Dave Marash: Al-Jazeera’s New Jewish Anchor

After we saw Dave Marash take a ribbing on Stephen Colbert’s show over his new appointment as Washington anchor for Al-Jazeera’s international channel, we asked Marash to give us a shout. He did, during crazy busy days of moving to Washington from New York, and enlightened us on something Colbert asked: being a Jew working for an Arab-owned and run station that’s best known in the U.S. for airing statements from Al Qaeda brass.

“I’m not shamed or troubled by being a Jew working for a company I believe spreads values across the Middle East that lead to peace and understanding, values I have always tried to reflect in my own work,” Marash, late of Nightline replied.

The full interview is after the break…

The first time we met Dave Marash, we were in high school, he was the stepfather of a close friend, and he was driving us in his (Subaru?) station wagon to a country house upstate. He popped in a Thelonius Monk tape, which is how we learned of the jazz muse. Pretty cool, we thought even if Marash was then just a local news guy. Fast forward about 20 years, and we’re sitting with David in a Washington cafe, where he’s promising in his now-deeper and still dulcet tones to show off his writing talents for the ABC News website, in addition to the myriad other duties he has as a TV correspondent for ABC’s many high-profile shows.

Marash’s perch gave him some stature and standing in the news business, which he further earned through his incisive, in-depth looks, most often for Nightline, at complex topics like foreign wars and politics that others just glanced across. So we were more than a little surprised to learn that he’d joined the Al-Jazeera network as Washington anchor for its new international, English-language channel launching this Spring. He’ll report to Washington bureau chief Will Stebbins.

We asked Marash, 63, about his choice, the ribbing he recently took on The Colbert Report, and his plans. Marash corresponded by email and then spoke with mediabistro.com’s Dorian Benkoil.

You approached Al-Jazeera. Why them instead of a dozen other high-profile places that are more traditional routes for former ABC News folks — anything from Charlie Rose to Frontline, to NPR, to CNN, to Fox News to one of the other major networks or a big metro local station?

I heard from a colleague, Rebecca Lipkin, then a Nightline producer in London, now in charge of documentaries for AJI’s London bureau, about the Al-Jazeera International project. Knowing of Al-Jazeera’s outstanding Arabic-language journalism from my work in the Middle East, I sought a chance to discuss their plans in America. It quickly became obvious to me, Al-Jazeera International is going to do the kind of television journalism, serious, committed, consequential coverage, that I believe has been the standard for my career. As our discussion deepened, the dimensions of the opportunity to be AJI’s Senior Washington Anchor became clearer, and it was easy to sign on.

You have to know a large part the American audience, if it’s aware of Al-Jazeera sees it as at least sympathetic to Mideast terrorists, if not worse. Any concerns there?

Unfortunately, a lot of what the American public “knows” about Al-Jazeera is wrong. It is no one’s mouthpiece, but treats the statements and video releases from terrorist sources as news, never granting live or unedited coverage of either, always putting the materials in context and surrounding them with wide-ranging discussion. Most recent polls from the region show the more Al-Jazeera shows of Bin Laden, Zarqawi et al, their statements and their activities, the lower their standing sinks with the Arabic-speaking public. As ever, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Because Al-Jazeera in Arabic serves an Arabic-speaking, mostly-Muslim, mostly mid-eastern audience and society, it’s palette of discussants includes many we in the west consider obnoxious or worse. But, one could not exclude, for example, anti-Israeli or even crudely anti-Semitic ideas from such a context without losing all credibility with the audience for presenting a bowdlerized universe.

Al-Jazeera International will be a completely independent news channel with its own global audience of English speakers (including we hope, many who speak English as a second language). Our mandate is to take an American (as well as Qatari, British, and Malaysian) view of stories that matter. We will do fewer stories than most of our competitors. We will do them at greater length, providing, we hope, greater depth, as well. Our focus will be on the stories about the world Americans need to know (or which are so fascinating in themselves, that Americans will want to know them), and the stories from the Americas that the rest of the world ought to see and hear. Our news judgments will be the collective work of many professional journalists from the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East and the breadth of our television discussions will reflect all those backgrounds.

Does this represent a pay increase?… Any concerns about this as a career move? It might be tough to go to some major U.S. news organizations — not to mention think tanks, research institutions and elsewhere –after having Al-Jazeera on your resumé.

No, this is not a financial windfall. And no, I have no fears for my career, because I expect the news product of Al-Jazeera International, and certainly my work as anchor from Washington, to reflect the values and standards of my career. Especially over the last 16 years at Nightline, I have been blessed to report, probably at greater length, and hopefully at similar depth, about many of the important stories of our time, from the wars and post-wars in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Iraq and terrorist threats in Italy and Pakistan, to AIDS in Zimbabwe, ecological misbehavior in the Amazon, and racial conflict in America’s corporate suites and inner city streets.

I expect to do similar work, both in the field and from the anchor desk, at Al-Jazeera International. Frankly, I can think of no better opportunity, for me or anyone else, anywhere in broadcasting. (Ed: Marash later tells us he had several other “plans, ideas, alternatives in the works” besides Al-Jazeera but didn’t say what they were. He repeated that he’d quit if they do anything than launch a “really high-end TV news channel,” but said he believed this could be the culmination of his career as a TV newsman, to “play every card in my news hand.”)

You at times seemed uncomfortable at the probing, even harsh way Stephen Colbert questioned you the other night. Were you surprised at the tack he took?

I thought The Colbert Show was a lot of fun. I’m not shamed or troubled by being a Jew working for a company I believe spreads values across the Middle East that lead to peace and understanding, values I have always tried to reflect in my own work. (Ed: Colbert talked to Marash about being a Jew and whether Marash’s friends thought it odd he’d be working for AJI.) I got to make at least one serious point on Colbert: that terrorists and terrorism get covered by Al-Jazeera because they are news, and they always treated critically, analytically, in context, the way news should be done. I think Al-Jazeera International will meet all standards for good journalism.

What are the plans moving forward? What are you going to do for Al-Jazeera they didn’t have the ability to do before you signed up?

My challenge is simple: the lower your expectations, the worse your assumptions about what Al-Jazeera international will be, the more your obligation to check it out. I welcome tough scrutiny, once we begin, probably late in May. I think it will be rewarded on both sides, by people surprised at how thorough and interesting a serious newschannel can be, and by my bosses, surprised at how large an audience there is for this kind of real news.