Adrienne Pine and Keane Bhatt
As Al Jazeera geared up for the August 20th launch of its new channel Al Jazeera America (AJAM), excitement was in the air, judging by its Twitter feed. CNN veteran Joie Chen expressed on her Twitter profile that she was “thrilled” to anchor AJAM’s flagship nightly news program America Tonight, and would engage in “fierce journalism.” According to AJAM’s official account, Chen “can’t wait to bring you the news.”
Bringing U.S. viewers “fierce journalism”—or even simply “the news”—promises to be a welcome change from her previous work as the host of a public-relations video masquerading as an investigative report, all paid for by gun manufacturer Remington to defend its Model 700 rifle from reports of its defectiveness. (In her defense, Chen’s presentation was not done in her capacity as a journalist, but rather as Executive Vice President of Branded News Worldwide, a firm that “creates online platforms for organizations and industries to deliver news and programming models for niche audiences.”)
In anticipation of her own special reports for AJAM, Soledad O'Brien of CNN fame casually tweeted about “[getting] a chance to chat with Jean Claude Duvalier”—the one-time Haitian dictator who, despite being responsible for crimes against humanity, remains a free man. The excitement continued as AJAM offered tours of its Washington, D.C. and New York studios for reporters, and promoted a Variety piece consisting of little more than quotes from a conference call hosted by “interim CEO and prez” Ehab Al Shihabi, former senior management consultant at Arthur Andersen, Andersen Consulting and Deloitte.
In preparation for AJAM’s launch, Al Shihabi met with “members of the business community” as well as political figures such as Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), and promised that AJAM would be “the voice of Main Street”; another Variety article reported that “Al Jazeera has also spent time making its case to advertisers, reaching out to ad-buying concerns to dispel any notions that the network may be biased or have an anti-American lens.”
This message was further reinforced when America Tonight’s senior executive producer, Kim Bondy (formerly of CNN) said the show will have “some of the sensibilities of CBS Sunday Morning; it should also look a little bit, probably, like [NBC’s] Rock Center, and we’re stealing a couple pages out of [HBO’s] Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” AJAM president Kate O’Brian—a 30-year veteran of ABC News—confirmed a trend: “The formats, the talent, the producers will be American.”
The authors of this article have appeared as frequent guest commentators to discuss U.S.-Latin America relations on Al Jazeera America’s predecessor, Al Jazeera English (AJE), which will soon be redirected exclusively toward international audiences and rendered inaccessible to most U.S. viewers, even online. With regard to much of AJE’s coverage of the Americas, we have been impressed with the rigor and dedication of AJE reporters, anchors, presenters and producers. The channel often delved into crucial yet often underreported developments throughout the region, and proved itself an indispensible English-language source for regular, in-depth news and analysis on Latin America and the Caribbean.
But Al Jazeera’s new direction raises serious questions about AJAM. The channel now boasts a new, advertiser-revenue-driven dynamic; it has apparently taken compromising stances in its courtship of U.S. cable distributors; its recruitment of management and on-air personnel demonstrates caution and conservatism; and it has paid top dollar for close consultation with lobbying firms possessing deep rightwing ties. All of these factors may threaten to weaken Al Jazeera’s strengths and guide it toward the most insipid and insular tendencies of U.S. cable news.
A month ago The Guardian’s journalist Glenn Greenwald reported on the internal strife over Al Jazeera America, highlighting serious concerns raised in a leaked email by the host of Al Jazeera English's program Empire, Marwan Bishara. The email excoriated management for capitulating to the “fear of contractual obligations with carriers” in attempting to expel any traces of what might appear as “anti-American,” including the “diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists.”
Greenwald demonstrated that highly paid consulting and lobbying firms like Qorvis Communications, ASGK Public Strategies and DLA Piper were influencing many of the channel’s questionable decisions; the temporary removal of an opinion article by Columbia Professor Joseph Massad from Al Jazeera’s website, for example, was done at the insistence of a DLA Piper consultant, according to an anonymous Al Jazeera insider.
