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From Baghdad Battles To Media Wars (Part II)

(AP/U.S. Marines)
Two weeks ago we discussed former Marine and present-day author Josh Rushing, whose career path has taken him from press liaison in Iraq -- where he was featured in the documentary "Control Room" -- to correspondent for Al Jazeera's English-language network. Today we continue with the second installment of Public Eye's conversation with him, where we talked about American media, Pat Tillman, Jon Stewart and how, when you really think about it, Qatar is a little like Delaware.

Matthew Felling: Have you been following the Pat Tillman story? What do you make of it, from a media standpoint as well as as a former Marine?

Josh Rushing: I'm actually fortunate enough to be invited back to the senior leadership of the military's public affairs frequently. I bring up the story. I have some coverage that we did of the Senate hearing where Pat Tillman's brother and Jessica Lynch testified. I show them that story to show them the effect, what happens when you lie. The truth always gets out; institutionally the military knows that. At the Defense Information School, where they train all their media liaison officers, the number one thing they teach them is "Maximum Information, Minimum Delay." They're there to do Public Affairs, not public relations. And the difference is, public affairs is meant to assist the media and get the information out because the American public has a right to know. As taxpayers, they have a right to know what's going on within the ranks. And that's what a public affairs officer does. He doesn't spin or sell the message. He's not PR; he's not looking for good publicity. That's not what his job is supposed to be.

So institutionally, they're teaching the right thing. But the problem is your public affairs officer is generally the junior officer on the staff, and he doesn't have a lot of sway. It's the senior officers that get to make the final decision, and that's what happened in the Pat Tillman case. It was just a bald-faced lie.

And it's not just a little cover-up. They wrote him up for a silver star. That requires witnesses and an investigation. It's a big deal and they awarded it to him. Which means this is beyond a small cover-up – it's a huge fabrication.

When did it happen, '04? Some Lieutenant Colonel in Spring of '04 thought 'This is a really bad news story. Let's cover it up.' Now that news story has three years worth of legs and will keep getting reported as the investigation continues, a little bit at a time. This may end up being a five-year long bad news story for the military because of one lie. They could have gone out that day, put out the facts and what happened, admitted it was terribly wrong and said 'We're going to search in our hearts and our operational procedures to make sure that we're doing the right thing here, and we're going to make sure this doesn't happen again.' If they'd done that, we wouldn't be talking about Pat Tillman today.

For 10 million dollars, you can't get three years worth of good publicity. But you can get three years of bad publicity with one lie.

Matthew Felling: I want to talk about working at Al Jazeera, but I've got to ask: What's it like doing "The Daily Show?"

Josh Rushing: First, let me tell you about the gift basket they give you. It came with a bottle of vodka from Ireland, and a gift card for a free tattoo. And the gift card is presented in a very nice little jewelry box, a nice little velvet jewelry box. I thought at first it would be something great I could give my wife. Then I popped it open and it was a VIP gift card from some tattoo parlor in New Jersey.

I gave Jon Stewart a hard time about it, too, when he came back to the green room. I told him if he wanted to give me liquor from Ireland, I'd rather it have been whiskey. If you're gonna give me vodka, make it from Russia. As for the tattoo, I asked him 'Do I need to drink the vodka to deal with the tattoo? Do these gifts appeal to your other guests?'

Then he stopped being funny and said 'It's really embarrassing. We don't put out those gift bags. Some promotional company does it. But it's really embarrassing.'

But beyond that, they'd just come back from break and nobody had read my book. So we didn't really get to talk about the book, which was unfortunate. But he was very interested in me and my story. At "The Daily Show," they're the biggest critics of American media right now, and that's a lot of what I talk about. He was very interested in talking about how what happened at Virginia Tech got a lot of attention, and there were other things going on in the world as well. That was a valuable conversation to have.

Matthew Felling: On the topic of Al Jazeera, you talk a lot about Al Jazeera English. Do you observe a different tone or agenda between Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic?

Josh Rushing: The main argument I try to make is about Al Jazeera's importance to America's strategic interests. Like it or not, you ignore it at their own peril. Also, that most of the reasons people don't like Al Jazeera are based on false misperceptions, things that can be proven to be wrong. Take the myth that Al Jazeera broadcasts beheadings – they've never done that.

