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Mideast News Site Offers Diverse Voices—but Often Parrots Syrian Regime

Al-Monitor, a D.C.-based website, publishes Washington bigwigs, Israeli columnists, and, worryingly, Hezbollah-aligned writers

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

One of the most notable launches in foreign affairs publishing of the last decade has been Al-Monitor, a website founded in January 2012 that dubs itself “the pulse of the Middle East.” The main site, which is in English, also links to Arabic-, Farsi-, Turkish-, and Hebrew-language pages, with coverage broken down by region, or “pulses”—including “Iraq Pulse,” “Turkey Pulse,” “Lebanon Pulse,” “Israel Pulse,” “Palestine Pulse,” and others.

The main site offers analysis as well as reporting by seasoned journalists. Washington reporters Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen hold down the domestic front, while Al-Monitor’s Middle East correspondents include experienced journalists like longtime Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar, who signed on last year as a full-time contributor to the “Israel Pulse” section. Other contributors include former D.C. policymakers like Aaron David Miller, The Washington Post’s former Middle East bureau chief Thomas Lippman, and 30-year CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, alongside newer faces like Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi and influential Emirati analyst Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. Each “pulse” includes original work commissioned for Al-Monitor, as well as articles translated from dozens of publications it has partnered with throughout the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, and even Israel.

All of which has led The Washington Post to call the site “an invaluable Web-only publication following the Middle East,” and The Huffington Post to say that Al-Monitor is “increasingly a daily must-read for insightful commentary on the Middle East.”

“It’s a new venture,” Eldar told me in a recent phone interview. “The first one ever with Iraqis, Turks, Lebanese, and Israelis writing at the same website. I like seeing my articles published next to those of colleagues who represent different opinions across the political spectrum.”

Recently, Al-Monitor has started to garner a different sort of attention, as one of the stories it covers intensively—the Syrian civil war between the country’s Alawite minority regime and its Sunni majority opposition—has grown exponentially more brutal and bloody. Observers assert that the arguments and positions of the Assad government receive heavy coverage in the site’s “Lebanon Pulse” section, with an emphasis on translated material from pro-Hezbollah, pro-Assad media outlets as well as original content produced for Al-Monitor by writers who also work for pro-Hezbollah, pro-Assad media.

“Al-Monitor doesn’t cater to a regional audience but rather to a Western one,” said Hanin Ghaddar, who is the editor-in-chief of NOW Lebanon as well as a public policy scholar in the Middle East program at the Wilson Center and a contributor to Slate and the New York Times. “American readers take it like Al-Monitor provides a great service in translating articles and presenting news from the region. They don’t take the news and analysis presented in it with a grain of salt.”

Until Al-Monitor was founded, pro-Hezbollah journalists could only publish in resistance media outlets. In Al-Monitor, by contrast, their work is printed alongside reporting and analysis that falls within the mainstream of public policy discourse. Several of Al-Monitor’s critics point specifically to August 2011, when Al-Monitor’s founder and owner, a Syrian-born businessman named Jamal Daniel, bought a large share of As-Safir—a Beirut daily newspaper that the New York Times has variously described as a “pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper,” and “a left-leaning publication that often supports the pro-Assad Lebanese group Hezbollah.”

Seen from one perspective, Al-Monitor is fulfilling one of the founding traditions of the modern Western press by publishing writers of different backgrounds and opinions. According to this view, the site is the embodiment of what an American media mogul might imagine for the Middle Eastern press: a large and diverse ethnic mosaic, mixing together Jews, Arabs (of all kinds), Iranians, Turks, and others. Timur Goksel, the Beirut-based editor for Al-Monitor’s “Turkey Pulse,” thinks that it’s a good thing for American decision-makers and ordinary citizens to hear other voices, even those from Hezbollah. “It’s pathetic that all these years the American public has been served by three or four writers who give their opinions on the Middle East.” But critics have begun to suggest that the effect of juxtaposing well-respected, conventional voices alongside pro-Hezbollah, pro-Assad pieces is to inject into the mainstream more radical voices that might not otherwise be heard which allows those voices to be heard as equally reasonable, and worth hearing.

I tried to reach two of Al-Monitor’s most prominent American writers, Rozen and Slavin, for comment about assertions made by the site’s critics in the region. Neither replied. Several efforts to reach Daniel also failed; an assistant at his Houston office said he was traveling.

I also tried to speak with Al-Monitor’s editor-in-chief and CEO, Andrew Parasiliti, who previously served as foreign policy adviser to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when he was in the Senate. (According to his biography, Parasiliti had never worked in journalism before being hired to run Al-Monitor.) Parasiliti refused to comment, instead referring all questions to Al-Monitor’s counsel, Viet Dinh.

