By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
The moment Dave Marash told friends and colleagues about his new job, the questions began flying.
Who? listeners asked skeptically. And why?
Nearly nine months later, he's still hearing those questions -- and it turns out answering the first one is simpler.
In February, Marash, a lifelong broadcast newsman, became the Washington-based anchor of Al Jazeera English (AJE), the English-language spinoff of the Arabic TV news network. When AJE begins its first globe-spanning broadcast today, Marash will be its most prominent American face.
Embedded in "why," however, are two other questions: How can an American work for an operation affiliated with al-Jazeera, which achieved notoriety -- and to some, infamy -- by airing video communiques from Osama bin Laden, images of dead American soldiers and routine denunciations of the United States? Moreover, how could Marash, who is Jewish, work for an organization that has provided a platform for Holocaust denial and hate speech against Israel, Zionism and Judaism?
But Marash -- affable, burly and possessed of gloriously resonant voice -- seems almost delighted to be on the defensive. His short, glib answer: He was out of a job.
AJE came calling shortly after Marash was let go by ABC News almost a year ago. Marash, 64, had spent a decade and a half as a globe-trotting reporter for "Nightline" and as a sometime substitute host for Ted Koppel (before that, Marash was an anchor at Washington's Channel 4). But Marash -- whom Koppel calls one of the few broadcasters "who can do anything" -- was swept out when Koppel left the program and "Nightline" was overhauled.
The long answer, Marash says, is that al-Jazeera is little understood, and frequently misunderstood, in the West. What's more, he promises, Al Jazeera English won't be al-Jazeera.
"I have been deeply corrupted by 16 years at 'Nightline,' " Marash says. "It was professional heaven. I grew accustomed to having the reporting time to present a picture of what was there in reality."
Now, he says, "The goal here is to be able to give the best-reported, most transparent report of all the English-language news channels."
As for a Jewish journalist working for AJE? Well, there's an even longer answer.
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In some respects, Al Jazeera English will be worlds apart from its established, decade-old sibling. Al-Jazeera focuses primarily on news of the Middle East, for an audience of mostly Arabic-speaking Muslims. AJE will have broader horizons, aiming to draw a billion-plus English speakers from Madagascar to Maine -- for Muslims, yes, but also for anyone else who wants another perspective on the day's news.
In other words, AJE -- based in the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar -- is hoping to become the first non-Western source to challenge the global info-supremacy of CNN and the BBC. This, although it's not yet available over broadcast frequencies in the United States.
AJE has established four news hubs -- in Washington, Qatar, London and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- around which its 24-hour broadcast will revolve. It also has positioned many of its 500-plus journalists outside of traditional news centers in Europe and North America, in a necklace of bureaus spanning Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East (until last week, the channel was known as Al Jazeera International; the name was changed at the eleventh hour to distinguish it from al-Jazeera, which reaches viewers in several dozen countries).
Marash describes something high-minded and almost stolid. Conflict in the Middle East will make it on the air, but so will water-rights battles in India or labor disputes in Mexico. "Our pace will be slower," he says. "My motto is, 'News at the speed of thought.' "
It's "liberating," he adds, "to be freed of the blonde-of-the-month story."
AJE's viewers will see some Arab faces -- Marash's co-anchor in Washington is Lebanese-born Ghida Fakhry -- but the network has a significant cadre of non-Arabs, too. (Marash's wife, Amy, who previously worked at MSNBC, is an AJE producer.)
Its biggest name, Sir David Frost, will host a weekly public-affairs program. Former CNN and BBC journalist Riz Kahn will head up a Larry King-style talk show and a longer interview program from Washington. AJE's military-affairs analyst is Josh Rushing, a former Marine Corps captain who served as a military public affairs liaison at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha at the start of the Iraq war.
"I don't think we will see another start-up like [this] in my lifetime," says Will Stebbins, 40, chief of the channel's 125-person Washington bureau and a former foreign correspondent for Associated Press Television News.
That is not to suggest that AJE and al-Jazeera are independent operations. Managers say the channels will share such resources as news crews and footage. And more important, both are funded by the same source, Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
By some Western media accounts, the emir has sunk more than $1 billion of Qatar's oil and natural-gas wealth into AJE's launch. Although that amount is difficult to confirm -- and AJE's cramped and spartan offices in downtown Washington show little evidence of big spending -- the news-gathering operation doesn't appear to be starved for resources.
Yet while AJE's close association with al-Jazeera might turn out to be its calling card with English-speaking Muslims around the world, it has become its biggest liability in the United States. Despite more than a year of trying, the network has been unable to persuade a single U.S. or Canadian cable or satellite TV system to carry it.
When AJE goes on the "air" today after several months of delay, the air will be virtual across North America; the only way to see the channel in the United States will be on a computer as it streams over the Internet.
The reasons for that are not clear. Jenni Moyer, spokeswoman for Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, says: "We were in discussions with them, but a decision has been made not to carry them. Beyond that, we're not commenting."
