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.
Now, there is poverty in America, and there is a very wide gulf between rich and poor in America and that is a trend for which there are stories to be reported. But this series reported nothing beyond the stereotype and the mere fact that there were homeless people living on the street in Baltimore, for example. Well, were they there as a consequence of mental illness that was not properly cared for because of a generation of a policy of de-institutionalization? Al Jazeera didn’t know because they didn’t ask. Frankly they didn’t know enough to ask. It was enough for them to show poor people living in wretched conditions in a prosperous American city and decry it. Then they went to South Carolina and found a town that—I know this is going to shock you, Brent—had very rich people and, on the other side of the railroad tracks, very poor people. And the wretchedness of the poor people’s living conditions was enumerated. In fact this memorable question and answer exchange occurred:
Q: What’s it like to live with rats in your home? A: Bad. [laughs]
The economic divide is a story and the reasons why, over a long period of time in this South Carolina town there should be very little transmigration across the line between rich and poor, is a story. The sources of wealth of the rich may be a story. The lack of opportunities for the poor may be a story. But again, you gotta report all these things. This series merely named them in a very accusatory way. This to me is the very quintessence of what television news should not be doing. And by the way is not the kind of reporting you see very much elsewhere on Al Jazeera English.
There was another story about the plight of indigenous people in Chiapas. Again, real story. But the point of this story seemed to be that they were victims of NAFTA. Now, again, does NAFTA create problems among rural farmers in Mexico? Yeah. But the situation in Chiapas is at best only marginally affected by that. It has much more to do with race and class issues in Mexico, their relations with the Mexican national government, the adversarialism of the Chiapas state government, and the cultural dislocation and deprivation that not only predates NAFTA, it almost predates the states of Mexico and the United States. And also has a lot to do with the command and control of the indigenous movement by the most peculiar Subcomandante Marcos and his Zapatista allies, who have an interest in isolating if not in depriving this group of people. So again, it was really shoddy reporting.
And you don’t see that in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Asia, on Al Jazeera. You see state-of-the-art, world-class reporting, and south of the equator I don’t think anyone will give you much of an argument that Al Jazeera has become the most authoritative news channel on earth. And so, I took it particularly amiss, and it was for me, as their voucher, endorser, and brand face especially problematic, that their standard for journalism on Al Jazeera in the United States didn’t seem consistently to be as good as their standards elsewhere. And let me rush to add that yes, Al Jazeera has in Rob Reynolds, one of the best TV correspondents in America, in the world, and Kris Saloomey in New York is a very competent and growing correspondent, and Mike Kirsch, their stringer in California, is network quality. But for more than a year Kirsch wasn’t even there and they were trying to cover the country with two people; can’t be done.
BC: You must have sought assurances that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen?
DM: In fact, the prospectus for the channel and the channel that I hawked, if you will, is different from the channel today. It is different infrastructurally and editorially, in that the original concept was literally cosmopolitan—the whole world covered from many points of view representing the whole world. That was the logic of having four news centers in Doha, London, Washington, and Kuala Lumpur. All four were supposed to be autonomous, to initiate their own assignment decisions and lineup priorities. And the sum total of the four points of view was to put a truly cosmopolitan, multipolar gloss on the world. Over the last nine months, in particular, bureau autonomy has almost completely disappeared and rather than being a multivoiced, multipolar news channel, I think Al Jazeera English is now an authentic regional voice, much in the manner of Al Jazeera Arabic, although they are in no way a translation of each other—they are two thoroughly different and independent channels. Just as Al Jazeera Arabic can rightfully claim to be a first-class news organization with high professional standards, but one that authentically represents the point of view and interests of the region defined by the Arabic language, less defined by but certainly involved in the Islamic faith, and most particularly the gulf region, I think that Al Jazeera English is a very competent, very professional news organization that does a particularly great job south of the equator, but tends to report almost everything from the point of view of either the Arabic-speaking world or at the very least what you might call the post-colonial world. And since I’m not authentically those things, I don’t belong there.
BC: What changed?
DM: I think that the world changed about nine, ten months ago. And I think the single event in that change was the visit to the gulf by Vice President Cheney, where he went to line up the allied ducks in a row behind the possibility of action against Iran. And instead of getting acquiescence, the United States got defiance, and instead ducks in a row the ducks basically went off on their own and the first sort of major breakthrough on that was the Mecca agreement, which defied the American foreign policy by letting Hamas into the tent of the governance of the Palestinian territories. This enraged the State Department and was one crystal clear sign that the Mideast region was now off campus, was off on its own. And it is around this time, and I think not coincidentally, that you see the state of Qatar and the royal family of Qatar starting to make up their feud with the Saudis, and you start to see on both Al Jazeera Arabic and English a very sort of first-personish, “my Haj” stories that were boosterish of the Haj and of Saudi Arabia. And you start to see stories of analysis in The New York Times where regional people are noting that Al Jazeera seems to be changing its editorial stance toward Saudi Arabia. I’m suggesting that around that time, a decision was made at the highest levels of [Al Jazeera] that simply following the American political leadership and the American political ideal of global, universalist values carried out in an absolutely pure, multipolar, First Amendment global conversation, was no longer the safest or smartest course, and that it was time, in fact, to get right with the region. And I think part of getting right with the region was slightly changing the editorial ambition of Al Jazeera English, and I think it has subsequently become a more narrowly focused, more univocal channel than was originally conceived.
BC: This doesn’t bode well for AJE as a credible journalistic operation.
DM: If the goal is to be true to the idea of multipolar transparency, then this is very bad news. And I admit that I find that to be a higher goal than being a thoroughly respectable, thoroughly professional, but somewhat regional or region-specific voice. And I think that Al Jazeera is headed in that slightly lesser but still to me very respectable, and in terms of viewing choices, very necessary channel. And the coverage of Latin America and Africa in particular is just so terrific, that if that’s the only reason you would watch is to stay up on the half of the planet that none of our networks or news channels are going to tell us much about, you would want to watch it for that alone. But you know, the thing that I loved best about the original concept was the sort of fugue of points of view and opinions, because I think that’s what desperately needed in the world. We need to know, for example, in America, how angry the rest of the world is at Americans. Our own news media tend to shelter us from this very unpleasant news. So if you watched and every piece seemed tendentious and pissed you off, and I don’t think that would be the case, but even if worst case the channel turned shrill and shallow, you would still want to watch them on the principle that millions—tens of millions—of people watch them every day and you need to know what’s going on in their brains.Brent Cunningham is CJRs managing editor.