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
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.”
For the past three months, the country’s foreign ministry, gutted of its powers by political agreements, has been in disarray