Bankrolled by the oil and gas wealth of Qatar, now hiring 800 staff members and opening 12 news bureaus across the United States, Al Jazeera will soon be coming to a television near you. From its Doha headquarters, the media empire of Qatar’s royal family is launching a new channel dubbed Al Jazeera America, devoted to in-depth coverage of the United States. When it goes live later this year, its flagship primetime show, America Tonight, will be broadcast from a studio in Washington’s Newseum—a high-tech museum of news and journalism with the self-described mission of “educating the public about the value of a free press in a free society.”
Is anything wrong with that picture? Plenty, if you consider that Al Jazeera is effectively an arm of the government of Qatar, a Middle East monarchy long on oil money and short on freedom. According to the State Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report, Qatar has no independent broadcast media and all print media are owned by “Members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials.” Journalists censor themselves due to “political and economic pressures.” The government forbids political parties, censors the Internet, and strictly regulates the right of assembly. Foreign residents, who make up the bulk of Qatar’s population, are prohibited by law from criticizing the emir.
From this base, Al Jazeera’s expanding networks have been part of the Qatari government’s efforts to cultivate influence around the globe. This is a complex campaign, in which Qatar currently hosts both U.S. military forces and terrorist Khaled Meshal, one of the top leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that rules Gaza and is dedicated in its charter to the obliteration of Israel.
Al Jazeera’s management has been insisting that its new American network will be independent, though so far the hallmarks of the venture have been opaque multimillion-dollar deals out of Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters. To gain its new foothold in the U.S. cable market, Al Jazeera in January paid former vice president Al Gore and his business partners an estimated $400 million (the precise amount was not disclosed) for Gore’s dud cable news venture, Current TV. Attracting ads may be difficult in America’s highly competitive news market, but Al Jazeera Media Network’s executive director of international operations, Ehab Al Shihabi, recently told the Wall Street Journal that profits are not a primary concern.
What Al Jazeera most seems to need is credibility. Which brings us to its arrangements to broadcast from the Newseum, a venue meant to showcase the glories of a free press, not the advantages of Arab oil wealth. Operating as a tax-exempt public charity, built at a cost of $475 million and opened in 2008, the Newseum is located on prime Washington real estate just blocks from the White House and Capitol. Complete with conference facilities and crammed with interactive exhibits and historic items—such as a twisted piece of the antenna that once topped the North Tower of the World Trade Center—the Newseum’s block-long building offers a prestigious address, especially for those in the news trade. To symbolize transparency, its walls are made of glass, adorned at one end with a 74-foot-high marble slab engraved with the First Amendment.
Giants of the American news industry contributed millions to help create this place. Plastered throughout its premises are the names of such patrons as Hearst, the New York Times, Bloomberg, News Corporation, ABC, and NBC. The studio Al Jazeera is now refurbishing to its taste is named for the Knight Foundation, a legacy of the Knight Newspapers empire. Until recently, it was home to ABC’s This Week, with George Stephanopoulos.
It’s easy to see what Al Jazeera gets from this arrangement. But what is the Newseum getting? Or, to put it in dollar terms, how much? Al Jazeera America, headquartered in New York, did not return my phone calls. When I phoned the Newseum press office recently to ask for financial details of the Al Jazeera arrangements, it turned out that officials of this institution dedicated to reporting would not answer such questions from a reporter. Newseum media relations manager Jonathan Thompson did confirm that while a number of other news organizations rent temporary studio space at the Newseum, “Al Jazeera will be the only news organization that has a more permanent contract.”
Al Jazeera is not the only topic on which the Newseum has made troubling decisions lately. This spring, the Newseum included in its memorial to fallen journalists the names of two men killed in Gaza last year while working under the auspices of Al Aqsa Television, Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama. Al Aqsa TV has been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury since 2010 as “financed and controlled by Hamas.” Treasury noted that Al Aqsa “airs programs and music videos designed to recruit children to become Hamas armed fighters and suicide bombers upon reaching adulthood.”
When the Hamas names provoked protest, the Newseum erased them from its online roster of fallen journalists, but not from its in-house exhibit. They remain etched in the glass panels of the memorial, alongside such names as Daniel Pearl. Nearby is a quote from Hillary Clinton, “The men and women of this memorial are truly democracy’s heroes.”
Honoring dead Hamas terrorists
is the kind of gesture that might please the emir of Qatar, who last October traveled to Gaza to honor the living leaders of Hamas by promising them $400 million in aid. But it seems a strange way of educating the public in the value of a free press. So does a statement, in reply to my questions, from Newseum spokesman Thompson: “Free speech includes the right to not answer questions.”
Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its investigative reporting project.