The press critics from Foggy Bottom

By Jack Shafer
September 22, 2011

Everybody thinks of themselves as a press critic these days, even the U.S. State Department.

A slew of diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks portrays the State Department as the A.J. Liebling of Foggy Bottom. Drawing on content analysis by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. embassy officials in Qatar in 2005 aggressively leaned on and lobbied the top editors of Al Jazeera, the news channel and website owned by the Qatar monarchy, giving them unsolicited editorial suggestions. It’s quaint to imagine Pentagon employees watching hour after hour of Al Jazeera and clicking the vastness of its website with the diligence that Media Matters for America applies to ferreting out media bias by the Fox News Channel. I wonder if they get pee breaks and snacks.

The release of diplomatic cables from 2005 may have contributed to the ouster this week of Al Jazeera’s news director, Wadah Khanfar, according to a Sept. 20 report in the New York Times by David D. Kirkpatrick. The cables portray Khanfar as a pliant vessel in his meetings with hectoring representatives from the U.S. embassy. For instance, an October 2005 cable described a meeting in which a U.S. embassy official gave Khanfar a hard copy of unclassified snippets from a DIA critique of three recent months of Al Jazeera coverage of the Iraq war.

From the cable:

[The U.S. official] told Khanfar that despite an overall decrease in negative coverage since February, the month of September showed a worrying increase in such programming over the previous month. She summarized the latest [U.S. government] reporting on Al Jazeera by noting that problems still remain with double-sourcing in Iraq; identifying sources; use of inflammatory language; a failure to balance of [sic] extremist views; and the use of terrorist tapes.

Rather than telling the U.S. press critic to bug off—which is the treatment I’m often accorded when I disparage an editor’s work to his face—Khanfar said he had already seen some of the DIA critiques (the Qatar government had forwarded them to him)  and responded that he was preparing a reply to them.

“Some are simple mistakes which we accept and address,” the cable quotes Khanfar. “This report takes bits and pieces from a whole thing and does not give the context.”

Khanfar attempted to mollify the U.S. official by claiming to have deleted from the network’s website two images of injured civilians that the U.S. had previously objected to. After the U.S. official complained about a different website piece, Khanfar agreed to delete it, too. “Not immediately, because that would be talked about, but over two  or three days.” According to the cable, “Khanfar appeared to repress a sigh” in response to the criticism.

Khanfar did, however, balk at the wording of one of the DIA reports, which states that the news organization had violated a previous agreement with U.S. officials. That agreement was “non-paper,” Khanfar said, adding that Al Jazeera could not “sign agreements of this nature, and to have it here like this in writing.”

A December 2005 cable chronicles another meeting with Khanfar in which the U.S. official griped about Al Jazeera’s “lack of professionalism.” Playing good cop, bad cop, the official held out the idea of inviting Al Jazeera journalists to participate in the State Department’s International Visitor program, which brings foreigners here to learn about life in the United States. “Khanfar acquiesced immediately,” the cable reported, and he reciprocated by extending an invitation for U.S. journalists to spend a week or so in the Al Jazeera newsroom.

The State Department delivered a separate press critique to Abdulaziz Al Mahmoud, the editor of AlJazeera.net, according to an October 2005 cable. A U.S. embassy official told Al Mahmoud of his displeasure with a slideshow that blamed the U.S. government for “the starvation of thousands of Arabs and Muslims,” among other sins. Al Mahmoud later called the embassy to say that Khanfar had ordered the slideshow removed from the site.

How did the embassy appraise Al Mahmoud? From the cable:

Al Mahmoud is clearly very wary of attracting negative attention from his chain of command, and is aware that an irritated [U.S. government] means trouble for him. He urged [the embassy official] to call him directly any time the Embassy observes troubling material on the website.

The State Department’s Al Jazeera offensive had two fronts. Around the time that it was twisting Al Jazeera’s arm, U.S. Ambassador Chase Untermeyer was pressuring its financial source, the Qatar government, in a meeting with Sheik Hama bin Jassim Al Thani, now Qatar’s prime minister but then its minister of foreign affairs.

Untermeyer discussed with al Thani the monthly reports the DIA and the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service had been collecting on Al Jazeera, according to the cable. What most irritated Untermeyer were the insurgent-provided videos from the Iraq war that Al Jazeera had aired and the “anti-American interviewees.”

Also, the DIA had perceived an increase of “hostile reportage” on Al Jazeera from 7 percent in August to 11 percent in September, the first increase “since our bilateral engagement on AJ began in February,” the cable stated.

“This backsliding, Ambassador pointed out, will be noted negatively in Washington,” stated the cable.

(Khanfar has been replaced at Al Jazeera by Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem bin Muhammad Al Thani, a member of the “royal” family, helping to erode the news organization’s claim that it is editorially independent of the government.)

How much of Khanfar’s willingness to roll over for the U.S. embassy is genuine and how much a function of the cable authors’ self-aggrandizement can only be answered by the flies on the walls at the meetings. Still, the cables have convinced me that the State Department never regarded Al Jazeera as independent from the Qatar government in the first place. What does surprise me, based on the leaked cables, is the paucity of the State Department’s critique. What State seems ever-protesting is the way Al Jazeera frames its stories; who appears on its talk shows to damn the West (and the frequency with which those damners appear); the graphic depiction of wounded; a lack of balance (where have we heard that one before?); the provenance of some of its videos  (“insurgents”); and more. Not to find equivalence between Al Jazeera and, say, the BBC, but should the State Department be in the business of playing the Columbia Journalism Review to a state broadcaster?

For personal and professional reasons I’m dying to know how good the boys and girls at DIA and FBIS are at dossier building for the press critics at State. So tomorrow, I’m going to file FOIAs for DIA and FBIS analysis of Al Jazeera. I promise to post updates to the FOIA responses on this RSS feed.

******

For a worthy take on what the leaked cables tell us about Al Jazeera, see Omar Chatriwala’s piece in Foreign Policy. WikiLeaks obsessives who have found additional press-related cables should send the URLs to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Contrary to rumor, my Twitter feed is not owned by the Qatar government. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: A general view shows the newsroom at the headquarters of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English-language channel in Doha February 7, 2011. REUTERS/ Fadi Al-Assaad

3 comments

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Zzzzzzz.

Is this supposed to be news? The United States has been monitoring, critiquing and influencing (in a myriad of ways) foreign broadcasts for decades.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Snicker all you want, but I’m a news person, and I don’t think the State Department did anything wrong. They can sound off to the press just like you or anyone can. If Al Jazeera chose to listen to them, perhaps it’s a sign that they are becoming aware of their own considerable shortcomings as a purported news organization. Someone has to show them the way, and it doesn’t matter if it’s western reporters or the State Department. They need help, bad.

Posted by NewsLady | Report as abusive

Only 2 copouts. Pretty amazing for a nation that accepts managed news on behalf of everyone from coal producers to credit cards.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive