Matthew Power: GQ

 

Josh Rushing: From USMC to Al Jazeera

June 2006


The Public Affairs office of the U.S. Marines Corps trained Josh Rushing well—the man knows how to set a scene. For our first meeting, on a bell-clear October day in Washington, Rushing chooses a park bench a stone’s throw from the wrought-iron fence surrounding the White House. There’s a kind of golden, autumnal light falling on the place, and flocks of international tourists pose for photographs with the building lit up behind them, like a stage set for a Norman Rockwell painting about American resolve. We’re even eating hot dogs, and all in all, I have to say, it’s a fitting backdrop for a man who wants to make it abundantly clear that he loves America, that he isn’t, as many people have been saying about him lately, a traitor.


You may remember Rushing as the military PR flack who became the unwitting star—“the anti-Bush Administration poster boy,” as one reviewer put it—of the 2004 documentary Control Room, about the satellite news network Al Jazeera and the western media’s complicity in the selling of the Iraq war. Now, 24 months later, Rushing is a full-fledged member of the Al Jazeera team, and the former Marine will begin hosting a show on Al Jazeera International, the new English-language network launching worldwide this month. The details of Rushing’s program are still being worked out, but his larger role within the network is clear: the 32 year-old blue-eyed Texan will be an unimpeachably all-American figure, and as such will help sell a more palatable version of Al Jazeera to an educated and at least partially American audience. Rushing is being groomed for a star spot on the network that many Americans believe will be the mouthpiece for Islamic extremism.


He got here by speaking his mind, which isn’t something military press liaisons are generally encouraged to do. In February 2003, Rushing was assigned as the U.S. military liaison to Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar, center ring of the international media circus that had rolled into town for the countdown to Operation Iraqi Freedom. The controversial news network is financed entirely by the Emir of Qatar’s oil wealth, and though Qatar is a strong U.S. ally, since September 11th Al Jazeera has been relentlessly critical of American foreign policy. But Rushing, whose day-to-day duties mainly involved getting the administration’s talking points on the air, felt that Al Jazeera,  with its 50 million Arabic-speaking viewers worldwide, was an important outlet for winning hearts and minds. His superiors didn’t agree. There was so much mistrust at the highest levels of the U.S. government regarding Al Jazeera’s motives that the only approach to the network was to vilify it publicly. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Al Jazeera was “perfectly willing to lie to the world” and accused the network of broadcasting beheadings, an unsupported claim that was often repeated on Fox News and other right-leaning media outlets. (It’s true that Al Jazeera did show outtakes from tapes that had been given to the network by terrorist groups, but like the scenes that were shown on CNN and Fox, the gruesome climaxes were always edited out.) During one meeting before a press conference, Rushing suggested to Commander-in-Chief Tommy Franks that he call on the Al Jazeera correspondent first to show respect to the Arab world. To which Franks responded: “Sure, right after I rip off his head and shit down his throat.”


In early 2003, there were so many media all-stars in Doha—Jennings, Brokaw, Stephanopolous—that nobody took much notice of Jehane Noujaim, a young Egyptian-American filmmaker who was hanging around the media center with a camera. As the low man on the PR totem pole, Rushing was assigned as Noujaim’s press liaison. He gave her dozens of interviews, speaking candidly about the marketing of the war, about media bias, about fundamental misperceptions between the Arab and Western worlds, and he was filmed thoughtfully and eloquently debating American foreign policy with Al Jazeera’s reporters. “She was a university student,” Rushing says now. “I honestly thought she was making a student film.” Noujaim seized on Rushing as the lone voice of candor in the CentCom media operation, and he became central to her scathing deconstruction of the media manipulation that led to the war. Control Room premiered to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004 and was championed by the anti-war left.


Back in Hollywood after serving six months in Doha and Baghdad—Rushing worked at the Marine Corps Motion Picture and Television Liaison Office in Los Angeles, vetting scripts for producers who wanted the Marines’ imprimatur—Rushing got a message on his home answering machine: “Hey man, you don’t know me, but I just saw your film at Sundance and I wanted to thank you. Good job.” “I was like, ‘What the hell is this guy talking about?’” recalls Rushing. He did a quick Google search and discovered that not only was Noujaim’s documentary extremely political, but he had been cast as the Pentagon flack who undergoes a heroic moral awakening. “I nearly fell out of my chair,” recalls Rushing. He had no idea the film was premiering at Sundance. He was shocked and a bit scared that this whole thing had gone on without him knowing anything about it. In an interview on NPR in October 2004, Rushing said the premiere of the film had been “a complete ambush,” but he doesn’t regret his candor. “Everyone held me up as a sort rogue bearer of the truth,” he says, “but I think there were many, many people in the military who felt the way I did.” Nonetheless, when Control Room went on to become the third-highest grossing documentary of the year (behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me), Rushing knew there was going to be fallout. “I just saw all that stuff online”—one blog said Rushing should be Secretary of State—“and knew I was gonna hear about it from the brass,” he recalls.


