Last Tuesday, Al Jazeera English published a lengthy Op-Ed by Columbia professor and Middle East scholar Joseph Massad entitled "The Last of the Semites". Massad's argument was obviously controversial: he highlighted the shared goal between the early Zionist movement and Europe's anti-Jewish bigots (namely, the removal of Jews from the continent), detailed the cooperation between German Nazis and Zionists to facilitate the departure of Jews out of Europe (the existence of that cooperation is not in dispute, though the extent of it very much is), and highlighted the extensive disagreements among Jews themselves over the wisdom and justness of Zionism (large numbers of European Jews were insistent that they did not want to, and should not have to, leave their homelands for a distant land that was not theirs).
Predictably, numerous commentators - largely the ones who have spent years casually smearing as anti-semites those who criticize Israel - instantly and vehemently denounced Massad's arguments. The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg sarcastically tweeted: "Congratulations, al Jazeera: You've just posted one of the most anti-Jewish screeds in recent memory," while the editor of the neocon journal Commentary, John Podhoretz, wrote: "Congratulations, donors to Columbia University, for paying this monstrous head's salary!" A blogger for the Jerusalem Post claimed that "Massad's writings on Israel can easily be confused with material from the neo-Nazi 'White Pride World Wide' hate site Stormfront."
All of that is par for the course when it comes to debates over Israel and Palestine: as any writer who ever ventures into that topic well knows, nothing triggers greater venom and personalized attacks (and a greater risk of losing one's job) than opining on any of these matters. And the critics of Massad's Op-Ed were doing nothing wrong per se: it's perfectly appropriate to harshly criticize controversial arguments that are published in a major media outlet. An intense debate was triggered about Massad's thesis, just as Massad and his Al Jazeera editors undoubtedly anticipated, and that is what opinion journalism often does and should do.
But all of that changed on Saturday. Without issuing any comment or explanation of any kind, unknown officials at Al Jazeera ordered Massad's Op-Ed to be deleted - in essence, silently retracted. I actually discovered this deletion because, aware of the controversy that had erupted, I attempted on Saturday to read Massad's Op-Ed. But none of the specific Al Jazeera links I found would work: they all went to Al Jazeera's home page, which said nothing about Massad's Op-Ed. I finally was able to read the Op-Ed only by finding it on blogs which had re-printed the Op-Ed in full.
As a result, on Saturday morning I asked on Twitter whether Massad's Op-Ed had been deleted by Al Jazeera, and emailed several people who I believed had contacts with Massad and Al Jazeera to make the same inquiry. One of them, Ali Abunimah, then spoke with Massad and reported that Massad "had 'received confirmation' from his editor at Al Jazeera English that 'management pulled the article'". Someone on Twitter advised me that the article could still be read in the mobile version of Al Jazeera's site, which I then noted on Twitter, but by the end of that day, that, too, had been deleted. That Al Jazeera silently deleted an Op-Ed that it itself had published was then beyond dispute. In an email interview with me on Monday, Massad confirmed that his editor at Al Jazeera - who had solicited Massad to write an Op-Ed for Nakba Day - did not even know that it had been removed, and had to make several calls to confirm that it had been.
I spent much of the weekend emailing various Al Jazeera officials for comment, to no avail. Everyone either ignored my multiple inquires or said they were barred from commenting and referred me to the head of the outlet's PR department, who never responded. How can a media outlet possibly publish an Op-Ed, quietly delete it six days later in response to controversy, and then fail to utter a single word about what happened? Was there a fabrication or some glaring, retraction-worthy error in Massad's Op-Ed? Was it a mistake for Al Jazeera to have published it in the first place, and if so, who made that mistake, what was it, and why did it happen? Who made the decision to take the extraordinary step of deleting the Op-Ed, and what was the rationale for doing so?
No media outlet can possibly do something like this without publicly accounting for what happened and expect to retain credibility. How can you demand transparency and accountability from others when you refuse to provide any yourself? Refusing to comment on secret actions of this significance is the province of corrupt politicians, not journalists. It's behavior that journalists should be condemning, not emulating.
Media outlets do occasionally retract stories or even Op-Eds, but they then provide an explanation. Earlier this year, the Observer published a repellent Op-Ed by the British columnist Julie Burchill, which contained all sorts of ugly slurs against transgendered people (it was also published in the Guardian's online Comment is Free section). In the wake of intense condemnation, the Observer decided to retract the Op-Ed and remove it from the site. The paper's editor, John Mulholland, issued a statement explaining the retraction, and the paper's readers editor (the rough British equivalent of an ombudsman), Stephen Pritchard, then wrote a detailed account of what happened.