Dinh, who served Assistant Attorney General of the United States under George W. Bush and is widely reputed to be one of the chief architects of the Patriot Act, also refused to address questions about Al-Monitor’s coverage. “You can’t throw a firebomb into a theater and claim as an excuse that someone else gave you the bomb,” Dinh wrote in an email. “This has to stop.”

***

Daniel, president and chairman of Crest Investment Company in Texas, was born in Tartous, a port city on the Syrian coast that makes up part of the historical heartland of the Alawite sect from which Syria’s ruling regime is drawn. Daniel comes from a Christian family, one that the Financial Times reported, in December 2003, to have been involved in the founding of Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party. Beirut’s respected Daily Star newspaper noted that Daniel is also said to be “a close friend of Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.” Daniel was educated in Lebanon and Switzerland before he moved to the United States, where he got his bachelor’s degree at Pepperdine University in 1980 and an MBA at the University of Texas at Austin. He earned his pull in D.C. power circles as a friend and business partner of former president George W. Bush’s brother Neil, and as a “major contributor” to the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush and his son. Daniel’s biography notes that he has “over thirty years of experience managing investments in oil and gas, telecommunications, high technology, media, manufacturing and real estate.”

Representatives of the site would not verify information about Al-Monitor’s regional staff and how it is structured; some writers appear to be full-time salaried employees, although the vast majority seem to be freelancers. “We’ve partnered with five Turkish newspapers,” Turkey Pulse editor Goksel said. “We pay a little better than most Turkish papers.”

By publishing Israeli journalists alongside those from Arab countries, many of which are still officially at war with Israel, Daniel is breaking all sorts of Arab-owned media taboos. And the name journalists who draw salaries from the site who I did speak with all said that the site’s owner does not interfere with their work. Eldar said he met Daniel only once, in Paris. “He interviewed me for the job and I interviewed him,” Eldar told me. “I said I need full journalistic independence, and I’ve never been censored or told what to write.” The prominent Israeli journalist Ben Caspit echoed Eldar’s sentiment. “My condition is to write whatever I want to write, and no one touched my text,” Caspit told me. “I’m not sure I had this kind of freedom before.”

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Poupic says:

Great innovation! Haaretz journalist publishes in an Arab states majority newspaper writers! This is so surprising! So perfect! I have only one question. Do Arab states finance Haaretz? Haaretz readership doesn’t explain it’s survival against all odds.

JehudahBenIsrael says:

It stand to reason that Arabs finance Haaretz, of course. But it is clear that Haaretz wouldn’t be able to exist financially if it were not for the massive injection of money from a non-Jewish German “investor” who uses the brand name “Israeli newspaper” to promote the most anti-Israeli concepts possible. Now, the people who read and are influenced by such writings are not Israeli citizens the vast majority of whom shun the newspaper. It is non-Israelis who are eager to see Israel’s demise that are attracted to the Haaretz English edition.

P.S. The German non-Jewish “investor”, incidentally, is an off spring of a family that was doing financially and business-wise very well in Germany of the years 1933 to 1945…!!

JehudahBenIsrael says:

Of some interest, the editors of this publications, as are all of its writers, refuse to accept the 23-state-solution to the Arab Israeli conflict, i.e. recognizing the right of the 22 Arab states to exist as such, while at the same time accepting the right of the only Jewish state to be, to exist as the sovereign nation-state of the Jewish people on ANY parcel of land of the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland.

Sadly, even the “enlightened” can’t accept that the Jewish people, as all other peoples, is entitled to the universally accepted RIGHT of national self-determination and independence.

It is high time these editors and writers applied a degree of introspection before they proceed to be critical of us, Jews, and our liberal democratic and sovereign nation-state of Israel, whether we reside within or without our national home.

Poupic says:

How is such a scheme possible? The US for example, has laws that you have to be declared a foreign agent to do such a thing. They accuse Israel of influencing US elections without any proof possible. Yet the US media quoting Haaretz is their main source of so called Israeli information. Foreign funding of critical public, information, political anything should be forced by law to by public knowledge.

JehudahBenIsrael says:

Perhaps, but in Israel, sadly, the vast majority of anti-Israel so-called not-for-profit organizations (‘amutot, in Hebrew) are sustained by European money, either injected by the European Union or by specific countries in Europe. And, Haaretz, that wouldn’t see the light of day if it were not for major financial injection of funds from abroad, is sustained by a non-Jewish “investor” from Germany. The al-Monitor (the “al” stand for the article “the” in Arabic, incidentally…!!), one suspects, is subsidized in a similar fashion.

Poupic says:

This is exactly why Israel needs such a law with harsh penalties attached for not complying.

julis123 says:

Akiva Elder and Ben Caspit are published there? Not surprising. Neither one of them is any particular friend of Israel. Elder’s criticism of Yisrael Hayom is particularly pathetic. Haaretz continues its plummet in circulation while Yisrael Hayom is steadily increasing. Who gets the last laugh?

