Al Jazeera greasing Newseum to rent prestige?
With enough money, Al Jazeera figures it can overcome skeptics and earn some traction in the American news business. Al Jazeera America, the forthcoming cable news service owned by the Royal family of Qatar, seeks to reach and mold the national dialogue in forms congenial to devout Muslims of the Sunni inclination.
The incomparable Claudia Rosett reports in the Weekly Standard:
When it goes live later this year, its flagship primetime show, America Tonight, will be broadcast from a studio in Washington's Newseum-a high-tech museum of news and journalism with the self-described mission of "educating the public about the value of a free press in a free society."
Is anything wrong with that picture? Plenty, if you consider that Al Jazeera is effectively an arm of the government of Qatar, a Middle East monarchy long on oil money and short on freedom. According to the State Department's 2012 Human Rights Report, Qatar has no independent broadcast media and all print media are owned by "Members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials." Journalists censor themselves due to "political and economic pressures." The government forbids political parties, censors the Internet, and strictly regulates the right of assembly. Foreign residents, who make up the bulk of Qatar's population, are prohibited by law from criticizing the emir.
In my years at Harvard University, I first came in contact with the way high level overseas interests interact with prestigious nonprofit organizations so as to gain access and standing in the segments of the public (including the media) influenced by high end nonprofits. Money, in large sums, is involved. Since then, I have made a bit of a study of the ways nonprofit organizations feather their own nests interacting with moneyed interests of countries anxious to influence American elites.
The Newseum is a big bucks operation that has received large donations from the fading giants of the newspaper industry, kind of a joint industry swan song, or if you will, in the end a headstone. Rosett:
Operating as a tax-exempt public charity, built at a cost of $475 million and opened in 2008, the Newseum is located on prime Washington real estate just blocks from the White House and Capitol. Complete with conference facilities and crammed with interactive exhibits and historic items-such as a twisted piece of the antenna that once topped the North Tower of the World Trade Center-the Newseum's block-long building offers a prestigious address, especially for those in the news trade. To symbolize transparency, its walls are made of glass, adorned at one end with a 74-foot-high marble slab engraved with the First Amendment.
Giants of the American news industry contributed millions to help create this place. Plastered throughout its premises are the names of such patrons as Hearst, the New York Times, Bloomberg, News Corporation, ABC, and NBC. The studio Al Jazeera is now refurbishing to its taste is named for the Knight Foundation, a legacy of the Knight Newspapers empire. Until recently, it was home to ABC's This Week, with George Stephanopoulos.
It's easy to see what Al Jazeera gets from this arrangement. But what is the Newseum getting? Or, to put it in dollar terms, how much? Al Jazeera America, headquartered in New York, did not return my phone calls. When I phoned the Newseum press office recently to ask for financial details of the Al Jazeera arrangements, it turned out that officials of this institution dedicated to reporting would not answer such questions from a reporter. Newseum media relations manager Jonathan Thompson did confirm that while a number of other news organizations rent temporary studio space at the Newseum, "Al Jazeera will be the only news organization that has a more permanent contract."
We have no facts on what kind of rent Qatar is paying the Newseum. But in my observation, prestige doesn't come cheap when you are dealing high end nonprofits.