AJE officials think they understand why the reception has been so chilly: Al Jazeera English can't escape al-Jazeera's long shadow.
* * *
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused al-Jazeera of "vicious lies" and "a pattern of playing propaganda over and over" in its coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And U.S. officials have been upset by footage of American military deaths and al-Jazeera's unstinting coverage of the wars' effect on civilians.
Rumsfeld's criticisms are echoed by conservatives, who view al-Jazeera and its English-language spinoff as anti-American at best and a terrorist house organ at worst.
Cliff Kincaid, who edits the conservative Accuracy in Media Report, points to troubling connections: Al-Jazeera journalist Tayseer Allouni last year was convicted in Spain of collaborating with al-Qaeda; and al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and has been held at Guantanamo Bay. (Al-Jazeera says the two men are innocent.)
"We haven't seen any evidence that tells us that [AJE] will be significantly different than al-Jazeera in Arabic," Kincaid says. "It's sponsored by the same people, paid for by the same people and has the same editorial philosophy."
Kincaid all but says Marash is a dupe: "The emir has plenty of Arab oil dollars to buy anyone he wants. They need Western media faces to give them credibility."
Moderate voices also find things not to like in al-Jazeera. "There are some positives there, but there are plenty of negatives," says Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington-based group that studies Arabic media and describes itself as nonpartisan. "And the negatives outweigh the positives."
(On its Web site, MEMRI catalogues al-Jazeera's news coverage into several telling categories, such as "Anti-Semitism," "Conspiracy Theories," "Suicide (Martyrdom) Operations," "Holocaust Denial.")
Marash thinks much of the criticism misses the longer view.
"Al-Jazeera is one of the most positive and significant cultural events in the Arab world in centuries," he declares. Unlike state-controlled media throughout the Arab world, he says, al-Jazeera regularly broadcasts dissent and opposing points of view, providing "the broadest spectrum of argument" that many Arab viewers have seen.
"Do they broadcast hate speech?" he asks. "Yes, they do. Is it put in context and is it discussed as hate speech? Yes, it is. Hate speech is part of the dialogue of the Middle East. To censor or to exclude it would be to lose all credibility" among al-Jazeera's viewers, he says.
Riz Kahn says the principal U.S. objection to al-Jazeera is that it has been too frank in its reporting on American military power, but he contends that holding the powerful to account is nothing to be ashamed of. American news channels tend to "show the missiles taking off," Kahn says. "Al-Jazeera shows them landing."
* * *
In broadcasting circles, Marash has credibility to burn -- a newsman's newsman with a long, varied and solid reporting career.
Koppel says Marash's "wildly eclectic" interests and free-ranging curiosity made him an ideal jack-of-all-trades as a "Nightline" reporter. "Jazz, sports, international affairs, politics -- you name it, he could do it," Koppel says. "He's really smart, a good writer and a good performer. Other than that, I don't know what's not to like."
Marash has been a news guy since 1957, breaking in as newsreader on a radio station in White Plains, N.Y. He's been a local anchor, a network reporter and a sportscaster -- as well as a foreign correspondent with so much experience that he's lost count of how many countries he's reported from.
Marash also has inspired a second generation of broadcasters. MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann said the newsman was "a revelation" to him when he was growing up in the early 1970s and Marash was doing sports in New York.
"Then they had him co-anchor the news in a completely deconstructed environment, inside the actual newsroom, in shirtsleeves, his lit cigar in the ashtray next to him," Olbermann says by e-mail. "And yet it was still credible and professional. [It] helped show me you didn't have to be a mannequin to do the news."
Marash spent part of his childhood in Richmond, where his father, Jack, ran a Jewish community center and befriended a tennis coach named Sam Woods. The two men worked to overturn regulations that kept Richmond's parks segregated -- enabling a young Woods protege named Arthur Ashe to compete against some of the city's best players. "It's literally true to say Arthur would not have been Arthur without my dad," Marash says of Ashe, who would become the first African American to win Wimbledon.
Marash sees a connection six decades later. As a Jew in an Arab-centric organization, he's an outsider. And some have questioned what he's doing there.
"People label you a self-hating Jew, a traitor to Israel and Judaism," he says. "It's hurtful but dismissible. I don't see them as credible critics. They are articulating a prejudgment instead of exercising their curiosity."
"It makes me angry more than it pains me," he says. "I know it's illegitimate. Who arrogated the power to them to know what's inside of someone else? Anybody who knows me knows I'm not ashamed of my religion."
Al-Jazeera, he says, "has consistently offered a window of opportunity for Israel and Israeli citizens to speak to the Arab world. There is no contradiction between Judaism and al-Jazeera. As a Jew, I have always wished for and worked toward peace and civility in the Palestinian territories and Israel."
He thinks he's learned a lesson from all this, something approaching wisdom. "The meta message is a humbling one, which is that no one knows it all," he says. "The more you know and understand how others see the world, the better you understand the world."