Then there's the Al Qaeda issue – a lot of people associate Al Jazeera with Al Qaeda. But if you take a look at what Al Qaeda's done – and you'd think that more people would be interested in what Al Qaeda says, but they're really not – Al Qaeda has called Al Jazeera 'pro-Zionist' and 'pro-westerners.' They've called for attacks against Al Jazeera in Qatar. And that's both bin Laden's Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq. They've both publicly said that. That's my message about Al Jazeera.

But as for Al Jazeera Arabic, I don't speak the language. But I watch a lot of it every day without sound. I watch Al Jazeera English a lot more, naturally. But the two networks are completely independent. And it's a bit embarrassing to admit this, but we don't operate together as well or as much as we should. That's one of our challenges as a new organization, figuring out ways for us to better work together. But right now and since before the network's launch, they've always been entirely separate networks.

Matthew Felling: But haven't there been people who moved over from Al Jazeera Arabic to Al Jazeera English?

Josh Rushing: A few, but not many at all. Initially, that started happening but they didn't want to create a brain drain on the Arabic side. So senior management said 'No, you're not going to take any talent from over here.'

So on any given day, we're covering stories that they're not. They're covering stories that we're not. We cover stories in different order and in completely different ways. It's literally just as if they're completely separate networks. But what's the same about them is the brand, and the principles that come along with that brand.

The unspoken motto of Al Jazeera is "Give a voice to the underdog." When it approaches an issue, they consider how the west is covering the issue – whether it be BBC or CNN International or whatever – and ask 'who doesn't have a voice here?' And the best example of that is how Al Jazeera Arabic covered the invasion of Iraq. The American media was completely embedded in the U. S. military and did an excellent job of providing an American perspective on the story. But there was no one covering the perspective of the average Iraqi citizen, and Al Jazeera set out to do that. That was their agenda.

So when CNN would show a missle taking off, Al Jazeera would try to show where it landed and what was the impact of that. It was a very human story. It was less than objective, because it did have the agenda of telling the story from the Iraqis' perspective. But so did the American press, even if they didn't admit that publicly. I think that's a classic example of how Al Jazeera attempted to fill in and flesh out the broader picture by showing a different perspective.

Matthew Felling: One of the main criticisms of Al Jazeera Arabic is that while it is skeptical of the entire Middle East and an independent voice, it is accused of treating Qatar – where it is owned and operated – more gently than other countries. Have you seen any evidence of that?

Josh Rushing: That might very well be true, but I know they've done critical stories about Qatar. They've done stories about the labor force and about child safety issues. I remember they did a story about children being used as camel jockeys – camel racing is very popular in Qatar. They'd get young boys from India, about 10 or 12 years old, strap them to the camel and it was very dangerous. So Al Jazeera did a critical story about that practice, and the government of Qatar made it illegal and actually invested the money in creating robot camel jockeys. So now the camels race around with these little robot jockeys and it's safer.

But let's accept the criticism as a given, that they're not as critical of the government of Qatar as they are of everyone else. It may or may not be true; the editorial board that's in between the network and the government is fashioned exactly like the one the BBC has, and it's plenty critical of the British government. That's the way Al Jazeera's is designed to be.

But here's the thing: the country of Qatar only has 176,000 natural citizens. The issue that most often puts Qatar on the international map, more often than not, is Al Jazeera. And Al Jazeera isn't going to report on itself because that's too self-referential. So if you take away Al Jazeera, you're not left with much that really impacts the international stage to report on, because it's such a small country.

The most important story lines out of Qatar are, it's the second-largest reserve of natural gas; it has a close relationship with the United States, in that it allows two military bases to operate there. Other than that, there's not a whole lot to report on.

Matthew Felling: So it's a little like saying 'Why don't you cover Delaware more?'

Josh Rushing: Exactly. If Delaware was home to an international news network, that is. Because with Al Jazeera, Qatar is not the audience. The audience for Al Jazeera Arabic is the entire Arabic-speaking world. And with Al Jazeera English, our target audience is the entire English-speaking world. But you're right, if CNN International was located in Delaware, they probably wouldn't talk a lot about Delaware. I mean, CNN International doesn't talk a lot about Georgia politics.

