The Jews of Al-Jazeera

Broadcasting icon Dave Marash is all too familiar with the label “self-hating Jew,” and it’s a phrase he holds in the deepest contempt.

“I’m not a pious or practicing Jew, but I’ve always identified myself as Jewish,” he said during a phone interview from his home in New Mexico. “My humor is Jewish — very much part of the great Borsht Belt tradition — I look Jewish, and throughout my career, it’s been noticed. At the network level, I was often not considered for jobs because I was ‘too New York,’ which, as we know, is a code for ‘too Jewish.’”

Best known as an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for ABC News’s Nightline (1989-2006), Marash garnered lots of attention, much of it unkind, when he was named global anchor at Al Jazeera’s American based headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he worked from 2006 to 2008. In some circles, he was undoubtedly viewed as a betraying, disloyal, “self-hating Jew,” he admitted.

Founded in 1996, the Qatari-managed network was designed (at a cost of an estimated $137 million) to espouse modern views that distinguished the country and its new emir from the old regime in the wake of a bloodless coup, according to Shawn Powers, an Al-Jazeera expert who serves as associate director of the Center for International Media Education at Georgia State University, where he is an assistant professor of communications.

Despite fears that the Arab-based media operation would serve as a propaganda machine for the tyrannical Muslim leadership in the region, its correspondents freely reported on the lack of transparency, corrupt use of resources and questionable elections throughout the Mideast. And many Al Jazeera reporters were expelled from the respective countries they were covering, said Powers, who added that the network was credible until the Arab Spring, when it changed course to support the Muslim Brotherhood.

As the politics in the region have grown more complex, the network has also evolved. Today, it runs a host of global channels with dozens of bureaus — from Turkey to the Balkans to America — presenting 24-hour-a-day news on an array of cable providers. Its editorial views, tone and the stories it covers vary with region.

Professor Richard J. Roth Jr., who served as senior associate dean at Northwestern’s Journalism Program in Doha, 2008-2014, said Al Jazeera Arabic is more “opinionated” than its western outlets, which attempt, at least, to show objectivity. “The particular focus of Al Jazeera Arabic is the Mideast and it does not believe that there are two sides to every story,” he continued. “The news director spelt it out when he was speaking to our journalism students during the Gaza War of 2009. Still, I have to say the network is far better than what I had initially anticipated about a state funded network.” Roth has given up his deanship and is currently Evanston teaching at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.

When Marash joined Al Jazeera English (AJE) — a new channel targeted at an English-speaking international audience — only a handful of American cable providers carried the programming. Al Jazeera America (AJA) did not yet exist.

Nonetheless, many Americans viewed the network with suspicion, particularly in its coverage of Israel, which, does carry Al Jazeera. And the station employs Israeli reporters.

Precise statistics are not available, but a fair number of reporters, cameramen, producers and editors at the Al Jazeera network (especially at AJA) are Jewish.

I had been especially interested in speaking with Shannon High-Bassalik, a former senior vice-president of documentaries and programming at AJA, who filed suit against Al Jazeera, charging the network with, among other things, sexism and anti-Semitism.

The suit speaks about a culture of fear at the network, where female executives are often excluded from high-level meetings, unqualified staffers of Mideastern heritage are employed and promoted over more qualified Westerners and where high-level executives can make such comments as “any supporters of Israel should die a fiery death” without repercussion.

Neither High-Bassalik nor her agent returned my emails or phone calls. But other reporters weighed in, saying her charges concerned one particular individual who has long since been fired and that his abuse in no way represented a broader pattern at the network.

Although Marash ultimately had “dissonances” (to use his word) with the network, he says he never faced anti-Semitism on a personal level and he did not view the network’s editorial policy as anti-Semitic or even anti-Zionist. He also said the network’s coverage of Israel has been evenhanded.

“They take the position that war begets war and it’s a crime wherever it happens,” Marash said. “When Hamas rockets landed in Israel, it was treated as a news story and given the appropriate time and coverage. The bias is always ‘Look how horrible war is,’ especially if there is collateral damage. Al Jazeera’s ideology is anti-war, and I’ve always been comfortable with that.”

Still, when Marash was offered the job, he had second thoughts, wondering if the brass even knew he was Jewish or if, on the contrary, he was hired precisely because he was. “Was it a good PR move?” Marash asked rhetorically. “I can’t rule it out, but that would be sheer speculation on my part. No one ever suggested it explicitly or implicitly.”

Others have said hiring Jews was largely pragmatic. If you’re starting a network in America, it makes sense to hire native-born veterans of that industry, many of whom happen to be Jewish.

Either way, Marash felt it was a terrific opportunity, even as some friends and colleagues argued that it would be a career killer, not least because former Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused the network of being the propaganda arm of Al Qaeda.

Marash said he did his due diligence — learning as much about the network as possible — before concluding that the controversial gig was a professional risk worth taking. He says that most of those who dub the network anti-Semitic have never even seen one of its programs.