But the hammer didn’t fall until after the film premiered in New York in May 2004 and Rushing gave an interview to the Village Voice, in which he criticized the government and the media’s collusion in sanitizing the war: “I think it should all be shown, the dead on both sides. In America war isn’t hell—we don’t see blood, we don’t see suffering. All we see is patriotism...”  A few days after the Voice article came out, Rushing was in New York on leave when he got a call from Major Doug Powell, who passed down a direct order from the top, Headquarters Marine Corps: Stop speaking to the press about Control Room. “I was told, ‘If a reporter puts a microphone in your face, walk silently away,’” he recalls. He was even ordered not to attend the film. “I didn’t get how they could tell me what movies I could see on my own time,” says Rushing.


Reporters called Rushing’s parents and his wife for comment. “I was ordered to ‘call off my back-channel media campaign,’” says Rushing. “They should have known that’s the worst way to keep a story quiet.” So story after story came out, from his hometown paper in Texas to the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times (titled “A Credit To The Corps”), and Rushing had a gag order while some other Pentagon spokesman offered tidbits to the press about him, spinning the story that Rushing was a publicity hound whose hunger for fame outweighed his loyalty to his country.


After four months of reading stories about himself that he had to respond to with “no comment”, the frustration boiled over and Rushing quit. “In the Marines, the value of your opinion is determined by multiplying what you say by the rank on your collar. And suddenly everyone wanted to know what I thought. The national press was having a dialogue about me that I wasn’t allowed to be a part of.” The day he decided to resign his commission was the day a story about his role in the film—and the military’s attempts to silence him—came out on the front page of the L.A. Times. Rushing had been a Marine for fourteen years, it was his entire identity, but his integrity being attacked outweighed practical considerations. And practical considerations were no small thing. “When a Marine leaves before twenty years, they walk with nothing. No pension, no health benefits. I left the key on the desk and walked out.”


Rushing had no real job prospects, though he had a wife to support. He tried his hand at a speaking tour, talking about his experiences to groups of college students and to peace activists. But small honorariums and travel expenses were never going to be enough to survive on. Then in in December 2004, while shopping for a Christmas tree, he got a call from Paul Gibbs, a 20-year BBC veteran who had seen him in Control Room and wanted to know if he was interested in talking about a job with Al Jazeera International, the new English language network. Gibbs explained that AJI would be a 24-hour broadcast with bureaus in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London, and Washington, and that journalists from BBC, CNN, AP, even Fox News had joined the fledgling network. Would he like to sign on? “I had taken out a second mortgage,” Rushing says. “I was paying for my living out of my life savings. I couldn’t get sick—we would have been screwed.”  He took the job. But despite his own vested interest in the network, Rushing is still part PR guy at heart: “Al Jazeera International is the sexiest thing to happen in TV news for a long time.”


BREAK


Al Jazeera’s D.C. headquarters sits in an anonymous office building near Dupont Circle. There’s no marquee sign on the building, no Good Morning America-style window to the studio. The channel wants to report on serious international issues, more in the mold of the BBC than Fox News, but it’s hard to tell if the low profile is a nod to serious journalism or a fear that someone will throw a rock through their window.


As we sit in the break room, drinking coffee, looking out the door to the buzzing Al Jazeera Arabic newsroom, Rushing taps his foot, sends text messages, fields phone calls, chews gum, and submits to an interview simultaneously. I fiddle with my tape recorder. “If you miss anything,” he says, “you can probably contact the CIA and get a copy of the tape.” I laugh, but the idea that Al Jazeera’s offices are the subject of domestic surveillance is not terribly far-fetched. Official U.S. suspicion and anger toward Al Jazeera reaches clear to George W. Bush, who—in a classified memo leaked to the British press in November—allegedly had to be talked out of blowing up Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Rushing is skeptical that Bush would propose anything so insane: “The notion of America bombing a free media outlet in one of our strongest allies’ capital is completely outrageous.” Still, he says, in light of U.S. bombings of Al Jazeera facilities in Baghdad and Kabul, people in Doha are taking this information seriously. “Bush needs to clarify what he said.”


