Commentary Magazine

Qatar and the Columbia Journalism Review

AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File

Should Al Jazeera–the broadcast organ of Qatar’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood regime–be required to register as a foreign agent in the United States? Alexandra Ellerbeck and Avi Asher-Schapiro of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists think the answer is no, and they have a long essay in the Columbia Journalism Review laying out their case.

Requiring Al Jazeera to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, they argue, would have a chilling effect on its journalism and empower a “notoriously opaque unit within the Department of Justice to draw an impossible line between propaganda and journalism.” They also contend that using FARA to pressure outlets like Al Jazeera would encourage repressive governments abroad to take similar action against critical media and civil-society organizations.

The problem: Ellerbeck and Asher-Schapiro failed to disclose their own conflict of interest when it comes to Al Jazeera.

To wit, Al Jazeera program host Mhamed Krichen is a member of the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ellerbeck’s and Asher-Schapiro’s employer. The authors quote numerous Al Jazeera officials and highlight the broadcaster’s reporting “accolades.” But they eschew or only lightly touch on Al Jazeera’s less savory aspects, not least the fact that its Arabic network has long served as a platform for Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood preacher.

In a 2009 speech broadcast on the network, Qaradawi praised Hitler and the Holocaust: “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them–even though they exaggerated this issue–he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”

The failure to disclose is especially to embarrassing for the Columbia Journalism Review, which trades on its association with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Pulitzer prizes. Perched on Morningside Heights, CJR regularly subjects other outlets to journalistic scrutiny, doling out “hits and misses” and “darts and laurels.” To his credit, CJR editor Kyle Pope was quick to issue a statement and amend the story when I reached out to him.

“This piece was written by two CPJ staffers, not by CJR folks, and was labeled as an analysis and not a news story,” he said in an email. “That said, you raise a fair point. While their board member is a program host, and not an executive, at Al Jazeera (and while a lot of media outlets CPJ writes about have some connection to the organization), we added a note of disclosure to the text.”

Readers can judge for themselves if the conflict of interest influenced the substance of the essay.

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