On the morning of May 6, two manholes near Penn Station in Manhattan exploded in succession, spooking pedestrians and temporarily snarling traffic on 8th Avenue as investigators scratched their heads. Less than a block away, Al Jazeera America employees felt their building shake. “Just what we need,” one told another wryly.
In the last few weeks, Al Jazeera America has been facing its own series of ground-shaking disruptions: the channel has been slapped with an embarrassing lawsuit, lost a handful of top executives, and replaced its CEO. In the few months, they’ve hemorrhaged valuable newsroom and administrative talent, laying off at least one entire team. In the last year, unrest, fear, and uncertainty have plagued AJAM employees across departments, as seemingly nonsensical rounds of layoffs and promotions have given the whole place the air of a sinking ship. But it certainly didn’t start that way.
In a breathless writeup from August 2013, right before the channel’s launch, Brian Stelter wrote in the New York Times that AJAM promised to be “something a journalism professor would imagine.” The venture, which Stelter called the most ambitious cable news launch since Fox took off in 1996, was bankrolled by the nearly limitless wealth of the Qatari royal family. Interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi remarked that the channel would produce “fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news.” Twenty-four hours of PBS-quality journalism, every day, by people who have waited for their entire careers to produce these kinds of stories.
On Tuesday, the anchors will look vaguely familiar: most have histories at one or more of the major American television networks. Some of them, like John Seigenthaler, had left the business and said they thought they would not take another job in television, until Al Jazeera came along.
“They said: ‘We want to do real news. We want to give it context and perspective and make it balanced and in-depth.’ I thought, ‘Gee, this is a dream come true,’ ” he said.
In mere months since its development was announced on January 2, 2013, the channel had hired nearly 900 people to fill its bustling newsroom — veterans, idealists, hard-nosed reporters, editors, producers, on-air talent. They came from places like CNN and PBS; they came out of retirement. Employees of AJAM tell Jezebel that the breathless excitement in Stelter’s preview was echoed throughout much of the staff.
How things have changed in less than two years.
A May 5 New York Times piece on the channel described its newsroom as “in turmoil,” suggesting that now-former interim CEO Ehab Al Shihabi ran the network with an inept iron fist, and that employees from the top down were unhappy.
[I]n the last week, a lawsuit and an exodus of top executives have brought to the surface a series of grievances that employees say reflects a deep dysfunction in management of the newsroom, undermining the network’s mission.
“I didn’t want to be there anymore because I didn’t like the culture of fear,” said Marcy McGinnis, the network’s former senior vice president for news gathering, who resigned on Monday. “People are afraid to lose their jobs if they cross Ehab.”
He maintained that the morale of his newsroom was good, but current and former employees painted a different picture. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity, many because they said they feared retribution from the network.
Last week, at a newsroom-wide meeting described by several employees, staff members complained bitterly about problems at the station: how women have lost their jobs; the fear that offering criticism will lead to retaliation; the lack of promotional efforts for the channel; and how the standards for internal reviews changed without any announcement.
On May 6, shortly after the manhole explosions near Madison Square Garden, employees of AJAM learned Ehab Al Shihabi, that the man they were all afraid to cross had been demoted.
But several current and former employees told Jezebel that AJAM’s problems run much deeper than their former leader, and that in order for the struggling network to find the success for which it seemed destined at its launch, many at the top need to be “cleared out.”
Former AJAM employee Matthew Luke’s lawsuit alleges a litany of sexist, anti-semitic, and “Anti-American” behavior from a senior employee named Osman Mahmud. Neither Mahmud nor his employer has responded to the complaint, but the Washington Post reported that he denied the claims.
Luke alleges that he was fired after clashing with Mahmud, who was promoted from video editor to Senior Vice President of Broadcast Operations in early 2015 despite an apparent lack of qualifications for the promotion (according to the lawsuit, Mahmud is “well-connected” with Mostefa Souag, an executive at AJAM’s parent company). After his promotion, Mahmud allegedly engaged in a pattern of sexist behavior, excluding senior female executives from email chains and meetings, speaking diminutively to women (one female AJAM employee told Jezebel that he routinely calls women in the office “little sister”), and, in some cases, displaying open contempt for women in more senior positions.
