Foreign Policy Blogs

A Journalist's Window Into Politics


If you are at all interested in the field of journalism you might enjoy reading this interview with David Marash in the Columbia Journalism Review.

But his story is one that appeals to us followers of US foreign policy as well. Marash, formerly a “Nightline” correspondent, took a job in 2006 with Al Jazera English, the English-language version of the Doha, Qatar-based and controversial Al Jazeera network, which broadcasts in Arabic throughout the Middle East.

Marash took some flack for taking the job, at a time when the broadcaster couldn't find a cable provider in the US to broadcast their channel. One year later Marash quit, and his CJR interview details his reasons why.

His candid remarks may interest us foreign policy-watchers because they provide a window into the politics of information–on a global scale. Ye who defines what is news, how events transpired, the character of things large and small holds the power to define the narratives through which we understand the state of the world. Particularly insightful is Marash’ narrative of how his job was effected by a change in political relations between the Middle East and the US.

Marash explained that network executives coaxed him into joining the network (thus lending it a huge amount of credibility, given Marash's clout in the American journalism world) by outline an Al Jazeera English that would be, in Marash's words: 

“Cosmopolitan‚ the whole world covered from many points of view representing the whole world. That was the logic of having four news centers in Doha, London, Washington, and Kuala Lumpur. All four were supposed to be autonomous, to initiate their own assignment decisions and lineup priorities. And the sum total of the four points of view was to put a truly cosmopolitan, multipolar gloss on the world.”

His interviewer what changed in the editorial structure of the network to make him want to leave his position. Here's his response.

DM:I think that the world changed about nine, ten months ago. And I think the single event in that change was the visit to the gulf by Vice President Cheney, where he went to line up the allied ducks in a row behind the possibility of action against Iran. And instead of getting acquiescence, the United States got defiance, and instead ducks in a row the ducks basically went off on their own and the first sort of major breakthrough on that was the Mecca agreement, which defied the American foreign policy by letting Hamas into the tent of the governance of the Palestinian territories.

This enraged the State Department and was one crystal clear sign that the Mideast region was now off campus, was off on its own. And it is around this time, and I think not coincidentally, that you see the state of Qatar and the royal family of Qatar starting to make up their feud with the Saudis, and you start to see on both Al Jazeera Arabic and English a very sort of first-personish, "my Haj" stories that were boosterish of the Haj and of Saudi Arabia. And you start to see stories of analysis in The New York Times where regional people are noting that Al Jazeera seems to be changing its editorial stance toward Saudi Arabia [see here for an example].

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.”

Wow. This is an example of the micro-level decisions that can add to up making the world a very different place for America in the coming years. Especially when those who decide to disembark the SS American Values are producers of news content watched by 40 million people in a key region in terms of US interests. The end result is not just that one American journalist is out of a job. Rather, I fear the ramifications of Al Jazeera's editorial change of heart will be much greater and felt further down the line.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.