Before Current TV sold itself to Al Jazeera, allowing former Vice President Al Gore to walk away with a reported $100 million, making him (according to Forbes Magazine) richer than the left’s designated archvillain Mitt Romney, the network’s average audience was between 25,000 and 45,000.
The burning question on the mind of Dylan Byers Saturday afternoon at the Politico — a question that somehow merited over 2,000 words of content — was “Al Jazeera America (AJA): Will they watch?” He could have answered his question in eleven words: “Except for segments of America’s Muslim community, the answer is ‘no.’” Along the way, Byers spoke with former Al Jazeera English (AJE) anchor David Marash, who, per Byers, “still describes it as ‘the best news channel on Earth.’” That’s odd, because what Al Jazeera English did to him, as described in an interview he had in April 2008 with Brent Cunningham at the Columbia Journalism Review in April 2008 should have caused him to doubt the channel’s ability to cover American stories in its new AJA unit with any kind of integrity (bolds are mine):
Dave Marash: Why I Quit
The veteran newsman says Al Jazeera English’s mission changed
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.
It seems that what Marash believes is that AJE was great everywhere but in the U.S., and that Byers may have found an excuse to generalize about the station’s English-language performance as a whole to put a nice, favorable, shiny veneer on the new AJA. Based on its actions with the poverty story five years ago, there’s reason to believe that AJA really wishes to become a non-stop “America is simply awful” propaganda arm (or worse), which will surely please resident radical Muslims — and hardly anyone else.