JehudahBenIsrael says:

Haaretz circulation would be even lower, much lower, if not for the economic supplement of the newspaper, The Marker. Hebrew readers, by and large, are simply fed up with having this anti-Israel publication among their midst. And, the poster is correct in that Israel ha-jom (Israel Hayom), is gaining readership throughout the country.

ajmacdonaldjr says:

Senior Officials, K Street: Terrorist Group Is Nice Now, Everybody!
Read more at http://wonkette.com/472633/senior-officials-k-street-terrorist-group-is-nice-now-everybody#XLLwmfOrmYRoytrM.99

Wadi_Ara says:

“Until Al-Monitor was founded, pro-Hezbollah journalists could only publish in resistance media outlets” What rubbish!!!! This is such a warped and inaccurate article. As an Israeli media relations consultant who tracks middle east news, how would you suggest I find out what others have to say? Listening to only one side of an issue doesn’t quite do it! What possible insight can I gain from only listening to those whose views are close to mine. Al-Monitor is a superb and much-needed website that offers an opportunity to hear ‘the other’. I fail to understand the danger or criticism of diverse opinions. Like many of my colleagues, I am grateful to Al-Monitor for providing a platform for those who have something to say – like Akiva Eldar and Ben Caspit. Read them and you just might learn something…If you don’t want to, continue to bury your heads in the sand and cast your votes from time to time on issues you’ll know little about.

JehudahBenIsrael says:

Neither Eldar nor Caspit represent the main stream Israeli thinking of course. The first, retired from Haaretz – the German non-Jewish sustained publication promoting the views of the European anti-Israel left – and, the second, let go from the main stream daily Ma’ariv newspaper, largely due to his views. To claim to know about Israel through these two writers is amusing.

Furthermore, one can read, in English, the Jerusalem Post, Israel Hayom, Yediot Ahronot and The Times of Israel; all available on the net in English and all provide both news and commentary from the liberal democratic and sovereign nation-state of the Jewish people.

P.S. It is only a matter of time before Amira Hass and Gideon Levi also join the al-Monitor…

charlesduran says:

So volume makes up for quality?

julis123 says:

Haaretz produces propaganda not quality

Séamus Martin says:

Lee Smith, you seem to be fighting the last war in your pervasive assumption that Hezbollah and the mutually supportive Syrian government are the devil incarnate, an evil to be resisted at all costs. From an Israeli perspective I can see how that might have seemed a valid opinion to hold in the past.

However, the bizarre new reality is that Israel, Hezbollah and President Bashar Al Assad of Syria are now de facto on the same side against an even greater mutual enemy – extremist Sunni jihadists – who would gladly slaughter and literally devour the hearts of Shias, Alawites and Jews alike.

The fact that Hezbollah and the Syrian government are fighting these hate-filled savages today and winning against them too means that Israel won’t have to tomorrow. And Hamas’s betrayal of Assad means that Damascus and Tehran will be far less likely to aid them in future, thus there will be hardly any need to worry about significant attacks from Gaza either. Certainly there will be no two-front war – attacks from Lebanon and Gaza simultaneously.

It is time for religious minorities in the Middle East – Shias, Alawites, Druze Christians, normal Sunni Muslims and Jews plus Zionists everywhere whatever their political or religious motivation – to wake up to the startling new realities we now face.

In particular, the State of Israel and those who support it would be well advised to go back to first principles, have a long hard think then use their influence to actually aid Hezbollah and the Syrian government, to call off the baying dogs of war in London, Paris and Washington D.C. and to let it be known that Hezbollah and Assad must triumph militarily. For, O Israel, if Damascus falls, you are next.

JehudahBenIsrael says:

“…from an Israeli perspective…”

Isn’t it from the perspective of the vast majority of the citizens of Syria, and the overwhelming majority of the Muslim-Arab world?

Indeed, the enemy of the above is the axis of Iran-Hizballah-Syria, eager to spread its Islamist Shi’a hegemony over the entire region and beyond.

This axis is a manifestation of evil in the region and throughout humanity. To attempt to whitewash its acts of brutally slaughtering more than 100,000 innocent children, women, men, the elderly and the disabled is pathetic, at best…

Vandy says:

only in the eyes of fools and bigots are thse fighting for freedom in syria called savages. assad has no army left. he relies on a shiite militia and iranian troops to help him fight his own people.

how sad is that?

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Mideast News Site Offers Diverse Voices—but Often Parrots Syrian Regime

Al-Monitor, a D.C.-based website, publishes Washington bigwigs, Israeli columnists, and, worryingly, Hezbollah-aligned writers