In one case, Luke alleges that a female executive producer was forced to write a letter of apology to Mr. Mahmud after she questioned his decision to fire one of the show’s editors (interviews with current and former AJAM employees corroborated this incident; the female producer hasn’t responded for request for comment). In another, Mahmud allegedly refused to accept technical assistance from a female engineer, insisting a man be sent in her place.
The lawsuit adds that Luke complained to human resources, only to discover days later that Mahmud had filed a retaliatory complaint. He was fired a week and a half later and told that he “did not fit into the company culture.”
“Company culture” is an interesting phrase for AJAM to invoke in these circumstances. After speaking with several current and former employees, it seems that the problem with the “culture” at Al Jazeera America extends well beyond one alleged sexist boor in the New York office and a bumbling CEO; across the channel, the environment has grown so toxic that many who haven’t already made plans to depart are eagerly eyeing employment elsewhere. Others are hoping to hang on and wait for top-level executives to get out of the channel’s way so that talented journalists picked up by AJAM’s frantic four-month hiring spree prior to its launch can stop watching their backs and get back to chasing stories.
On the morning of April 11, 2014, many AJAM employees found that they suddenly could not access their work email. According to employees who escaped the axe, a few of their colleagues who were locked out called the tech help desk, only to find out that the reason they could not sign on was that they had been fired. Ten percent of AJAM’s workforce had their email turned off overnight. Employees who were in the field found about their friends’ employment statuses via frantic text messages.
By the afternoon, a source tells Jezebel that one New York office had descended into such confused disarray that an assistant was posted outside of the entrance with a clipboard. As afternoon shift workers showed up for work, she’d check her list for their names. If they were not on the list, they were directed into a conference room, where they were told that they had been given only two weeks’ severance pay; freelancers were given nothing. In a more recent incident, AJAM fired individuals responsible for putting a show together on the day an episode was supposed to be taped. One guest, who was already in a limo en route to the studio, had to turn around and go home. Another guest made it to the studio before being informed that the taping could no longer go on because the show’s entire staff had been let go an hour prior, according to another source familiar with the layoffs.
Current and former employees of AJAM who have spoken with Jezebel (anonymously, because, as noted in the New York Times piece on the channel’s upheaval, they’re all scared shitless) note that a culture of cronyism and bullying has been allowed to thrive under now-former CEO Ehab Al Shihabi. Often, the individuals who faced the harshest bullying were women.
One former employee told her female supervisor that she was pregnant shortly after being hired, only to have her female supervisor react by lecturing her on whether it’s possible to have both children and a career. The female supervisor, according to multiple individuals, was herself the victim of AJAM’s dysfunction when she was demoted in front of a meeting full of her peers, and threatened to sue the network. Despite reported poor job performance and at least one complaint to HR, she was fired only after CEO Al Shihabi witnessed her berating a female receptionist to tears. (The supervisor in question has not responded to Jezebel’s request for comment.)
A current AJAM producer tells Jezebel she was asked to attend an “after hours” meeting with a male senior executive producer in December 2013. The SEP kicked off proceedings by asking if she was married, and then told her that he wanted her work to be more reminiscent of male British journalist. She asked him if there were any women at AJAM she should emulate. “I don’t think any of the women here are doing a good job,” he allegedly responded. Months later, for a colleague’s going away party, the senior executive producer allegedly took employees to a strip club and paid for lap dances. Another senior executive producer would routinely discuss female colleagues’ appearance in inappropriate contexts. Both male and female AJAM employees found his actions inappropriate and upsetting, according to another AJAM source.
The New York Times’ piece on AJAM dysfunction notes,
Al Jazeera staff members also told stories of colleagues who stopped showing up at work and executives would not discuss the reason. One former programming executive stopped coming to the office around December. What happened to her was not explained, according to several employees.