Although I condemned the original Op-Ed, I did not agree with the decision to delete it. For one thing, it's a futile gesture: in the internet age, everything published is permanent. For another, it's contrary to the journalistic ethos: although it would have been appropriate to decide in the first instance not to publish it, once a decision is made to publish something, it should not be removed merely because it provokes controversy or even offense. Retractions should be reserved for serious factual errors. But at least the Observer transparently explained its actions and provided an account of what it did.
I'm not expressing any views here on the merit of Massad's arguments because that's irrelevant to the issue of Al Jazeera's conduct. I have spent years, both as a lawyer and then a writer, objecting to the suppression of all sorts of views which I find repellent, from anti-gay and anti-Muslim bigotry to Ann Coulter and Ezra Levant's bile to Mohammed cartoons to advocacy of violence. I am a firm believer that, for multiple reasons, it is far preferable to air and then debunk even the most offensive ideas than it is to suppress them.
It's one thing for a media outlet to decide in the first instance not to publish an opinion piece on grounds of quality; it's another thing entirely for them to retract one they decide to publish simply because it offends people. Offending people is a necessary part of journalism and the fact that something produces offense is not evidence that it is invalid. Having media outlets afraid to publish opinions which offend people is a menacing state of affairs that nobody should want.
Massad is a provocative and controversial intellectual. Both he and the Al Jazeera editors who published this Op-Ed undoubtedly knew that many people would find the arguments both infuriating and offensive. There is nothing wrong with that: that's what good journalism does. Massad's Op-Ed led to some very aggressive and forceful criticisms of his arguments - see here for one example - and that's exactly how it should be.
But deleting Massad's Op-Ed does not make this debate disappear. He did not invent these views. Indeed, as History Professor Daniel Myers wrote recently in the Daily Beast, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, made similar claims recently and actually wrote his dissertation on this topic at a Russian university. Professor Myers is quite hostile to the Abbas/Massad claim about the Zionist movement, labeling it "an historiographical sin of commission that rests on a faulty grasp of context and a distorted reading of the sources at hand", but the view is prevalent and held among credible scholars and influential politicians. Even Myers writes that "it must be noted there were periodic contacts between Zionists and Nazis before and during the War." Specifically:
"For example, in August 1933, the Zionist Federation of Germany signed an agreement with the German government (and the Anglo-Palestine Bank) known as the 'Haavara' (Transfer) which allowed for the transfer of Jewish property from Germany to Palestine as a means of encouraging Jewish emigration there. And during the War, Zionist officials in Palestine and elsewhere pursued a number of ransom plans whose goal was the liberation of European Jews. Perhaps the most well-known of these plans was the 'Merchandise for Blood' proposal of 1944 according to which one million Jews would be exchanged for 10,000 trucks. The negotiations were conducted between Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer for Jewish Affairs, and the Hungarian Zionists Joel Brand and Rudolf Kasztner."
Myers argues forcefully that these episodes were so limited that they do not remotely support to the broad claims of Massad and Abbas. That's fine: that's what debates about history can and should entail. If you find the views of Professor Massad and the Palestinian president offensive, then you should want those views debated, not silenced. The solution is to debunk them, not suppress them, since they're not going anywhere.
Al Jazeera's deletion of this Op-Ed, and especially its refusal to provide any explanation for what happened here, is significant beyond just this one episode. Several people who work for the outlet, none of whom was willing to speak for attribution due to fear of retaliation by the network's officials, say that Al Jazeera officials have become much more cautious and fearful ever since they purchased Current TV last December for $500 million and prepared to enter the US television market under the brand name "Al Jazeera America" (as disclosure: I had some preliminary discussions several months ago with some Al Jazeera officials about the possibility of doing something for that new network, though it never advanced beyond that stage; I also covered the US election for Al Jazeera English from Doha, and have appeared many times on that network).
In particular, these sources say, the primary impetus for the removal of the Op-Ed came from Ehab al-Shihabi, who was recently named to head the American TV network. They say that he is petrified that angering "pro-Israel" factions in the US will bolster the perception of Al Jazeera as both anti-American and anti-Israel, thus dooming the network with both corporate advertisers and cable carriers and render it radioactive among mainstream politicians. Al-Shihabi, they say, went to the network's top executive in Doha, Director-General Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, and demanded the removal of the Massad Op-Ed.