One of the primary functions of public relations firms is shaping news to favor their corporate clients. While this approach is a reality in today's corporate media environment, news organizations such as AJAM naturally sow doubt regarding their own professed commitment to hard-hitting journalism when they rely upon such firms. ASGK, one of the agencies AJAM has hired, explains its techniques of “Crisis Management,” which create clear conflicts of interest for the news agency:
From the halls of Congress, offices of the Executive Branch and Fortune 500 board rooms to the busiest newsrooms, our team knows the media inside and out. At ASGK, we have a wealth of experience in every facet of running a successful media relations campaign. We have established relationships with print, broadcast and online media outlets in local markets and on the national level. We hone messages based on our knowledge of specific reporters. From developing creative events that grab media attention and arranging reporter briefings or meetings with editorial boards, to writing powerfully and persuasively, ASGK is skilled at using media to reach key audiences.
While Al Jazeera’s business model—receiving continuous funding from the government of Qatar—has meant that reporting in some areas of the world has been decidedly biased toward that government’s interests (e.g., Syria, Libya), thus far the network has eschewed a model in which specific reporters repeat messages honed especially for them by corporate advertisers.
But the consultants AJAM has hired go beyond just converting day-to-day corporate talking points into news. On its “Crisis Communications” webpage, ASGK brags, “We have significant experience helping companies and institutions navigate through negative situations with effective communications strategies.” Examples include working “with multiple telecommunications companies on regulatory issues at the FCC” and representing “one of the largest entertainment companies with issues at the Department of Justice in the face of its merger.” Reading not too far between the lines, it is clear that ASGK is actively involved in promoting the kind of corporate media consolidation that has systematically undermined journalistic integrity within the confines of major news outlets over recent decades.
For its part, AJAM consultant Qorvis Communications has engaged in the production of what some would consider outrageously unethical news production. Before hiring Qorvis, Al Jazeera published an article titled “Suppressing the narrative in Bahrain,” detailing Qorvis’s efforts to suppress reporting on the ongoing deadly crackdown against opponents to the U.S-backed monarchy in that country:
Qorvis, which disclosed in a US Foreign Agents Registration Act a $40,000/month contract with the government of Bahrain from April to September last year, is one of a number of western PR firms that have been hired by the government. Matt Lauer, a partner at Qorvis, wrote in an email to PRNewser in August: “We help communicate the positive work the government [in Bahrain] is undertaking.”
Law and lobbying firm DLA Piper, in a flier titled “Dispute Resolution: Our Latin American Practice,” promotes its work on behalf of telecom consolidation. According to the document, it “[a]dvised a major Venezuelan telecommunications operator before Venezuelan telecommunications regulatory authorities in a dispute over interconnection rates” and “[r]epresented Spanish purchasers of Latin American telecommunications infrastructure interests in multi-jurisdictional parallel litigation proceedings against the sellers.”
Al Jazeera paid DLA $220,000 over the course of three months this year. Although the firm’s representation of the clients below does not in any way imply unethical behavior on the part of Al Jazeera, it is remarkable that the following list begs for the kind of investigative journalism that AJAM promises to provide:
- PR firm Burson-Marsteller paid DLA $140,000 for its services in 2003-4; It is infamous for its own work representing clients like the Argentine military junta government of General Jorge Videla (1976-1983), whose security forces murdered or disappeared at least 15,000 people.
- Venezuelan banker Nelson Mezerhane paid DLA at least $60,000 in 2012. He is the former co-owner of Venezuela’s Globovisión television station, which supported the short-lived overthrow of elected president Hugo Chávez in 2002.
- The Drummond Company (which paid DLA $100,000 from 2003-7) was reported to have hired private security forces to murder opponents of its open-pit mining operations in Colombia.
- Great Lakes Chemical ($100,000 from 2003-4), is the largest U.S. methyl bromide supplier in the U.S. The toxin is responsible for serious health problems to vulnerable agricultural workers, many of whom are migrants from Latin America.
- Triple Canopy ($640,000 between 2010-2012), is a private military corporation that works extensively in Latin America. In 2005, a Triple Canopy subsidiary was expelled from Honduras for illegally training Honduran and Chilean mercenaries to be sent to fight in Iraq. The company was condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination.
