In the Studio with Dave Marash
Dave Marash is on the air, seated at the news anchor desk in a television studio on K Street in downtown Washington, DC. He’s reading his script from a teleprompter as he introduces a clip from a speech by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.
“Yikes,” he mutters into his microphone when the film clip fails to appear. This is live TV—glitches happen—and the 64-year-old veteran reporter is unfazed by the mishap, even slightly amused, eyes narrowing in his avuncular, cherubic face. Marash, his gray beard matching what little hair remains on his head, ad-libs for a moment and promises to return as the network switches back to an anchor at its headquarters in Doha, Qatar.
Welcome to the U.S. hub of Al Jazeera English, the new 24-hour network owned by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ruler of Qatar, the Connecticut-sized Persian Gulf nation with fewer than a million residents and prodigious reserves of oil and natural gas. In 1996 the Sheikh founded the Arabic version of Al Jazeera, the network notorious for airing Osama bin Laden’s video communiqués. The network whose broadcasts have been called “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” and “perfectly willing to lie to the world” by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The network that Middle East Forum Director Daniel Pipes has described as “Islamist, anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist.” The network whose Baghdad bureau was bombed by the United States early in the Iraq war. Many Americans would just as soon see a permanent glitch knock the new network off the air altogether.
I’m spending the afternoon with Marash, who joined Al Jazeera English in January 2006 in preparation for its November launch. Marash might seem an unlikely candidate to lend his expertise, mellifluous voice and prestige to an Arab network that hopes to compete with CNN, BBC and the new France 24. The highly respected veteran of radio and TV news spent the past 16 years parachuting into hot spots around the world as global correspondent for Ted Koppel’s Nightline on ABC. Oh, and by the way, this key figure for an Arab-owned and operated TV news network is Jewish.
“I am not a particularly observant Jew in the sense of going to temple, but Judaism, Jewish culture, Jewish ideas and Jewish debates have been at the heart of my life from the day I was born,” Marash tells me. “I look Jewish; I sound Jewish; I act Jewish. It’s obvious that I am Jewish. I have affirmed my Judaism in places like Iraq or Kosovo or the occupied territories, where there is some risk in doing this.”
At Al Jazeera English, Marash hosts two nightly newscasts and also provides news cut-ins in the afternoon, such as the one with the missing Annan clip. When I arrive, the network is airing Annan’s speech live. Marash is working on a script when the speech ends, so I turn my attention to a monitor next to his desk, on which a Georgetown University professor criticizes Annan for tolerating Saddam Hussein’s “flagrant violations” of UN resolutions and failing to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
The 2 p.m. news roundup, anchored from Doha, leads with the deaths of three children in Gaza, presumably at the hands of Hamas, whose father had ties to Fatah. Reports on Lebanese politics, North Korean nuclear talks, fighting in Sri Lanka and Iraqi violence follow. Particularly notable is a piece on Iran’s Holocaust-denial conference, which includes haunting footage of concentration camp survivors just after their rescue—footage that appeared on few American network TV newscasts later in the day. The report also features scenes of an Iranian protest rally, showing a student tearing up a photograph of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
When Marash goes on the air a second time, the Annan clip runs without a hitch. His afternoon stint over, he rises from the anchor desk. Seated, Marash looks almost round, so it is a surprise to discover that he is nearly six feet tall. We walk to a nearby carryout shop, where he picks up a bowl of soup, and return to the office. As he eats at his cluttered desk, we schmooze—Marash’s word—and I ask what a nice Jewish boy like him is doing working for Al Jazeera.
Marash isn’t perturbed by my question. He’s used to this. “I did my due diligence,” he replies calmly. “I had my ‘mole’ inside the network. I read into the policies and history of the channel, and I found little to trouble me.”
The offer of an anchor job in Washington came at an opportune time: Ted Koppel had announcd that he was departing Nightline and ABC had decided to reformat the program, leaving Marash without a job. “My life passed before my eyes,” he says. “I wondered if I would ever have the opportunity to do news of similar quality again. Then, thanks be to God, came this opportunity.
“Nightline was a unique broadcast, with the highest, most sophisticated news standards of any broadcast in television news,” he explains. “I probably did about three-quarters of their overseas reporting. This meant I was always working on serious and important stories and I always was given more than enough airtime to give those stories their dignity, to shade in the tones between black and white and reflect their nuances.”
