All is Not Well inside Al Jazeera America


This was an email that was sent by one of Al Jazeera’s top journalists Marwan Bishara to the management. Needless to say, we don't think happy with how things are going to far.

The channel is expected to sign on the air next month. 

Here's the email: 

Sent: 10 July 2013 15:30

To: Salah Negm; Ehab Alshihabi; Al Anstey; Mostefa Souag; Khalid Ali Johar

Subject: To Rectify the Mistakes with AJAM

To Rectify the Mistakes with AJAM

The next few weeks and months carry with them the daunting task of launching a new and successful Al Jazeera channel in the US. And we must give it our all to make it fulfill the promise of the mother company.

I started writing this email with bitterness and disappointment. But after taking part in the last week’s days coverage of Egypt and witnessing once again the wonderful way in which everyone seems to pull together and give it their best, am humbled by the efforts and professionalism of all involved. And after long and difficult discussions with our various colleagues including those with formidable responsibility both in Doha, NY and WDC, let me salute each and every one of you with no exception and including the ones I share serious disagreements. Your eagerness to make Aljazeera a success is formidable.

The following reflections are meant to contribute to rectifying some of the serious mistakes made over the last several months in order to guarantee a healthier launch and a more solid commitment to a potential American viewership.

Most of these mistakes, it seems to me as an observer, culminated because of a lack of communication, lack of consultation and the rush to act out of a personal ambition.

I had long decided not to interfere in the working of AJAM, but it has become clear to me over the last few days and weeks that some terrible decisions have been taken that separate AJA & AJE from the new channel on the basis of faulty and ill-thought assumptions.

Paradoxically, those who know America best at AJN, or at least have had the longest and most experience there have been the least consulted and kept out of the loop. In the process Doha has been short changed and AJN has been harmed.

The new effort in America benefits from and builds on our brand, journalism and credibility, only to distance AJAM whenever convenient to appease those who won't, or don't necessarily want to be,

appeased, and in the process insult the intelligence of the American people. 

Do not to erect a firewall between AJN and AJAM under any circumstance.

I've been hearing many ill-conceived assumptions and baseless conclusions about what's good for Aljazeera and what makes it successful in America. And it seems to me a few tend to believe their own feeble pseudo-marketing claims - by definition bullshit .

Presentation after presentation of selective clichés and deformed citations from materials some of us have written in the recent past doesn't make for good PR let alone for making the case for Aljazeera in America.

Silence is understood as agreement. It's shouldn't. As I said in the last episode of Empire, ‘Secrecy corrupts the system’. That’s why it’s high time to speak out and to discuss the almost secretive ways in which AJ matters and interests have been handled in America.

Colleagues in NYC and in Doha are trying to do their best and some are trying harder to carry out and improve on instructions they don't agree with for reasons that I and all of you should understand. But their dedication shouldn't be understood as consensus.

Have we signed a deal where AJAM program/content must be substantially different from AJE? Really!!!! What does substantially mean? Who have we made the agreement with and why? I asked several executives and not a single person can give me a categorical answer about the issue, which by itself is mind-boggling!!! (I have issues with AJE's formats, and at times perspectives, but we have so much to hold onto.)

Does the fear of contractual obligations with carriers etc. mean it’s necessary for some to do whatever they want with Aljazeera, including banning AJE altogether from America and web livestream, just when they themselves try to make the case for a 21st century type television news!!!!

How have all these contradictions and ill-conceived decisions come about? Was Doha told of ALL the options possible? Was this wisely negotiated? And how have we moved from the main idea that the strength of AJN lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists to a channel where only Americans work, when clearly that's not what American viewership wants, even according to the polls?

Let me be clear. I reject flat out that we are polled in the United States as AJE journalists-programs-network in order to find out from Americans whether "we" are "anti-American"!! As I wrote to those who ran the poll in the US (and never gotten a response back). By merely posing the question we’ve sent the wrong message.