“She just disappeared one day,” a source tells us. “Nobody knows where she went.” Questions about her whereabouts in meetings were “dodged.” Multiple sources tell Jezebel that this individual is a former Senior VP of Programming and Documentaries Shannon High. She has not responded to our request for comment.
Not every AJAM employee believes that problems at the network are unique to Al Jazeera, or that AJAM fostered a particularly sexist environment. One former employee who is now employed elsewhere says that the sexism she witnessed at AJAM was no more blatant than the sexism at other media organizations. Another female employee noted that many men who work at AJAM were deeply concerned about the working conditions of their female colleagues. In one instance, she says, men were actively involved in making sure a woman who had just given birth had a clean and private space to pump breastmilk. They even decorated the space for her.
Discouraged AJAM employees note that the channel’s “culture of fear” begins and ends with the man who, until this week, served as the interim CEO. Ehab Al Shihabi has no background in journalism, noted several AJAM sources with near-uniform airs of disdain. He would routinely “go off” on conference calls, occasionally sounding “psychotic.” They say he ran the network like a “dictator” trying to surround himself with “cronies” who would do his bidding.
Journalists signed onto AJAM because they wanted to work for “PBS on steroids,” not deal with a man obsessed with shoring up support for himself, or operating a system of “punishment and reward.” One female employee noted ruefully that even Al Shihabi’s demotion to COO this week was presented with AJAM’s trademark dysfunction: She was in the middle of a conversation with another employee who assured her that the major changes at the network were done; the conversation was interrupted with news of the shakeup.
“There are so many talented, engaging people here who are committed to producing great journalism,” she says now. “And oftentimes, their work really shines and speaks for itself in spite of the chaos. But my—as well as many other people’s—frustration stems from the fact that day in and day out, our work is stymied, stalled and overshadowed by poor management, PR crises and bad behavior by a select few that is tolerated rather than dealt with. Sadly, although I still believe in the mission of Al Jazeera, I don’t see a way to work within this broken system, and that’s why I—and many others—want to leave.”
AJAM seems to be attempting to clean up its mess—or at the very least, its image. On March 26, about a month before Matthew Luke’s lawsuit was filed, Al Shihabi sent his employees a puzzlingly-out-of-the-blue email extolling the virtues of diversity. He wrote,
I am personally committed to ensuring we have an inclusive workforce where all points of view, cultures and experiences are represented as equal. It is my expectation that each of you will act in furtherance of this core value and demonstrate daily that diversity is fundamental to our mission and our success. To that end, your individual efforts to promote diversity in the workplace and among our viewership will constitute a material element of our evaluation process.
The day after the Times story ran, Al Shihabi was out as CEO and named COO in a move the network claimed was planned all along. But Al Shihabi hasn’t been seen around AJAM’s New York City offices since. According to CNN, which cited sources at the network, he’s been ousted from the company entirely. Further, Osman Mahmud has been suspended from his position, according to an AJAM spokesperson. She added, “As clearly outlined in Al Jazeera’s Code of Conduct, Al Jazeera America does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. Newly appointed Al Jazeera America CEO Al Anstey arrived in New York in early May and in meetings with the leadership and editorial teams at AJAM, he reiterated and stressed Al Jazeera America’s zero tolerance policy on discrimination of any kind. Anstey also stressed the importance of maintaining a culture of inclusiveness, tolerance, and integrity going forward.”
In a letter to his new colleagues forwarded to Jezebel, Anstey wrote “We have a critically important job to do. To tell the stories, and cover people caught up in events, that need to be heard. To provide information that is trusted, that challenges, that informs, and ultimately that inspires. This may sound like great PR, but it is a fact.”
It certainly does sound like great PR. Whether this series of moves and newfound commitment to its mission and employees will cleanse AJAM of its toxicity or only fight fire with feng shui remains to be seen.
Photo of Ehab Al Shihabi via the AP.
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