Mission of former Marine: Arab TV

Outspoken Rushing may join Al-Jazeera

August 18, 2005|By Nick Madigan and Annie Linskey | Nick Madigan and Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

During the early battles of the invasion of Iraq, a Marine lieutenant named Josh Rushing became one of the salient faces of America's war, a man with a conscience who supported the mission but also understood the enemy's cause.

As a military spokesman at Central Command in Doha, Qatar, Rushing achieved unlikely cult status in a documentary about Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war, Control Room. His verbal sparring with the controversial Arab network's reporters showed him to be sensitive to the conflict's contradictions and injustices, a rare example of an American military man to whom some in the Arab world could relate.

Now, Rushing, who left the Marines last year after saying he had been silenced for his outspokenness, stands poised to join Al-Jazeera when it debuts its expanded international service early next year.

Reached on his cell phone yesterday, Rushing said he could not "confirm or deny who I'll be working with."

But Mike Holtzman, executive vice president of Brown Lloyd James, a public relations firm that represents Al-Jazeera International, confirmed that the network and Rushing were discussing a role for him.

"He'll be operating in some capacity," said Holtzman. "We're talking, we're interested. We're talking in terms of a staff position."

Holtzman declined to be specific about what Rushing might do, saying it was "still up in the air," but on one thing he was clear: "I wouldn't categorize him as an anchor."

"We don't know what role he's going to fill on the editorial side," Holtzman said. "It remains to be seen as how he would fit into a news structure. He will not be sitting in a news bureau saying, `And this is up next.' That is not the role that is envisioned for him.

"There are a hundred things he could possibly do. He could be a military analyst; he could do all sorts of things."

Rushing's musings will not, apparently, be served up on the network's Arabic-language service, regardless of sympathetic image in the Middle East. He will appear on the new, English-language Al-Jazeera International, designed as a global competitor to such 24-hour operations as CNN and the BBC. Al-Jazeera International plans to have about 30 bureaus worldwide, with headquarters in Doha.

"The heritage of Al-Jazeera is to do things that are out of the box," Holtzman said. "They were the first to have an Israeli on an Arab news channel. They tore down all kinds of barriers. You'll see a lot of hiring decisions that will be out of the box."

The international service's audience will be primarily "a younger demographic, not Muslim audiences - the English-speaking world," Holtzman said.

Rushing's apparent move to a network that some in the United States see as inexcusably anti-American is likely to raise some hackles, particularly among those who resist the notion of a collaborative relationship with entities in the region, such as Al-Jazeera, that have in the past given voice to videotaped diatribes by Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk.

However, the powers at Al-Jazeera have recently taken pains to display their objectivity.

Matthew T. Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, said there had been a marked improvement in the network's performance in what he called "capital-J journalism."

"They would allow gossip and hearsay and unsubstantiated rumors about American troops to run unfettered across the Arab world, anywhere from women and children being shot in a mosque by U.S. troops to the use of daisy cutters on Iraqi civilians," Felling said. "It wasn't true, but there it was."

With Rushing's potential hiring and the launch of the English-language service, Felling said, the network is taking another step into global respectability.

"I can't think of a single more powerful arrow in their credibility quiver than an all-American, straightforward and reasonably well-known military professional joining their news-reporting team," he said.

It should not come as a surprise that Rushing, a 32-year-old Texan, may be joining the news crew at Al-Jazeera. In an interview in the Village Voice in May 2004, he said, "People don't understand what a complex organization Al-Jazeera is. They say it's all Islamists, or Baathists, or Arab nationalists. You have all that, but you have really progressive voices too. Al-Jazeera shows it all. It turns your stomach, and you remember there's something wrong with war."

In an Oct. 30 interview on National Public Radio's Weekend All Things Considered, he responded to a question about his post-military plans by saying he hoped to become "involved with the media in terms of being a spokesperson or in some other capacity."

"But I'm really looking for an organization that I believe in as much as I believe in the Marine Corps," he said.

In Control Room, which focused on the emerging network's philosophy and war coverage, Rushing is shown developing a friendship with an Al-Jazeera reporter, Hassan Ibrahim.

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