"What does "Anti-Americanism" even mean here? How did you define anti-Americanism to those polled! Do you estimate that criticizing the American government or its policies “anti-American” are a 

fundamental “American” trait and essential element of its democracy and freedom of speech, not to 

speak of the role of global media. Do you think The Guardian newspaper asks whether its columnists are anti-American as it expands its presence in America? Or does John Stewart ask whether John Oliver is an anti-American Brit considering he’s continuously ridiculing American power and at times culture? Since we are Aljazeera from Muslim Qatar, featuring an entire episode critiquing the Catholic Church, why not ask if we are anti Christian! ... Shameful."

Such leading questions only hurt us without adding anything to the understanding of our journalism. Yes we need to poll to understand our TV viewership, and the viewership of other networks. But who's suggesting these types of questions? What's the relationship with the former Current TV? And who's dictating what to whom in New York?

I am glad we at EMPIRE have passed the test. LOL. My American team appreciates not being seen as "anti-American", but doesn’t appreciate the questions. We are also proud of our in-depth and critical journalism. EMPIRE is an AJAM must program according as so many of you have told me over the last few weeks and months. Thinking otherwise is as wrong as it is dangerous.

Somehow, perhaps because of a high degree of intimidation and pressure, in addition to a lack of consultation, it rendered us hostage to a faulty and superficial process in a country whose elites and people crave for AJE/AJA kind of journalism. And I did hear of apologies being extended for this rather shameful process, but I think it’s a symptom of a greater problem.

In the past, I was asked by the DG to write up and email a number of observations and guidelines, 

but with the exception of a little feedback from colleagues, there was no discussion about the identity and culture of the new channel.

But these issues are not the main problem per se; they are indications of a greater failure to assign the right tasks to the right people in the right places and to consult with those who know better. Somehow and for whatever reason, a new culture crept on us of late based on the faulty, even absurd assumption that journalists cannot be trusted with our media, and that business minded consultants are better at making the major decisions. With all respect, and I mean that, that's not true. I watch our producers every day write up budgets, deploy teams, do the work flow etc. and have proven more than capable when they know what they're doing. They also know what's good for the network they helped establish.

Something has got to give and soon. Otherwise, if the same closed mindset and superficiality continues to dictate our decisions, we might end up with a far greater crisis in the future.

So for the sake of the many of the hidden foot-soldiers that make Aljazeera work every day, for those who are putting the hours and staying away from their families, and for those who dedicated their lives over the years for the cause of our journalism; some even sacrificed their lives in the call of duty, let's safeguard the dignity of an institution and the credibility of its journalism that has become a cause celebre around the world.

That's why it's high time for a serious reflection about where we are heading 

editorially with AJAM and other potential projects. And for that we need to start answering the questions I listed above, including AJAM's identity and journalism and figure out what will happen as and when Salah and co. leave New York back to Doha. How will AJAM cover the next Egyptian crisis- as we did this week at AJE- when all eyes are on us in America to supply the best possible reporting that Americans have come to expect of us since our coverage of the

Arab revolutions.

Aljzeera enjoys the three ingredients that any network can only dream of: Thanks to Doha, we've received billions of dollars over the last few years; we've been granted basically free and independent editorial decision-making; and we have a dedicated and talented body of journalists. It's also the perfect timing to make a difference when other networks are abdicating their core journalistic mission. It takes hard work to get it wrong...

Ehab, you took on a huge responsibility and have a great opportunity to prove yourself. But personal ambition is leading you astray. You should make no more appearances in public forums or photo-ups with political characters, shady or otherwise, that would only hurt us on the long run. And stay clear of our content. Journalism is not your thing; do whatever you know how to do.

It's truly insulting to the greater majority of the Americans who I suspect want to watch us and support us that AJAM communicates with them through empty gimmicks and poor marketing theatrics. If we fail America around the launch time, it will be ever more difficult to salvage a tarnished image and compromised credibility.