Times, Chris Matthews called them “pigs,” while half the newspaper’s staff threatened to quit. Facebook and Twitter bristled with chicken-little messages from editors and reporters predicting the end of journalism as we know it.

(Full disclosure: About three decades ago, I worked for a couple of years as editor of a political magazine funded by Charles Koch. Our enthusiasm for one another can be measured by the fact that he fired me.)

The debut of Al Jazeera America in about 40 million U.S. homes last week was another matter. GQ Washington correspondent and MSNBC regular Ana Marie Cox wrote a column for The Guardian headlined AL JAZEERA AMERICA: THE CHANNEL AMERICANS DESERVE. National Press Foundation President Bob Meyers called it a “transformative” event in journalism, comparing it to the founding of CNN and Bloomberg News.

That so many American journalists believe that ownership of a news organization by a Middle Eastern despot is preferable to that of a U.S. libertarian says a great deal about the political orientation of newsrooms. But that’s not exactly breaking news.

What’s more surprising, frankly, is the dumbness of their reasoning. One reporter friend of mine said the great thing about Al Jazeera America is that its coverage will be objective and hard-hitting because the emir of Qatar and his princelings “really don’t care much about making money at the beginning.”

Indeed they don’t, at the beginning or, probably, any other time; the revenues of even a wildly successful cable news channel will be pocket change compared to the gazillions of petrodollars that flow into the royal coffers. Just like the Kochs, the Qatari royals are seeking a way to influence the mass media audience — and on their Arabic-language news channel, the attempt has been anything but subtle.

Al Jazeera has been practically a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Qatar backs. When the Brotherhood was supporting the demonstrations that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek in 2011, Al Jazeera literally never aired a word of criticism of the mobs, never even mentioning the sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan by anti-Mubarak protestors.

Al Jazeera’s open support for the Brotherhood has only increased through the election of its presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi and his subsequent fall. Last month, it became too much for two dozen Al Jazeera employees, who resigned in protest at one of them called the network’s practice of “airing lies and misleading viewers.”

Egypt is not the only one of the emir’s political projects for which Al Jazeera has been used as a supportive microphone. Back in 2006, when Qatar was backing his organization’s war against Israel, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah apeared on Al Jazeera constantly, his lengthy taped tirades running uncut and unrebutted. Now that Qatar has backed away from Hezbollah, Nasrallah has suddenly become a non-person.

Other times Al Jazeera has functioned as the emir’s personal public-relations instrument. When U.S. forces invaded Iraq, the network pandered to the Arab street with scathingly critical reports on American involvement. What they never mentioned was that many of the U.S. military aircraft supporting the invasion were taking off from a Qatari air base literally a stone’s throw from the Al Jazeera studio, a fact the emir wasn’t eager to publicize to other Arabs.

The new Al Jazeera America, of course, should be judged on its own programming, not what the Arabic channel does. And its staff, largely drawn from experienced U.S. TV journalists, will undoubtedly resist any attempt to spin the coverage. Soledad O’Brien will not stop being a good reporter just because she moved from CNN to Al Jazeera America. But her bosses in Qatar deserve a skeptical eye. Maybe newsrooms will have one to spare now that the Kochs are gone.

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