Know your place: Al Jazeera America purges CEO after NY Times criticism

Reuters / Brendan McDermid
There is nothing remarkable about Al Jazeera America replacing its CEO - and everything when it does so a day after the US paper of record attacks the network’s newsroom culture. Was this a network reacting to employee complaints, or “soft censorship”?

On May 6, the New York Times ran a feature on the Al Jazeera America’s woes, blaming the network’s CEO, Ehab Al Shihabi, for employee morale problems. Three senior network executives, all women, had resigned in the week prior, the paper pointed out. A male employee was suing the company over alleged sexism and anti-Semitism. All newsworthy, to be sure – but front page material? Someone at the Grey Lady thought so: the piece, titled “Turmoil and Exodus Rattle Al Jazeera America” ran on the front page (A1) of the New York print edition.

“The station has been a nonfactor in news, drawing about 30,000 viewers a night,” the NY Times feature notes, as does the tweet with which the paper promoted the piece. So why is the “nonfactor” deserving of front-page coverage? And why would the Times care if Al Jazeera America’s employees blamed the management for “undermining the network’s mission”? The Grey Lady doth protest too much, methinks.

The US establishment had nothing against Al Jazeera’s English-language service just a few years ago, when the network was cheerleading for the US-backed “moderate democratic opposition” in Syria starting a civil war against the government in Damascus.

Washington and Al Jazeera found themselves on the same page in Egypt as well, backing the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi that replaced Hosni Mubarak in late 2011. But then the US threw Morsi under the proverbial bus, and endorsed a takeover by General Al-Sisi.

Al Jazeera continued backing the Brotherhood, claims one of its former journalists, Mohamed Fahmy.

“Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr was openly for the Brotherhood and against the military,” Fahmy told Robert Fisk of The Independent.

“Its managers in Qatar didn’t understand the rules of journalism – they were so biased, and broke the code of journalistic ethics. Then they put on a panel show with graphics and studio guests to condemn Egypt and replayed my reports. This was Brotherhood propaganda,” Fahmy said.

Because Fahmy did not have the proper paperwork, the Egyptian government jailed him for “supporting terrorism.” He spent 411 days in prison, and gave up his Egyptian passport so he could be deported to Canada. Now he is suing the network for $83 million ($100 million Canadian) in damages for “negligence.”

Recent revelations from the Snowden Archive show that the NSA put an Al Jazeera bureau chief in Islamabad, Pakistan on the terrorist list back in 2012, based on his phone calls and movement patterns. Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan was deemed a member of “both Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood,” because his movements, as revealed through metadata, resembled that of couriers used by the terrorist group. In reality, Zaidan was doing his job as a journalist, which included interviewing people such as Osama Bin Laden.

READ MORE: Al Jazeera Islamabad bureau chief put on terror list by US

“To assert that myself, or any journalist, has any affiliation with any group on account of their contact book, phone call logs, or sources is an absurd distortion of the truth and a complete violation of the profession of journalism,” Zaidan told The Intercept.

Al Jazeera America was started in 2013, after the Qataris spent $500 million to buy out Current TV, Al Gore’s failed media project. The key element of the sale was Current’s distribution footprint of 59 million homes. After the sale, however, distributor Time Warner Cable dropped the network, reducing that distribution to 43 million.

It was a message of sorts. The US establishment had no problem taking the Qataris’ money, but having a foreign TV station broadcasting news to US audiences? Unthinkable! As the New York Times so helpfully buried in paragraph eleven of its May 6 front-page story, Al Jazeera “was occasionally the target of American politicians who said it served up propaganda from the Middle East.”

Qatar being a key US ally didn’t seem to make a difference. Just this week, the Emir of Qatar was one of the two Gulf Cooperation Council heads of state that showed up for President Obama’s summit at Camp David. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman notably canceled his attendance at the last moment, as did the ruler of Bahrain – though the White House was insistent that these were not snubs and that everything was just fine, perfectly fine, move along, nothing to see here.

Al Jazeera America made sure to play by the US establishment rules, trying to be a “respectable” network and even getting awards for its coverage. However, it also ran stories criticizing the US military for recruiting immigrants and then denying them citizenship; or an editorial by South Africa’s ambassador to Washington, Ebrahim Rasool, who dared to describe the US foreign policy as “inconsistent and historically reliant on militarism.”

Perhaps that was the real “sin” of Al Jazeera America, the supposed “nonfactor in news” that the New York Times made front-page story. Could that have been a signal to the Qataris not to overstep the boundaries of their special relationship with Washington, to know their proper place in the grand scheme of things?

The very next day, the network’s CEO Ehab Al Shihabi was replaced by Al Anstey, of Al Jazeera English. US media reported “cheers in the newsroom” when the announcement was made. Message received? Time will tell.

Nebojsa Malic, RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.