But Marash says he ultimately became aware of an anti-American bias at the network with its “anachronistic, hide-bound anti-colonial attitude towards America.” “They relished stories that showed America in a bad light. I had made my bread and butter reporting America’s bad policies, but I’d place it in a nuanced context. Their reporting was shoddy, naive, shallow and secondary to the concept.”

He offered an example: a four-part series on homelessness that reduced the crisis to some lucky people living on the good side of the tracks while others lived on the bad side with a simple-minded discussion of racism thrown in for good measure.

Marash says he demanded more thoughtful reporting and warned if it wasn’t forthcoming, he’d nix the series. He says he quit before being demoted to the role of senior feature reporter.

These days, though, Marash says that what he now sees on AJA is “serious, professional journalism, head and shoulders above the best news channels in America. They do more real reporting on the ground and more original story selection than CNN, their only real competition.”

AJA’s ratings are fairly poor, said Powers. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Americans watch it each evening, and that’s tiny when you realize it’s available to more than 50 million Americans.

Demographically speaking, viewers are older and highly educated — many boast post-graduate degrees — and are looking for alternatives to the sensationalistic fare that defines much cable broadcasting. They enjoy long-form journalism on such topics as poverty in Mexico City or environmental damage due to fracking, and these stories can run 10 to 15 minutes.

Coverage on the Mideast is comprehensive, reflecting many viewpoints, though “they’re more inclined to be critical of the existing Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, especially in the last 10 years,” Powers said. “Some might view that as anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic. But you can show the identical clip to progressives and conservatives, and each group will be convinced that what they saw is biased against their own interests, particularly if the topic is the Mideast or Israel. There are Muslims in the Mideast who see the whole network as an arm of the CIA.”

Still, Powers acknowledged that anti-Semitism may surface in Al Jazeera’s call-in shows and especially online columns, editorials that might liken Israel to Hitler and dub its policies in the region as “ethnic cleansing.”

Roee Ruttenberg, an Israeli native and the son of Holocaust survivors, was a senior producer at AJE from 2006 to 2010. He maintains that it’s good for viewers to be pushed out of their comfort zones, adding that a lack of sophistication characterizes the Israeli versus Palestinian question on all sides, including the way it’s covered.

American Jews may have a one-dimensional view of the crisis, but Al Jazeera also lacks subtlety in its treatment of the subject, which is in stark contrast to its layered reporting on other contentious issues, he said.

Nevertheless, he was not ready to accuse the network of having an “agenda,” or even to describe its coverage as “editorially aggressive.” For Ruttenberg, it’s far more complicated than either description.

For example, on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence, which the Palestinians refer to as “the 1948 incident,” or “Nakba” — meaning catastrophe — the network went through the motions of producing a balanced report. Ruttenberg’s assignment was to trace the journey of a Jew from his or her country of origin to Israel and his thoughts focused on a friend’s mother who had fled Libya.

“But the producer was not interested in her,” Ruttenberg recalled. “He wanted someone from Poland or Russia because that promotes the narrative that Israel is a country of Eastern European colonizers. It’s a predetermined narrative. A Libyan Jew who resettles in Israel doesn’t fit the narrative.”

Similarly, when a reporter in Jaffa was interviewing a 16-year-old Palestinian Israeli in English, the teenager was responding in Hebrew, Ruttenberg continued. “The reporter asked him to answer the questions in Arabic and when he said he was more comfortable speaking Hebrew, she said, ‘We can’t have you speaking in Hebrew.’ It didn’t fit the predetermined narrative. This is more complex than an anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic sentiment.”

On a lighter note, Ruttenberg cited what he found to be absurdity in the network’s coverage of Israel. “Whenever possible, they will quote someone who belongs to the Neturei Karta [an ultra-orthodox marginalized sect that does not support Israel on theological grounds],” he said. “It’s a sound bite and totally irrelevant. Yes, they’re Jews and they’re anti-Zionist, but they’re anti-Arab even more. The producers just don’t get it or care.”

Ruttenberg now serves as a special affairs correspondent at CCTV News in Washington, D.C., but looking back, said he never encountered any personal anti-Semitism during his tenure at Al Jazeera. In fact, it was widely known that on Sunday nights he taught Israeli dancing and no one ever commented on his moonlighting gig, at least not to his face.

His experience at the network deteriorated, but he blamed it on a human resources nightmare more than anything else. Unqualified staffers were running the show and it was “a culture clash with Western values,” he said cryptically. “I was pushed out. Was it because I was Israeli or Jewish? That’s still not clear.”

Whatever the network’s shortcomings, the reporters I interviewed suggest it is a necessary antidote to what they view as the media’s pro-Zionist stance in the United States. As evidence, one reporter said all you have to do is count the number of times a Palestinian leader is interviewed as opposed to his Israeli counterparts.

