A few years back I was interviewed about some development in the Middle East by a reporter from Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned television news channel. Afterwards, we sat for a while and talked journalism. He mentioned that he had previously worked for Al Jazeera. I asked why he had left. "Too many Islamists," he said. "They made me uncomfortable."
It's bizarre: We used to know a lot about Al Jazeera. At what point did amnesia set in? The station was launched in November 1996. Two months after al-Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington, Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-born American scholar, analyzed its product in the pages of The New York Times Magazine. Al Jazeera, he wrote, "may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel, but he is clearly its star . . . The channel's graphics assign him a lead role: there is bin Laden seated on a mat, his submachine gun on his lap; there is bin Laden on horseback in Afghanistan, the brave knight of the Arab world. A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden's silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set at Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, the capital city of Qatar."
Ajami added: "Although Al Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one. Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage."
Five years later Al Jazeera launched an English-language version. To be fair, it is editorially distinct from AJ Arabic. But, also to be fair, two questions must be asked: Are there serious disagreements between these sister stations? Or do they have what Ayman Mohyeldin, once AJ English's Cairo correspondent (and now a reporter at NBC), called a "shared vision," with the Al Jazeera Network's owners understanding their various audiences and what is required to influence each of them?
Al Jazeera English's first Washington anchor was Dave Marash, a veteran reporter who had been a substitute host for Ted Koppel at ABC's Nightline, for many years one of the best news programs on television. He quit after two years, explaining to the Columbia Journalism Review that as "the American face of the channel" he had, in effect, "vouched for its credibility and value," and that he could not continue to do that because, while he considered much of AJ English's reporting high-quality, its anti-American bias had become all too obvious.
The Al-Jazeera Network is owned and operated by the royal family of Qatar, an emirate rated by Freedom House as "not free." Qatar's Wahhabi religious establishment is hard-core but more indulgent of foreigners than are the clerics of Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism also is the state religion. The sale of oil keeps Qatar's rulers fabulously wealthy, so AJ will never need to turn a profit. If making money is not AJ's purpose, what is?
Al Gore thinks he knows. As you have doubtless heard by now, the former vice president is selling the Current TV cable network he co-founded to AJ. Estimated price: $500 million. That will make what is to be known as Al Jazeera America available in more than 40 million homes across the country. In a statement issued last Wednesday, Current TV co-founder Joel Hyatt said that he and Gore were "thrilled and proud" that their project was being acquired by Al Jazeera, which "was founded with the same goals we had for Current: To give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling."
If you don't buy that explanation, Orville Schell thinks you're an Islamophobe. The former dean of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Current TV board member, Schell was asked about Time Warner's announcement that it will not carry AJ-America (thus depriving it of 15 percent of Current TV's current total reach) unless it perceives a demand from its audience. Time Warner, he told the Associated Press, has "probably dropped the contract because they fear American prejudice."
I've appeared on AJ English quite a few times. Like Current TV and MSNBC, it presents itself as a voice of the Left. AJ English does not overtly promote the ideology of Islamism, but it does present it as mainstream, suggesting an affinity between Islamist and leftist values. Whenever I've been on a program, I've had an opportunity to provide my analysis and opinions. But, invariably, I will be outnumbered: At least two other guests, as well as the interviewer, will vehemently disagree with me. Anyone versed in Strategic Communications 101 will recognize this as a technique designed to marginalize one set of views and promote another.
The Current/AJ deal brims with ironies: For one, Al Gore, Internet pioneer, paladin of the fight against global warming, and archenemy of carbon fuels, is about to have his bank account inflated by an estimated one hundred million petro-dollars, and he will "proudly" serve on the advisory board of a media outlet owned by a dictatorship that advocates government censorship of the Internet. In that role, he can be expected to use his political influence to ensure that cable executives continue to charge cable subscribers for a channel those subscribers haven't asked for. Second, Gore had previously refused to sell Current TV to Glenn Beck because the conservative commentator — unlike Al Jazeera — is "not aligned with our point of view." Third, according to the New York Times, "Mr. Gore and his partners were eager to complete the deal by Dec. 31, lest it be subject to higher tax rates that took effect on Jan. 1." (Sadly, they missed that deadline.)
Quite a few of my learned journalistic colleagues have been cheerily asserting that Al Jazeera America will make a net contribution to the free market in ideas. At a time when American print journalism is hemorrhaging financially, a time when saying anything that might be interpreted as offensive to Muslims can be — quite literally — hazardous to one's health, a time when American diplomats are actively negotiating international laws that would restrict freedom of speech regarding Islam and Islamism, I'm not confident they're right.
One more reason to be less than optimistic: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the host of Al Jazeera Arabic's most popular program, Sharia and Life. Qaradawi endorsed Ayatollah Khomeini's call to execute novelist Salman Rushdie for blasphemy, called what Hitler did to Europe's Jews "divine punishment" (adding that "Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers"). In 1991, one of his acolytes, Mohamed Akram, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in America, wrote a memorandum, later obtained by the FBI, asserting that Brothers "must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands and by the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God's religion is made victorious over all other religions."
Is Al Gore really "thrilled and proud" to be associated with such "independent and diverse points of view"? Is this what he means by "speaking truth to power"? Might asking him these questions be a net contribution to the free market in ideas?