One of the highlights for me for attending Al Jazeera’s annual journalism conference in Qatar in March of last year was meeting Dave Marash. Marash is a veteran journalist who shocked many in the US journalism community by becoming the anchor – and defacto spokesman in America – for Al Jazeera English.
Now Marash has surprised journalism-watchers around the world with his decision to leave AJE. Columbia Journalism Review talks with him about his decision. It’s worth reading the entire interview, because it’s far too easy just to take away the (true, but incomplete) conclusion that Marash is leaving the network because he feels they cover the US poorly. What’s happened is a bit more complex.
When founded, the idea behind AJE was that there would be four independent bureaus – Doha, London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur. Each would have a great deal of editorial independence and would decide what to cover and how. In the past few months, news direction for the network has come more from Doha, and coverage of the US has suffered, Marash argues – he points to a piece of particularly weak reporting on poverty in the US that was conducted solely by a Doha team, with no US cooperation, which was an exposé of the remarkable fact that there are poor people in the US.
Marash theorizes that shift in reporting may be a reflection of larger geopolitical realities. He points to a rapporachment between the Qataris and the Saudis, caused by Dick Cheney’s visit to the region to drum up support for possible war against Iran. In typical Bush administration fashion, the visit managed instead to produce more solidarity between Arab nations and help them transcend traditional tensions, coming together to resist US pressure to reject Hamas and isolate Iran. This shift helped change Al Jazeera English, Marash argues:
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.
There are still two very good reasons to watch this channel, Marash argues. One is that the channel continues to provide unparalleled coverage of events in the developing world, especially in Africa and Latin America. (Indeed, AJE’s Africa coverage is a must-read. And if Mugabe had been hoping that having an AJE bureau in Harare meant hands-off coverage, he made a mistake.) The second is that it’s important to see an Arab perspective on American events, even when that perspective is unfair, biased and distasteful:
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.
Marash gets a lot of points in my book both for recognizing what’s wrong with the coverage and praising what’s right. I wish he could have stayed and helped fix matters, but he deserves a great deal of credit for being open and honest about his read on the situation and his emotions.