Al Jazeera International launches in May, but with the kind of brand recognition that comes with the name, the current challenge is getting American satellite and cable operators to carry the channel. I spoke with Lindsey Oliver, the Marketing Director of AJI, who is in the unenviable position of trying to do just that. She talks a good game—“Al Jazeera International represents a flowering of the free press in the middle east”; “there’s a hunger for in-depth international coverage.”—but the lack of any offers of carriage by U.S. distributors just months before a frequently pushed-back launch date suggests a less rosy outlook.


Nigel Parsons, the managing director of AJI, has said that he would be happy if the network reached 30 million homes worldwide at its launch, and that commitments from cable and satellite distributors have already been made. (FoxNews launched a decade ago in less than 20 million homes, but in today’s media climate, says Anthony Crupi, a senior reporter at MediaWeek, “if you aren’t in 90 million homes you don’t exist.”) In Britain, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky satellite network has agreed to carry the broadcast, but Britain—densely populated with millions of Muslims—is a very different media landscape. Whether any U.S. distributors are on board is a tightly held secret. Oliver says she has had meetings with half a dozen key players in the industry (none of whom would go on the record except to say they had “extremely preliminary discussions” with AJI).


While Oliver acknowledges the image problem associated with the Al Jazeera brand name in America, she insists that the chief bottleneck to landing a distribution deal here is the limited bandwidth of carriers. Since the broadband explosion, with cable networks supporting everything from internet to phone service to high-definition TV, capacity is stretched to the limit. This is especially true for HD, the bandwidth-chewing format AJI plans to launch in. This is a huge barrier to entry for a new channel.  “We’re looking into alternatives,” says Oliver, conceding that that might mean video-on-demand or streaming internet. “In one way or another we’ll be on in May in the US.”


Broadcast insiders and media-watchers take a less optimistic view of AJI’s American prospects. “They don’t have a chance in hell,” says Crupi, regarding AJI’s chances of finding carriage by US distributors. An executive from one of the three largest cable companies in the country had told him he “wasn’t at all interested” in carrying AJI. “Bottom line: Americans don’t care about international news. If CNN can barely get people to watch Anderson Cooper, people are going to tune in to this?”


Then there’s the matter of convincing American advertisers to buy time on the channel. One can imagine the difficulty of getting, say, General Motors or Procter & Gamble to spend their multi-billion dollar advertising budgets to be associated with the Al Jazeera brand name. And no sales of advertising blocks have been announced. Most network business plans shoot for profitability in the seventh year; FoxNews took four years. But with the Emir of Qatar’s money bankrolling the operation, AJI can likely afford to bleed money for years while people get acquainted with the network.


Rushing hedges when I ask the financial terms of his contract, except to admit it’s “significantly more” than he’d made as a Marine captain, about $70,000. First class tickets are in his contract, while his producer flies coach. But any whispered resentments, it seems, come from the Al Jazeera Arabic reporters, who don’t especially like that Rushing is being invited on every talk show in America and asked to defend their network. “I’m sure a lot of them are wondering ‘Who the hell does this guy think he is, talking about our network on national TV,’” says Rushing, who didn’t sign on to be Al Jazeera’s apologist to the U.S. media.


BREAK


I sit facing a bank of monitors in the Al Jazeera Arabic control room with Rushing’s beautiful 27-year-old wife, Paige, who is several months pregnant with the couple’s first child. Rushing is in the on-air studio, prepping for a screen test, and from our vantage we can see him framed, anchor-style, on several monitors. Paige says she gets nervous just watching him, shows how her palms are sweating. She believes in him, but the criticism—on the internet, on Fox News, on the Wall Street Journal editorial page—is trying. When an internet columnist calls Rushing an “enemy-pandering nimrod,” she wants to defend him. There’ve been veiled threats on a few right-wing blogs (“I sure hope he don’t have some kinda accident or sumtin...”), which Rushing brushes off with Marine bravado. But he brings them up often enough to show they’re on his mind. “There may be physical risk involved,” he tells me. “Part of what bothers me here is that my family is a little more sucked into it than they were before. No one ever goes after a Marine’s family. Now they’re a little more exposed than I would like them to be to these kind of people.”


Rushing’s immunity with the rightward end of the political spectrum has vanished. “When I used to go on Fox as a military spokesman,” he says, “it was practically a collaboration. FoxNews knows that its viewers value patriotism. The reporter would ask me, Are there any messages you want to get across today, before we do a live interview? And I would say: WMD, regime change, and whatever’s the White House message of the day. And so we do that, he asks me no critical questions, pats me on the back, thanks me for my service, and his entire audience buys it. I was wrong to do that, and I admit it.”