Matthew Felling: You've been a soldier in the war, and now you're watching it reported. What do you see lacking in the American news media?

Josh Rushing: When I was a soldier and came back, I couldn't believe how clean and sanitized the war looked. There was no blood and guts. Forget about showing soldiers, I didn't see Iraqis either. People aren't getting a real sense of things over there.

Now, I still don't think we're getting a good sense of what happening. For one, the issues tend to be complicated. All the activity happens outside of the green zone, and it's really dangerous for reporters to be outside of the green zone. I was just embedded in Iraq, and I had to stop through the green zone to get my documentation and stuff. I couldn't believe how isolated I felt in the green zone in Baghdad. You would hear an explosion, you could walk up to the roof of a building and see the plume of smoke, but you had no idea what was going on out there. Your only source of information is the Iraqi government official or the American government official. I honestly felt closer to the information and to the story in Washington, DC than I did in the center of Baghdad.

I could see the reporters doing their standups over and over inside the green zone. But outside, it's just not a healthy environment to work in, and as a journalist you can't help that. It's too dangerous. But that's the situation they're facing right now.

I was fortunate enough to get out into the countryside of Iraq and got a completely different picture of Iraq for a piece I did called "Iraq: The Way Out." I went on patrol for two weeks and never saw a trigger pulled in anger, never saw a bomb explode, it was actually peaceful.

I saw an Iraqi Lieutenant Colonel walk around with his herd of sheep that they jokingly called "Fifth Company." He had four companies of soldiers and a fifth one of sheep. It was bucolic and charming, in a way. But you never see that version of Iraq in western media.

The deal with American media right now? I've given them a hard time in recent years. For all the Anna Nicole and all the Paris Hilton stories and the lack of hard-core news reporting, the truth is it's not their fault. The American media has a moral obligation to its investors to increase its profit by increasing its viewership.

One example: Anderson Cooper scored a sit-down interview with Condoleeza Rice when she came back from Israel and Palestine. That's a great exclusive for a reporter, the Secretary of State coming back from the Middle East. His competition that night, on Greta and Rita, are both reporting live from Florida on day four of the Anna Nicole thing. After they've spent hours of their air-time during the day to Anna Nicole, they're doing more of it. That night was one of the first nights that MSNBC beat CNN in prime-time since I don't know when. And Greta's numbers on Fox News were three times Anderson Cooper's. So if you're in charge of CNN, you owe it to your investors to look at those numbers and increase your viewership. You better get Anderson talking about Anna Nicole Smith. You have an obligation to do that.

If you look at CNN a couple months later, Paris Hilton gets out of jail. Larry King Live gives her an entire hour to speak. I don't think she knows an hour's worth of vocabulary, enough words to fill an hour. Larry King's numbers on that night were six times his usual audience. If you look the Monday and the Wednesday – on either side of the Tuesday they sat down with Paris – he was averaging 500,000 viewers. When he interviewed Paris, he had 3 million viewers. CNN and all these networks are designed to do that, to draw in an audience.

Sure, there are times when I want to watch the tabloid stuff. After a day of gruesome international coverage, I might want to come home and see if Paris can put together an hour's worth of sentences. That's okay. But we just have to recognize it for what it is. It's infotainment. But what I argue is that we don't need to change the networks we have, it's just to broaden the marketplace. Let's have a broadened marketplace so that we have good international reporting coming in alongside that tabloid reporting.

Matthew Felling: Isn't it telling that "hard news" is now becoming a niche unto itself?

Josh Rushing: Yeah, and it's a dying niche. As what we used to consider news is evolving into this other thing, I think we need to create a new space in the market for hard news. And if you put Al Jazeera next to CNN or Fox News, you'll see what hard news is. You watch Al Jazeera English for a little bit and you'll immediately see the difference. You'll find out that during the Anna Nicole Smith week that Nigeria was having elections and there was a lot of violence in Mogadishu, and bombs going off in Baghdad. All these things are happening around the world, and they all impact us in the United States – if not today, potentially down the road – economically and as far as national security. We need to know what's going on out there.

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