Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Anything for Money

TV news can be a cruel business. You reach a certain age, gain a few pounds, burn a few bridges, and suddenly, you're facing an early and unplanned retirement. Or, as many in the trade have done, you segue to something else, presumably a gig that will match your former network salary.

Consider the case of Giselle Fernandez. Once upon a time, Ms. Fernandez was a correspondent for CBS and NBC News who won two Emmys for her work. While I'm hardly a fan of the broadcast networks (or their news divisions), Ms. Fernandez seemed like a solid reporter and she appeared to have a bright future in television news.

But somewhere along the way, Ms. Fernandez got side-tracked. First, she signed on as a co-host of Access Hollywood, one of those fluffy, celebrity profile-and-gossip shows that makes The View look like See It Now. Ms. Fernandez also served (briefly) as host of an A&E series called "This Week in History," a sort of 60 Minutes meets your high school history book. Most recently, Ms. Fernandez surfaced as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars." That should be a nice addition to her "journalist" resume.

While her current career path probably won't generate any reporting offers, Ms. Fernandez deserves more respect than another network cast-off, Nightline veteran Dave Marash. When ABC declined to renew his contract last year, Mr. Marash began seeking new employment. His resume was much longer and more "serious" than Giselle Fernandez's; in addition to his stint as a Nightline correspondent, Marash also worked as a reporter and anchor in New York (at WCBS-TV) and Washington, D.C's WRC-TV. Conventional wisdom said that a "pro" like Mr. Marash would eventually land at another network.

Last week, Mr. Marash surfaced--not at NBC, CNN or even Fox--but at the new, English language version of al-Jazerra, as its chief Washington correspondent and anchor. Asked about the channel's reputation for being an Al-Qaida mouthpiece, Marash retored that "conventional and, dare I say, informed opinion is that the channel is thoroughly respected."

Oh really? Perhaps I'm a bit old-fashioned in terms of journalistic values, but I find it hard to respect a network whose Madrid correspondent, Tayssir Alouni, was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for carrying money to al-Qaida members in Afghanistan. According to Spanish prosecutors, Alouni served as a al-Qaida courier for several years, while he also worked as an "independent" journalist for al-Jazerra.

Then, there's the lingering issue of the network's institutional bias. As Cliff Kincaid of AIM noted back in 2004, al-Jazera has a long history of showing the U.S. military forces in the worst possible light, suggesting that the network has an anti-American agenda. In fact, the network's reports were once viewed as so biased that former Secretary of State Colin Powell held discussions with officials from Qatar (where the network is based) about al-Jazerra's tone and content.

Apparently, al-Jazerra's unique slant on the news is of little concern to Mr. Marash. Al-Jazerra's English-language channel is a high priority project for the network, and they needed a recognizable face to front their American operation. I'm guessing that Mr. Marash will be well-paid for his work, easily matching his six-figure ABC salary.

But, at the end of the day, there's always that nagging question of where the money comes from, and whether you abide with your employer's way of doing business. Dancing With the Stars isn't exactly what Zworykin had in mind when he first contemplated the cathode ray tube, but at least Ms. Fernandez can say that she's earning an honest living. Working for a network with a clear anti-American agenda, can Dave Marash say the same thing? But then again, how is working for Al-Jazerra that different from working for ABC News. As Rich Noyes reminds us, Marash was willing to tout the insurgent party line once before, despite contrary evidence. Sounds like he will be a nice fit for Al-Jazerra. Some people really will do anything for money.

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