When Rushing went on Hannity & Colmes as a guest, just after his Al Jazeera deal was announced, he found that former collegiality had evaporated. The screen line beneath him read “Traitor?” “I guess that’s their idea of ‘Fair and Balanced’,” says Rushing. Hannity attacked him repeatedly, asking, “Is America the greatest, best country on the face of the earth?” and “Is Donald Rumsfeld a liar?” For his part, Rushing didn’t rise to the bait, but tried to reason with Hannity (a man as impervious to reason as they come) by pointing out the difficulty of explaining the American point of view to the Arab world if we refuse to reach out to them. In a barrage of interruptions and crosstalk, Rushing finally invited Hannity to come on his own show when it aired and see for himself if he was a traitor. “When the show cut to a commercial, I told him he would have gotten along great with Goebbels,” Rushing said. “And he looked hurt. What does that guy know about service to your country? If I go back on his show, I’m bringing a recruiter and signing him up.”


Robb Wood, Rushing’s producer, sits at the controls, talking to the former Marine through an earbud. Wood knows first-hand about the difficulties of working for Al Jazeera, and tells me about a call he had received from his mother when he first joined the network. “ ‘Hi honey,’ she said, gushing. ‘I was just telling everyone about your new job at Al Qaeda!’” Wood laughs. “Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda—those are the only two Arabic words she knows.”


BREAK


If Rushing is really an Islamist shill, he’s under deep cover. After a day of watching Rushing walk through practice interviews, I meet up with him at Washington’s dusty old Army and Navy Club, and we start drinking in overstuffed leather armchairs among the white-haired, suit-wearing retired officers, sitting beneath oil paintings of sea battles and mustachioed generals. The club is where the daiquiri first reached American shores, and starting from there we imbibe our way, with steely Marine Corps determination, clear to the other end of Adams Morgan, where flocks of nubile congressional aides cavort with tipsy court clerks and lobbyist’s interns.


Rushing has a smooth drawl and a disarming laugh, and amid the hubbub he offers a view of the Iraq war, sometimes offering what feel like standard military talking points, sometimes sounding like he’s strayed far off the reservation:

The rescue of Jessica Lynch? “Not faked.”

The pulling down of the Saddam statue? “Not staged.”

The embedding program? “No military in history has allowed such access.”

If he’d received a disk with the Abu Ghraib photos? “You gotta run ‘em.”

Congressional Hawks? “You vote yes for war, you should volunteer your kids.”

George W. Bush? “I always end up defending him in very liberal circles. He’s a true believer. I wish people on the left were smart enough to say ‘Here’s why he’s wrong.’”

The Clash of Civilizations? “Their culture of being angry and oppressed is running headlong into the American culture of being myopically optimistic.”

Is he being used by Al Jazeera?  “It’s a place where I can do more good for America and the world then I could back there as a guy in the service.”


BREAK


A month later, Rushing and most of the staff of Al Jazeera International come to a screening of Control Room at the United Nations. I sit in the cafeteria watching a sunset over the East River with Paul Gibbs, the British Director of Programming for AJI who spotted Rushing in the film and got him this job. With decades of experience at the BBC, Gibbs new he was on to something with Rushing. “I talked to a colleague about the idea of recruiting Josh, and he told me, ‘You’ve got a star on your hands. He’s a great communicator. And good at absorbing a brief.’ ” Gibbs has a concept for a program called Rushing Round America—something, as he puts it, that will “prick the prejudice that can be the result of an inept media.” He wants to start with a series of interviews with families of soldiers killed in Iraq. “The problem I have,” says Gibbs, “Is not wanting to lose what Josh is about. I don’t want to lose the surprise, the questioning, in the move from innocence to experience.”


In the auditorium, after the screening of Control Room, Rushing sits on a panel in front of a hundred U.N. staffers from all over the world. It’s a tough room. A moderator tries to keep the discussion focused and civil, but these are career diplomats and civil servants who had the Iraq war forced upon them, and they want honest answers, even if only from an ex-Marine who was once a part of the American propaganda mill.


“When did you realize you’d lied?” demands one audience member.


Rushing doesn’t flinch. “In June 2004, when I saw Colin Powell admit to Tim Russert that the intelligence sourcing for the war was deliberately misleading.”


In this very building, three years ago, Colin Powell methodically laid out the case for invading Iraq, and Rushing, a true believer, printed out dozens of copies of Powell’s testimony to the Security Council and handed them out to the Pentagon staff. “I wanted to make sure we were all reading from the same sheet music. I bought into it. And I’m always going to have to live with that.”


“A cynic could easily say ‘Al Jazeera’s buying his credibility to get over their image problem,’” Rushing says. “But they’d get shit no matter who they picked. I’m not worried about being used at all. I left the Marines, and there’s no organization I wouldn’t leave on principle.”