For Al Jazeera America, spring is shaping up as the harbinger of a long, hot summer.
Like the so-called “Arab Spring” that brought its sister cable television channel, Al Jazeera English, to media prominence in the United States four years ago, the New York-based, Qatari-owned American outlet has devolved into backstage backbiting, internal politics and vicious intrigue.
It’s a far cry from the bright promise of collegiality, openness, and management decisions based on journalistic excellence, all with generous financial support from Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family.
Speaking on condition of anonymity—so as not to expose themselves to possible retaliation—former and current Al Jazeera America employees variously describe the corporate culture as “sexist” and “vindictive.” One source told The Daily Beast: “They make a big show of talking about openness and transparency, but it’s actually just the opposite.”
Since its much-anticipated launch 21 months ago, AJAM, as it calls itself, has reportedly spent billions of dollars to chase scant advertising revenue and negligible viewership; laid off hundreds of staffers; suffered through high-profile resignations of respected executives and attracted a $15 million wrongful termination suit depicting a corporate culture that condones “misogynistic behavior” and “anti-American” and “anti-Semitic rhetoric,” among other outrages.
Former AJAM video archivist Matthew Luke’s lawsuit—filed last week in New York Supreme Court (PDF), and alleging that he was fired Feb. 27 as punishment for his complaint to the Human Resources department 10 days earlier about his supervisor, Osman Mahmud, senior vice president of broadcast operations and technology—is a watershed moment in the public unraveling of the news channel.
In the past week, three senior AJAM executives, all of them women, announced their resignations—namely HR chief Diana Lee, public relations senior vice president Dawn Bridges and corporate outreach exec Marcy McGinnis, each a possible witness in a future discovery proceeding in Luke’s litigation. Lee’s and Bridges’s deputies, also women, saw their jobs abruptly eliminated—essentially leaving AJAM without HR or PR departments.
McGinnis, a 35-year veteran of CBS News who joined AJAM as senior vice president of news gathering after serving as associate dean of the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, quit Monday morning with a blast at AJAM’s Jordanian-born “interim” chief executive, Ehab Al Shihabi.
“Today I am resigning my position at Al Jazeera America,” McGinnis wrote in an email to the staff. “Last week, Ehab reminded us at the Senior Leadership meeting and again at the All Hands meeting that anyone who felt they could not support the decisions or direction set forth by him and the Al Jazeera Media Network would be welcome to leave. I find myself at that crossroads now and so have decided to resign.”
McGinnis declined to comment for this story. Her departure was mentioned almost off-handedly by AJAM President Kate O’Brian (“She has decided to leave us…We don’t really go into personnel issues. We’re going to leave it at that”) during a conference call Monday afternoon.
The call was arranged for media reporters by AJAM’s high-priced PR consultants, Washington-based Qorvis, which a knowledgeable AJAM source said had been charging the channel a six-figure monthly retainer until belt-tightening measures were established in recent months.
Reporters on the conference call were under the impression that O’Brian and Al Shihabi were prepared to address the lawsuit’s “false and malicious” attacks “that the channel has allowed conduct which promotes intolerance or gender bias,” per a Qorvis-written press release—attacks that “are designed to mar the exceptional talent and diversity of its employees and the values that Al Jazeera America upholds.”
But the two top executives, while defending the channel’s employment policies, steadfastly refused to discuss the lawsuit; Al Shihabi even declined to say whether he supports Mahmud to continue in his job—a position that he’s widely assumed to hold because he opted to take the lawsuit to court instead of quietly negotiating a settlement—prompting Associated Press television reporter David Bauder to wonder: “I’m just a little curious about why you decided to have this briefing here. I thought this briefing was supposed to be about this case.”
The lawsuit contends: “As an employee at AJAM, Mr. Mahmud’s discriminatory conduct included, but was not limited to, removing female employees from projects to which they had been previously assigned by other management level employees, excluding women from emails and meetings relevant to their assignments, and making discriminatory, anti-Semitic and anti-American remarks such as ‘whoever supports Israel should die a fiery death in hell.’ ” [Emphasis in the original.]
A screen grab of another incendiary comment, allegedly posted by Mahmud on his Facebook page—which apparently has been scrubbed or made private in recent days—has also been making the rounds among colleagues, detractors and media reporters, along with concerned AJAM execs.
“The enemies of Muslims in Egypt, their puppets and blind supporters are due to face death in the hospitals and streets of Egypt, starting from this evil man,” reads the comment, time-stamped July 29, 2014 at 2:32 a.m., apparently a reference to Egyptian television presenter and Muslim Brotherhood opponent Tawfik Okasha.
It’s hardly the sort of sentiment one expects from a senior manager of a journalistic organization.
According to AJAM sources, Mahmud—who didn’t respond to a Facebook message seeking comment—often boasted around the office about his 19-year friendship with Dr. Mostefa Souag, the acting director general of AJAM’s Doha-based parent company, the Al Jazeera Media Network.
Thus he was protected and, despite his detractors’ view that he was unqualified, received rapid promotions up the AJAM chain of command, the lawsuit suggests, citing a December 2014 meeting of senior executives in which one participant allegedly “stated that they had no choice but to accept and deal with Mr. Mahmud’s offensive and discriminatory conduct because Mr. Mahmud was so wellconnected within the Company.”
McGinnis, meanwhile, was demoted from news gathering chief in February to the “significantly less prestigious” outreach job after tangling with Mahmud over his wish to replace an experienced Israeli cameraman with a questionably qualified Palestinian one, and then reporting his “dismiss[ive]” and “patroniz[ing]” conduct to HR, according to the lawsuit.
Still, there is little evidence at this point that the turmoil behind the scenes has started to hurt the quality of AJAM’s programming. Kate O’Brian, for her part, counted off a list of enterprising stories and documentaries that the channel has aired since its 2013 launch, as well as an impressive roster of journalism awards.
And Al Shihabi pleaded with reporters for more positive “optics,” as he repeatedly put it, claiming AJAM is a great success and deserves a measure of patience at it strives for what he called “commercial viability,” though his roadmap to that commendable goal hardly seemed clear.
In the meantime, according to sources, O’Brian is facing potential competition from Al Jazeera Media Network exec Amjad Atallah, a well-liked attorney and former official of the progressive New America Foundation who, as of Monday, relocated from Washington to New York to help oversee AJAM’s troubled news operation.
People inside the channel’s newsroom are asking: Will O’Brian become a figurehead—another woman at AJAM to be marginalized by a male executive?
“That,” said a company source, “is yet to be seen.”