Al Jazeera English, says Marash, shares this same commitment to top-notch international reporting. “The stories are all international. They’re all serious and significant. We have four news bases—London, Washington, Doha and Kuala Lumpur—with autonomy in setting our own priorities and creating our own assignments. The responsibility here is to cover not just Washington and the U.S. but the whole western hemisphere, so my global itch got scratched. And this is most critical to me: our qualitative standard is the highest, most nuanced of all the cable news channels. I find this job every bit as intellectually interesting and stimulating as Nightline.”
The son of a Jewish Community Center director in Richmond, Virginia, Marash believes it is crucial to distinguish between Al Jazeera in Arabic and Al Jazeera English. The first claims to reach 50 million Arabic speakers in 137 countries and focuses primarily on news and culture in the Middle East. The latter wants to be the first non-western international news source for a billion-plus English speakers worldwide, including millions of Muslims who don’t speak Arabic.
Supporters call the Arabic Al Jazeera an independent voice that gives Middle Eastern viewers a rare opportunity to hear all sides of the region’s many conflicts. Its breadth and unprecedented willingness to criticize Arab powers-that-be have led some to call it one of the most positive and significant cultural phenomena in centuries. Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, remarked recently that, for all its problems, Al Jazeera is a force of “democratization” in the Middle East. But the network’s detractors—including a number of American media watchdog organizations, both Jewish and not—see it as a propaganda tool for opponents of the Jewish state, foes of America and western values and even terrorists.
Marash contends that the English-language Al Jazeera audience is more sophisticated by nature than viewers of the Arabic version. For most of its market, English is a second language, which suggests a certain level of education and appreciation of nuance. The Arabic-language network is, he says, more of a classic tabloid, the voice of the Arab street.
“The most troubling thing is that it has to be admitted from the outset that Al Jazeera in Arabic carries a lot of what we would call hate speech,” he concedes. Perhaps he is thinking of a 2000 appearance by the mufti who said “there can be no peace with the Jews because they suck and use the blood of Arabs on the holidays of Passover and Purim.” Or maybe he is referring to the on-air comments of Samir Ubeid, “an Iraqi researcher,” who charged last October that Nobel Prizes encourage Muslims to commit heresy. Noting that the awards have gone to 167 Jews and only four Arabs (all of whom, including Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he dubbed “traitors”), Ubeid darkly warned that “the prize stems from the core of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Marash is firm in his defense of Al Jazeera’s overall coverage. “In their role of covering the news of the Arabic-speaking world, they have no choice but to carry hate speech, because it’s an active part of the ‘multilogue’ of politics and society in the Middle East,” he argues. “But there is a real attempt to balance hate speech with more moderate and informed voices. In fact, Al Jazeera has a unique record in the Middle East of allowing Israeli and other Jewish speakers unlimited opportunity to say whatever they want. Al Jazeera in Arabic doesn’t limit itself to friendly Israeli voices but regularly books some of the most hostile, anti-Islamic voices in the world Jewish community.”
In truth, Marash asserts, Al Jazeera and the Qatar royal family favor democratization and reconciliation in the Middle East. The network has criticized many Arab governments, he notes, and irked both Hamas and Fatah by its coverage. “Honesty is very important,” he says. “I am a Jew. I’m proud to be a Jew, but I am a Jew who still believes in the possibility of reconciliation with Judaism’s adversaries.
“I believe that Al Jazeera, probably more than any other point in the Arabic-speaking universe, has done more for reconciliation than any other institution I can name.”
Marash admits that Al Jazeera made a savvy public relations move by hiring a Jew as a key on-air figure for the English-language outlet. But, he adds, he’s not alone. “Al Jazeera English has at least a minyan here,” he quips. “You’d have to waive the gender part but, if we allow women in, we’ve certainly got a minyan.”
Marash is just one of the network’s recent high-profile hires. Its biggest catch is Sir David Frost, the long-time British interviewer. Others are Riz Khan, who hosts a Larry-King style talk show and Lucia Newman, both formerly of CNN, as well as Tony Cheng, formerly of the BBC. The network’s new military affairs analyst, Joshua Rushing, a former U.S. Marine captain and public affairs officer in Iraq, was featured in Control Room, the 2004 documentary about Al Jazeera that examined its coverage of the Iraq war and how so-called objectivity can depend on the perspective of its source.