The tensions here reflect a broader internal conflict about how Al Jazeera intends to position itself as it enters American television. Many (and I include myself in this) believe that Al Jazeera can be successful only if they provide something that no other US cable news outlet regularly provides: fearless journalism of the type the network has displayed in the past, unconstrained by (and liberated from) the orthodoxies of the two dominant political parties and the airing of a wide range of views, including those typically excluded by mainstream US political television.
But several Al Jazeera executives have adopted the view, seemingly the one that is prevailing, that it should instead replicate the failed CNN model of risk-adverse, viewpoint-free, colorless, soul-less "straight news reporting". That Al Jazeera's first announced prime time host was the extremely uncontroversial, long-time CNN employee Ali Velshi, and is reportedly considering a horde of former CNN and NBC executives to run the network, illustrates the risk-adverse, CNN-copying path they seem to be taking. Silently removing Massad's Op-Ed and then refusing to comment on it is behavior perfectly in line with that mentality.
All of this takes place in the context of increasing criticisms from multiple quarters, at times including its own journalists, that the ownership of Al Jazeera by the Emir of Qatar has increasingly affected, and degraded, its journalism, rendering it a propaganda tool for the Qatari dictatorship's foreign policy. Most of that criticism in the past had been directed at its flagship network, Al Jazeera Arabic. By contrast, Al Jazeera English has, by all appearances, remained largely independent, consistently producing truly outstanding and brave journalism.
The question is whether this can continue now that Al Jazeera is seeking to establish a serious TV presence in the US. The Qatari regime is a close American ally, hosting several vital US military assets used to wage the war in Iraq. But the regime has come under criticism from US officials and "pro-Israel" commentators for its support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is hard to see how a US television network owned by the regime in Qatar will regularly broadcast journalism that is truly adversarial to its close ally, the US government, or air commentary that offends influential political factions in the US.
It's certainly possible that Al Jazeera America can provide unique and important journalism: networks owned by governments can and do produce real journalism. American cable news - drowning in mindlessly partisan outlets that are endlessly focused on trivial Beltway gossip, along with the fear-driven pointlessness of CNN - could certainly use an independent and intrepid journalistic competitor. Al Jazeera English has some outstanding, fearless journalists and produces some high-quality shows. But that will only happen if it remains independent of the Qatari regime's foreign policy aims and is free to risk offending and alienating powerful people: the hallmark of good journalism. That's what makes its silent deletion of Massad's Op-Ed so alarming and disappointing: it signals that the network is being driven by exactly the corrupting fears that preclude meaningful, independent journalism.
For his part, Massad is convinced that it is Al Jazeera's imminent entrance into the US television market that caused the deletion of his Op-Ed. In his email statement to me, he wrote:
"It seems to me that if any media outlet, which still holds on to any expression of ideas that deviates from the established 'truths' of the American mainstream press, seeks to enter the US mainstream market, it will have to pay the heavy price of surrendering its right to air out such ideas and submit to the highly restrictive political line of the mainstream American media, especially on Israel. AJE has clearly shown that it is willing to pay such a price.
"When in the past Al-Jazeera resisted paying such a price, its journalists were targeted and killed by the US invading forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it was refused entry into the American system by refusing it cable access. The road of concessions began in the middle of the last decade when Arabic Aljazeera TV under an inordinate amount of US pressure stopped referring to the US invading forces in Iraq as 'American forces' but, as the US dictated, as 'Coalition forces.' It has been a slippery slope since then.
"Surprisingly, however, when Al-Jazeera changed its editorial line from one that was critical of US policies and interventions in the Arab world following the Libyan and Syrian uprisings, I criticized them harshly in an interview with the Washington Post, but they continued to welcome my articles. When I criticized the Qatari Emir in the second article I wrote for them, I was not censored, and when I harshly criticized Qatari foreign policy since the Arab uprisings began, which I did in a number of articles, I was also not censored.
"It is ironic, though not shocking, that it was my criticisms of Israel and its Western allies that would be banned. . . . essentially neutralizing the remaining critical edge which made Al-Jazeera popular inside and outside the United States."
The way in which corporate influences on media outlets - in ownership, in the need for advertisers, in not offending cable carriers - restricts the content of permissible debate is a complex and vital topic. But whatever else is true, this episode provides a fairly potent illustration of how corrupting and restrictive those influences can be.