Earlier this year, DLA announced that Spain’s former Prime Minister José María Aznar (who had previously paid DLA Piper's predecessor firm Piper Rudnick $2 million of Spanish taxpayer money in a failed attempt to secure the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal) had been named to the firm's board as Senior Advisor on Latin America. Aznar is also a member of the Board of Directors at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. To call Aznar a major player in Latin American politics would be an understatement. From his 2002 support as Spanish Prime Minister of the 48-hour coup against Venezuela’s Chávez to his work at the powerful, rightwing Latin American Board at Georgetown University, Aznar, now at Johns Hopkins, has used his considerable political and economic clout to promote reactionary policies throughout the hemisphere.
An Al Jazeera America spokesperson responded by phone to a request for comment, asserting that there was a “misconception about the role of consulting firms such as ASGK and Qorvis” with relation to AJAM's efforts to launch its cable channel. “They are not at all involved in any editorial decisions,” he added. Regarding the reduced role that is anticipated for AJAM's international reporting, he said, “As far as coverage of Latin America, Al Jazeera International will continue to cover the region as strongly as Al Jazeera English did.” He conceded that this content would be unavailable to U.S. viewers, but especially given “America's substantial Latino community,” he stated that AJAM will provide news that's “relevant to Americans” from across the region.
It appears, based on several news reports, that AJAM has in fact made a decision, responding to advertisers and cable providers, to reduce the scope of its predecessor's international coverage in favor of a U.S.-centric orientation. What remains of its coverage toward the Americas—while perhaps not directly influenced by consulting firms—seems unlikely to avoid being mediated by the considerations of agencies that have publicly touted their ability to circumvent and downplay the kind of fearless, confrontational reporting that Al Jazeera English has done to expose the unsavory activities of multinational corporations and the U.S. government throughout Latin America. This tendency seems to be the principal factor behind the transformation of its flagship nightly news program Inside Story Americas.
Shihab Rattansi, the host of AJE’s Inside Story Americas, has consistently shed light on crucial if neglected issues on both continents, often by inviting on to his program human-rights activists, social critics, and grassroots and community organizers. His program also routinely probed the structural defects of the mainstream media and the Washington establishment.* In its AJAM incarnation however, Inside Story Americas has been stripped of the plural noun “Americas” and Rattansi has been replaced. In contrast, the program’s new host, Libby Casey (formerly of C-SPAN), touts her ability to connect “Americans with top leaders in Washington including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, members of Congress, governors, journalists and think tank experts.” (Rattansi declined to comment about the nature of his departure.)
Rattansi and his colleagues at Inside Story Americas were exemplars of the most commendable aspects of Al Jazeera, as they provided viewers with a range of news that could be found on no other television network. Rattansi’s team doggedly pursued the case of a lethal 2012 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raid in Ahuas, Honduras; they offered some of the earliest and most consistent coverage of detainees’ hunger strikes at Guantánamo Bay; and for years the program invited experts to discuss the UN’s negligent introduction of cholera into Haiti, which has killed over 8,000 so far. Climate activists conveyed the high stakes of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal; human rights lawyers elaborated on the illegality of U.S. drone strikes; and a heterodox economist and independent journalist questioned the durability of capitalism—all on Inside Story Americas.* As Bishara wrote, such critical coverage is an “essential element of [U.S.] democracy and freedom of speech, not to speak of the role of global media,” despite the predictable accusations of “anti-Americanism” that are surely hurled in response.
AJAM management has expended great energy to avoid the dreaded “anti-American” label; instead, they appear to have insinuated the network into the stratum of the most powerful economic and political actors within the United States. Not only does this jeopardize Al Jazeera’s most unique and socially valuable aspects, but in the process, Bishara writes, AJAM is “insulting” the intelligence of its U.S. audience “through empty gimmicks and poor marketing theatrics.”
As recurring contributors to Al Jazeera’s programming, we also worry that AJAM—now clearly embedded within a nexus of corporate, state and mainstream-media norms and behaviors—will fail to live up to its immense potential. The network has the opportunity to offer tens of millions of people in the United States a desperately needed worldview—one that is more independent and more challenging than the deeply compromised perspective that corporate television already provides.
* The videos of the examples cited can no longer be accessed online by U.S. readers due to Al Jazeera English’s content restrictions.
Adrienne Pine is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. Her latest book is Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras (UC Press 2008). She regularly writes about Honduras and U.S. foreign policy at her blog, Quotha.net.
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR.org, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, and CNN En Español. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. Connect with his blog on Twitter: @KeaneBhatt