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Ear to the Ground

The Promise of a Courageous Al-Jazeera America May Be Fading

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Posted on May 21, 2013
thierry ehrmann (CC BY 2.0)

Is the desire to enter the U.S. television news market corrupting Al-Jazeera English’s journalistic integrity? The network’s silent retraction from its website of a controversial article criticizing Israel suggests it is, Glenn Greenwald writes at The Guardian.

In an op-ed the network published May 14, Columbia University professor and Middle East scholar Joseph Massad “highlighted the shared goal between the early Zionist movement and Europe’s anti-Jewish bigots (namely, the removal of Jews from the continent), detailed the cooperation between German Nazis and Zionists to facilitate the departure of Jews out of Europe (the existence of that cooperation is not in dispute, though the extent of it very much is), and highlighted the extensive disagreements among Jews themselves over the wisdom and justness of Zionism,” Greenwald notes.

Predictably, the article was answered with eruptions of bile from commentators sympathetic to Israel’s current leadership. Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic mockingly tweeted: “Congratulations, al Jazeera: You’ve just posted one of the most anti-Jewish screeds in recent memory,” while John Podhoretz, editor of the neoconservative magazine Commentary, wrote: “Congratulations, donors to Columbia University, for paying this monstrous ****head’s salary!”

As Greenwald writes, the piece did “what good journalism does.” In addition to the reactionary responses, it prompted an “intense debate” that involved forceful and aggressive criticisms of Massad’s arguments.

“But all of that changed on Saturday,” Greenwald points out. “Without issuing any comment or explanation of any kind, unknown officials at Al Jazeera ordered Massad’s Op-Ed to be deleted—in essence, silently retracted.” No link that previously sent readers to the article worked. Al-Jazeera withdrew the piece without comment. Greenwald asks:

How can a media outlet possibly publish an Op-Ed, quietly delete it six days later in response to controversy, and then fail to utter a single word about what happened? Was there a fabrication or some glaring, retraction-worthy error in Massad’s Op-Ed? Was it a mistake for Al Jazeera to have published it in the first place, and if so, who made that mistake, what was it, and why did it happen? Who made the decision to take the extraordinary step of deleting the Op-Ed, and what was the rationale for doing so?

No media outlet can possibly do something like this without publicly accounting for what happened and expect to retain credibility. How can you demand transparency and accountability from others when you refuse to provide any yourself? Refusing to comment on secret actions of this significance is the province of corrupt politicians, not journalists. It’s behavior that journalists should be condemning, not emulating.

What’s going on here? Greenwald reports that several Al-Jazeera employees said the network became “much more cautious and fearful ever since they purchased Current TV last December for $500 million and prepared to enter the US television market under the brand name ‘Al Jazeera America.’ ”

Greenwald adds that his sources, who refused to be identified for fear of reprisal, singled out Ehab al-Shihabi, the man recently named head of the American TV network, as the force behind the removal. They said al-Shihabi is scared of angering “pro-Israel” groups and giving U.S. audiences reason to believe the network is anti-American and anti-Israel, “thus dooming the network with both corporate advertisers and cable carriers and render it radioactive among mainstream politicians,” Greenwald writes.

“Al-Shihabi, they say, went to the network’s top executive in Doha, Director-General Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, and demanded the removal of the Massad Op-Ed,” Greenwald continues.

One source of pressure comes from the emir of Qatar, the owner of the network’s parent organization. His influence “has increasingly affected, and degraded, its journalism, rendering it a propaganda tool for the Qatari dictatorship’s foreign policy,” Greenwald argues. Most of that criticism has been directed at Al-Jazeera Arabic, while its English equivalent “has, by all appearances, remained largely independent, consistently producing truly outstanding and brave journalism,” he notes.

The network’s courageous work seems in jeopardy now that it is seeking to establish a serious presence in the U.S. The Qatari regime is close to the U.S., and it’s improbable that the network would produce journalism that is critical of its ally or offensive to powerful American political factions.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian:

The tensions here reflect a broader internal conflict about how Al Jazeera intends to position itself as it enters American television. Many (and I include myself in this) believe that Al Jazeera can be successful only if they provide something that no other US cable news outlet regularly provides: fearless journalism of the type the network has displayed in the past, unconstrained by (and liberated from) the orthodoxies of the two dominant political parties and the airing of a wide range of views, including those typically excluded by mainstream US political television.

But several Al Jazeera executives have adopted the view, seemingly the one that is prevailing, that it should instead replicate the failed CNN model of risk-averse, viewpoint-free, colorless, soul-less “straight news reporting”. That Al Jazeera’s first announced prime time host was the extremely uncontroversial, long-time CNN employee Ali Velshi, and is reportedly considering a horde of former CNN and NBC executives to run the network, illustrates the risk-averse, CNN-copying path they seem to be taking. Silently removing Massad’s Op-Ed and then refusing to comment on it is behavior perfectly in line with that mentality.

…It’s certainly possible that Al Jazeera America can provide unique and important journalism: networks owned by governments can and do produce real journalism. American cable news - drowning in mindlessly partisan outlets that are endlessly focused on trivial Beltway gossip, along with the fear-driven pointlessness of CNN - could certainly use an independent and intrepid journalistic competitor. Al Jazeera English has some outstanding, fearless journalists and produces some high-quality shows. But that will only happen if it remains independent of the Qatari regime’s foreign policy aims and is free to risk offending and alienating powerful people: the hallmark of good journalism. That’s what makes its silent deletion of Massad’s Op-Ed so alarming and disappointing: it signals that the network is being driven by exactly the corrupting fears that preclude meaningful, independent journalism.

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