Jon Ossoff and the Al Jazeera Effect

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Jon Ossoff, the Democratic congressional candidate in Georgia’s Sixth District, once did work for the Qatari-owned company Al Jazeera. Will it sink his candidacy?Jon Ossoff, the Democratic congressional candidate in Georgia’s Sixth District, once did work for the Qatari-owned company Al Jazeera. Will it sink his candidacy?CreditPHOTOGRAPH COURTESY JON OSSOFF FOR CONGRESS

Next week, voters in Georgia’s Sixth District will elect a replacement for Representative Tom Price, who resigned his seat, in February, to become Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. Of the eighteen candidates who have entered the race, one has drawn national attention as a kind of mascot for the Trump resistance—Jon Ossoff, a photogenic thirty-year-old Democrat and documentary filmmaker. Ossoff is polling at forty-three per cent and has raised a record $8.3 million, in mostly out-of-state donations. Not surprisingly, this has made him a conservative target. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, has run numerous ads and mailers attacking Ossoff. In one recent TV commercial, he is depicted as an ally of hoodie-wearing vandals. An eerie baritone proclaims, over footage of an Inauguration Day riot: “Liberal extremists will stop at nothing to push their radical agenda. . . . Ossoff is one of them.”

Yet this is light fare compared with the PAC’s other line of assault. In March, Ossoff filed his financial disclosures with the House, revealing that he had received five thousand dollars from Al Jazeera for “video content development/production.” According to his IMDb page and campaign staff, he worked as a producer on nine episodes of the series “Africa Investigates,” an Al Jazeera English series about undercover journalists who expose “corruption and abuse.” But any association with the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera was automatic grist. A television spot flashed shaky footage of armed Arabs and an image of Osama bin Laden, captioned with large text: “MOUTHPIECE FOR TERRORISTS.” Then, over surveillance-type video of Ossoff, a voice said, “What is he hiding? How can we trust him?” Ominous snail mail followed (“Once you’ve worked for them . . . you can’t work for us”). Ossoff’s campaign manager, Keenan Pontoni, responded with a patriotic defense of the candidate’s journalistic and political career. “Jon served as a national-security aide, had top-secret clearance, and he’s proud of his work as an investigative filmmaker working for outlets all over the world, like the BBC, Sky Vision, and, yes, Al Jazeera,” Pontoni said.

It was just four years ago that the network’s U.S. franchise, Al Jazeera America (AJAM), took over Al Gore’s failed cable channel, Current TV. AJAM itself survived less than three years, and though its broadcast and Web coverage was relatively conventional, it never escaped the associations now levelled against Ossoff. The Al Jazeera Media Network is a vast, multilingual operation headquartered in Doha, Qatar. It is owned and funded by the state, but maintains editorial independence. There have been legitimate allegations of bias, particularly when it comes to coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, but American hatred of anything Al Jazeera seems to stem less from the company’s editorial slant than from its menacingly foreign-sounding name and the fact that, just a month after 9/11, Al Jazeera aired footage of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their armed followers celebrating the merger of their groups. The journalist Sherry Ricchiardi, in a 2011 article for the American Journalism Review, noted that the network’s coverage after the attacks earned it “a reputation as a mouthpiece for terrorists,” particularly within the George W. Bush Administration. It was this assessment that the Congressional Leadership Fund video editors used in their ad against Ossoff.

I worked for AJAM from start to finish, and my colleagues and I experienced bias against the outlet every day. One producer told me recently that, in his time there, he grew used to sources ignoring or declining interview requests “because an Arab-American with an Arabic name, writing for an Arab outlet, was talking to them.” A white reporter from the Northeast said that “even people in my own family reacted like I joined a terrorist organization when I told them my new job, in 2013.” And a politics correspondent recalled one source repeatedly asking why she worked for AJAM, what “they” really wanted, and what clandestine Muslim machinations might be at work.

I often encountered similar reactions. In 2014, I sought comment from an Alabama legislator on a racial-gerrymandering case before the Supreme Court. I barely got out my name and affiliation before he said, “Al Jazeera America? Get outta here, Roscoe! Not interested. Bye!” and hung up. (I tried, and failed, to figure out what “Roscoe” meant.) The following year, when a daily newspaper in rural Washington State reprinted one of my articles, the publisher received considerable hate mail. “I cannot believe your newspaper is so devoid of news and information that you have to turn to an enemy news source (al Jezeera) for a load of mis-informed crap,” one reader wrote. The local police chief called the staff “traitors” and said that they had “insulted veterans” by using AJAM material.

Were AJAM still around, my colleagues and I would likely face renewed hostility, since the network embodied two of the Trump Administration’s favorite scapegoats—foreigners and the media. Next week’s election may show how susceptible voters in Georgia are to such sentiments. The Sixth District, which covers Atlanta and its northern suburbs and resembles a deflated Texas-shaped balloon, is home to seven hundred thousand people. The population is relatively affluent and mostly white, but it is changing rapidly, with significant African-American, Latino, and Asian minorities. A full twenty-one per cent of the district’s residents were born outside the United States. That’s perhaps why this once solidly Republican district, represented by Newt Gingrich from 1979 to 1999, has lately turned purple and is verging on blue. Still, Ossoff himself, despite being white and a native of the Sixth District, has faced accusations of foreignness. Last month, Jere Wood, the Republican mayor of Roswell, a small city just north of Atlanta, questioned whether Ossoff’s “ethnic-sounding name” would hold local appeal. “If someone is going down the list, they’re gonna vote for somebody who is familiar,” Wood told my colleague Charles Bethea. “If you just say ‘Ossoff,’ some folks are gonna think, ‘Is he Muslim? Is he Lebanese? Is he Indian?’ ” Wood later explained to the Atlanta NBC affiliate that he’d meant something else entirely. “Barack Obama showed us that a name can be an advantage,” he said.