Marash’s Jewish identity and his obvious pride in it, has made some in the Arab world uneasy. There’s also concern that he and other western-trained journalists will somehow dilute the network’s Arab authenticity. But criticism from Jewish sources, of both Marash and the network, has been far more intense. In an interview with the New Jersey Jewish News before the network aired, Marash insisted that its leaders “made it quite clear that they regard my religious background as incidental to my professional credentials.” Alex Safian, a spokesman for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), wasn’t buying it. Safian derided him as “Marash of Arabia,” adding, “It doesn’t matter that he is Jewish. I think any American or any western newsperson who goes to work for Al Jazeera—regardless of their religion—is betraying their profession.”
Marash bristles at the accusation on some Internet sites that he took the job because he is “a self-hating Jew.” “To me, that’s one of the most inherently illegitimate and insulting charges that can be made,” he says heatedly. He also points out that most reaction to Al Jazeera English in its early months has been positive. The “pre-action” anxiety, he says, that it would be anti-Jewish, anti-American, “maybe even pro-terrorist” has faded “like fog burned away by the morning sun because, if you watch us for even a few minutes, you’ll see that there’s nothing to any of those charges.”
The charges, however, have not let up. “Even if the English version is pure facts and no propaganda, it still will disserve the cause of peace by ‘endowing respectability’ on the brand, including the Arabic network,” says Judea Pearl, whose son, Daniel, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal was beheaded by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002. To Pearl—who recently lambasted both versions of Al Jazeera in an op-ed in The New York Times for fomenting the kind of terrorism that killed his son—and to conservative media critics generally, the much-touted differences between the sister networks are only skin deep. Marash labels Pearl’s article a “screed,” and challenges him to provide even one example of the sort of terrorist-coddling, anti-American language he cited that was heard on the English-language network.
Liberal media watchers, by contrast, have criticized Al Jazeera for playing it too safe in an attempt to please its western audience. “A lot of observers see Al Jazeera as this rigidly ideological apologist for terror, but my feeling is that it is just another show based in Washington that wants to maintain access with high-level sources,” says Steve Rendall of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Sam Husseini, communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy, says that Al Jazeera English’s main problem is that it’s insufficiently hard-hitting and investigative. “Ultimately, I find it somewhat toothless,” he says.
Al Jazeera English will have all the time it needs to prove itself. Media reports say that Sheikh Hamad has invested more than $1 billion in the venture and has no plans to turn off the money spigot. Al Jazeera English is already reaching millions in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including Israel, but its biggest challenge is North America. As of January, Burlington, Vermont, had the only U.S. cable system carrying the station. No other U.S. cable or satellite system yet offers it, forcing truly curious Americans to watch it via the Internet. But continued watching requires a subscription, and accessing even a free 15-minute free preview from its english.aljazeera.net web site is confusing.
Marash chooses his words carefully when I ask about the reasons for Al Jazeera English’s off-air exile in the United States. Could fear have something to do with it? “It’s probably useless to speculate, other than to say that you’d have to be very naïve not to suspect that political anxiety has played a role,” Marash says. “But that’s not the only anxiety. Some cable system operators feel they can make more money and gain a bigger audience by adding another shopping channel rather than devoting another channel to international news.”
Al Jazeera English is far from conceding the public relations battle. One shrewd move was admitting Samantha Bee, a “reporter” for Comedy Central’s Daily Show, into Al Jazeera’s Washington bureau to “coach” Marash and his co-anchor, Lebanese-born Ghida Fakhry, on how to schmooze like America’s local news anchors. Bee’s segment, which aired on December 13, brought the nearly invisible network to the attention of more than one million television viewers. It’s also been viewed more than 19,000 times on the popular video-sharing site YouTube.
Marash is confident that American viewers will discover and like Al Jazeera English. “The response to our Internet offer has been way beyond our most optimistic projections,” he says as our afternoon comes to an end. It’s almost time for him to prepare for the 6 p.m. newscast, and he pitches his soup container into the trash. “I’ll bet you dollars to shekels that, within a year, Al Jazeera English will have very wide distribution on American cable and satellite systems.”
Boris Weintraub (“A Jew in Al Jazeera’s House”) is a contributing editor at Moment who most
recently wrote about the revival of the Ladino language and culture in the April 2006 issue. He was a senior writer for National Geographic Magazine for 16 years.