In February 2006, David Marash, a veteran correspondent (and substitute host) for ABC’s Nightline, raised eyebrows in the U.S. journalism world when he took a job as the Washington anchor for Al Jazeera English, the new sister channel of the Arabic-language news operation in Qatar. For American viewers, Marash brought instant credibility to the new channel, even as it struggled to find a cable outlet that would agree to put it on the air. Eyebrows rose again last week when Marash announced that he was quitting Al Jazeera English because of what he considered anti-American bias in the channel’s coverage. CJR’s Brent Cunningham spoke with Marash yesterday.
Brent Cunningham: Would you elaborate on your decision to quit?
David Marash: It’s been a gradual process, and defining it all, is that with corporate encouragement, over the first two years of the channel’s existence, I have made myself effectively the American face of the channel and vouched for its credibility and value. And over the last seventeen months there have been several changes at the channel which put things on the air that, frankly, I could not vouch for. If I had just been another employee I might have just dropped my head and let it all wash over, because it is the nature of our business that every place you work occasionally does things that embarrass you. But I felt an extra measure of responsibility.
Now, as anchor, I was in position to vouch for at least half of the material that went on air because I got to speak it and I could edit it on the fly if I felt that there were any inaccuracies or imbalances in it. But when the proposal was made that I leave the anchor chair [he was informed of this in December and his last day as anchor was March 13] and become a sort of heavy correspondent, I knew that I would never be able to have the kind of editorial input or control that would put me in a position to honestly vouch for anything. Furthermore, when I was taken off that meant that there were zero American accents in any of the presenter roles at Al Jazeera. And it occurred to me that this was just one part of a series of decisions that diminished editorial input from the United States. It got to the point where I feel that in a globe where Al Jazeera sets a very, very high reporting standard, and a very, very high standard for both numerical and qualitative and authentic staffing, that the United States was becoming a serious exception to their role, and a place where the journalism did not measure up to the standards that were set almost everywhere else by Al Jazeera English’s very fine reporting.
BC: What are some examples of the kinds of stories that made you uncomfortable?
DM: There was a series entitled “Poverty in America” which, in the first place, was done in a way that illustrates some of the infrastructural problems that disturbed me greatly. The idea of a series about poverty in America was broached by the planning desk in Doha. The specifics of the plan were so stereotypical and shallow that the planning desk in Washington said that we think this is a very bad idea and recommend against it and won’t do it. And so the planning desk in Doha literally sneaked a production team into the United States without letting anyone in the American news desk know, and they went off and shot a four-part series that was execrable. That was essentially, if I may say so, here a poor, there a poor, everywhere a poor poor.