When I noted that whenever violence breaks out in the region, it’s not uncommon for American network broadcasters to lead off by reporting Israeli airstrikes in Gaza before even noting — and that may happen well into the story — that these strikes were in response to Palestinian assaults, Ruttenberg said, “But what you don’t hear is that Palestinians live with Israeli planes circling overhead all the time.”

Tom Ackerman, an AJE Washington, D.C.-based reporter who has worked at the network since 2007, says AJE’s reporting is fair-minded. Nonetheless, he conceded moments of conflict, and not simply because he identifies as a Jew, lived in Israel for seven years and speaks Hebrew.

Most central for Ackerman is that all four of his grandparents were inmates at Auschwitz, and only one survived. He is himself the child of refugees, which means every time he tackles a story on the displaced — African refugees in Israel or Palestinians in Gaza — he is instinctively sympathetic to them precisely because of his heritage, he said.

At the same time, “I know the history of Israel well and its historical circumstances,” he said. “There’s my personal and journalistic background. So I have conflicting attitudes about all of it.”

Regarding the controversy surrounding Pamela Geller’s anti-Islamic posters on public transportation — Ackerman, who covered the story, had no ambivalence.

“I presented the story without any editorial slant,” said Ackerman. “We quoted her and someone from a leading Muslim group. And because we are broadcasting to a global audience, I approached the piece as a controversy over issues of what free speech versus hate speech means in the United States.”

Matthew Cassel, a freelance writer, photographer and videographer based in Istanbul for AJ+ — a digital platform designed to attract millennials — said if the network’s coverage was biased on any issue, he wouldn’t be a contributor, insisting the staff is ethnically and culturally diverse and reflects a range of viewpoints.

The Chicago-born American Jew, who has lived in the Mideast for more than a decade speaks Arabic fluently and covered the Arab Spring, said that he never had any second thoughts about joining AJ+, though his family had reservations simply because the network’s headquarters were based in the Arab world. They assumed it would not be sympathetic to Israel or Jews. “These views exist only in the United States,” he said. “They don’t exist among Jews in Europe or even the Mideast.”

Cassel, who’s currently reporting on the refugee crisis in the region, most pointedly the Syrian flight, said he has always been sympathetic to the Palestinians and it was never a source of mixed emotions until he was forced to explore it in “Identity and Exile: An American’s Struggle with Zionism,” his 2013 award-winning film for AJE, which zeroed in on how support for Israel has come to define American Jewish identity, he said.

“My ancestors were the victims of injustice and always spoke out for the oppressed,” he said. “Jews should be supporters of the Palestinians. I was bar mitzvahed — and though my religious beliefs today are complicated and I’m not quite sure how to define them — being Jewish is very much part of who I am. Should Israel exist? I don’t want to answer that. It’s an Israeli and Palestinian conflict, though I do think America should pressure the Israelis about its policies towards the Palestinians.”

As for the film, which was awarded news documentary of the year at the 2014 Monte Carlo TV Festival, Cassel would have preferred to see it produced by an American broadcasting network — thus attracting a much larger audience — but American media will not commission any work critical of Zionism, he said. “I’ve had more editorial independence at Al Jazeera than I ever had in the States.”

He’s also had some fun times at the network. Recounting the oppressiveness of working graveyard shifts on troubling stories, he often lightens the mood among his colleagues at pre-dawn when everyone is zapped or slightly giddy or both by singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” gesturing, gesticulating and shimmying to the tune.

“I wouldn’t say anybody is singing along with me, but everybody enjoys it — the Christians, the Arabs, the Jews, everybody.”

His good times may be short-lived if the whole network goes belly up as Professor Roth says it might, at least in the States. “The ratings are ridiculously low, they don’t even register on Nielsen,” he said. “They have far too much competition for 24/7 news and many audiences are not watching TV or even cable anymore. There are already many cutbacks at Al Jazeera. And with the oil and gas crises, infra-structure expenses and the amounts of money that will have to be spent for the 2022 World Cup in Doha, I don’t think the network will be able to sustain itself in America.”

As for Marash, he says he’s very happy with his new gig at KSFR, a Santa Fe-based public radio station, where he hosts “Here and There,” a 50-minute interview with a journalist or analyst on a major news story, from conversations about the ongoing war in Yemen to New Mexico’s legislature honoring Azerbaijan’s government, which has a wretched reputation for human rights abuses.

“It’s the most in-depth coverage of serious news on the radio or Internet today,” Marash said.

Still, by his own admission, he’s had a bumpy journey in the wake of his Al Jazeera stint. Doors were not flying open, and for a nationally recognized name and face it was a major fall from grace.

He speculated that his time at Al Jazeera played a role in his loss of network opportunities. “It probably was an impediment,” he said. “But I was also 66 years old and that was a major impediment. I’m also cantankerous. I have a reputation as ‘unmanageable.’ It’s a tough combination,” he said.

Simi Horwitz received the 2015 New York Press Club award for two Forward pieces on the interplay of gender and ethnicity. She also won a 2015 Simon Rockower Award for a Forward article on environmental art.

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