Jon Ossoff and Al Jazeera: The truth is far more interesting

Al Jazeera English channel staff prepare for the first broadcast in Doha news room in Qatar on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006. AP Photo/ Hamid Jalaudin

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

Al Jazeera English channel staff prepare for the first broadcast in Doha news room in Qatar on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006. AP Photo/ Hamid Jalaudin

At bottom, Republicans in Washington want you to believe that a nice Jewish boy raised in Northlake has been consorting with – dum, dum, DUM! – a "mouthpiece" for Islamic terrorism.

This is the essence of an attack ad that a Super PAC tied to House Speaker Paul Ryan has leveled against Jon Ossoff, the young Democrat whom Republicans are trying to keep from walking away with the Sixth District congressional seat on Tuesday.

Good people with good intentions can find legitimate reasons for judging Ossoff unworthy of their support. This isn’t one of them.

We have two indisputable facts to work with. Ossoff is CEO and managing director of a small documentary film outfit based in London called Insight TWI, Ltd. Secondly, one of his company’s many clients has been Al Jazeera English, a division of a Qatar-owned satellite television network that reaches into 100 countries.

Republicans took Fact One and Fact Two, sprinkled them with some anachronistic thinking, and generated a slander. But the truth is far more interesting, and tells us more about Ossoff, and about the world of international journalism, than the fib ever could.

Once upon a time, a BBC TV reporter named Ron McCullagh struck out on his own with a small company called Insight News Television. He produced and sold documentaries. In 2000, CNN contracted with McCullagh for the film "Cry Freetown," the account of the victims of the Sierra Leone civil war. It was very good.

Ossoff met McCullagh, via mutual friends, when he was still in his teens. “I was just fascinated at that young age by the work — because journalism has always been an interest of mine,” Ossoff said in an interview this week.

During a summer break as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Decatur, Ossoff briefly interned with the company. Ossoff would leave Johnson’s office for the London School of Economics, where he earned a graduate degree in 2013.

During his years there, Ossoff renewed his acquaintance with the ex-BBC reporter-turned-documentarian. Who asked him if he would be willing to take over the enterprise.

“It interested me. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing. It was hard-hitting, investigative work that holds powerful people accountable, exposes high-level political corruption, organized crime, war crimes,” Ossoff said. “I couldn’t think of a more impactful and rewarding use of my skills.”

Here we must interject that Ossoff comes from a wealthy Atlanta family, a fact that shouldn’t hurt him in the well-heeled Sixth. When his grandfather died, Jon Ossoff found himself with an inheritance.

It was a timely match. McCullagh’s TV company “always struggled a bit commercially,” Ossoff said. “I thought [my grandfather] would be proud for me to use some of those resources to invest in growing a company whose work I believed in.”

He renamed the company Insight TWI. (TWI stands for “The World Investigates.”)

Bloomberg still lists McCullagh as editor-in-chief. So I asked Ossoff what part of the business he was involved in. Everything, he replied.

“I’m involved intimately in every phase of production. Editorial development, field research, assessing the viability and security of the production plan. Pitching to broadcasters. Negotiating access with governments,” Ossoff said.

Most specifically, Ossoff is the fellow who markets his company’s work. “We pitch hundreds of proposals per year. We pitch the content that we’re in production on, on spec, and the content we’ve already produced — to everyone under the sun, distributors and to channels,” he said.

Ossoff said his best work has been a film on sexual slavery in Iraq and the women who have taken up arms to fight ISIS, commissioned by the BBC3. You can find snippets of it online.

Republicans have preferred to talk about Al Jazeera, of course. But they do not dwell on the details that don’t fit their narrative. The bulk of Ossoff’s work for the Qatar-owned network has been directed not at the Middle East, but Africa.

The content isn't that different from what you might see on any Atlanta TV station. "Name, shame and jail," brags one promotional for "Africa Investigates" — which is the name of the series.

“It’s six episodes per year, and they run the gamut. We reach out to several hundred investigative journalists across Africa. We ask them to pitch ongoing investigations of organized crime or political corruption,” Ossoff said. “We bring the 10 or 12 strongest to a discreet location. We’ve done it in Nairobi. We’ve done it on the coast of Ghana.”

There the selected journalists are taught the basics of security and surveillance. (With an eye, one presumes, to specific laws within each targeted country.) When I ventured that smart phones can be a powerful investigative tool even in Africa, Ossoff disabused me. He spoke of high-resolution, pinhole cameras.

“You can’t walk into the office of a high court judge or a high-level politician with your iPhone in your shirt pocket and film that person soliciting a bribe,” Ossoff said.

Ossoff’s business can exist because of the explosion in mass communication of the last 20 years. (This eruption was sparked, in fact, by Ted Turner and WTBS in Atlanta. But that’s another story.) Satellite TV may be relatively cheap to establish, but it has created a bottomless need for content.

Al Jazeera sprang up in the mid-1990s, soon after the BBC pulled the plug on its Arabic station in a dispute with Saudi Arabia over content.

In its early years, Al Jazeera struck a hard Islamist tone, and raised eyebrows when it aired videos of Osama bin Laden and his followers. And yes, some called the network “a mouthpiece for terrorism.”

But it has changed.

"Where it started is not where it is now. When it first started, Qatar was really trying to push its own national and foreign policy agenda, which is a very Islamist-based agenda," said Tally Helfont, director of the Middle Eastern program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

While the U.S. and Israel may have objected to much of the content, that wasn’t the Qatari intention. “They were using Al Jazeera against the Saudis as a way of competing with the hegemon of the region,” Helfont said. “The Saudis since then have brought the Qataris in line. And the Qataris have no longer been using their media empire in that same way.”

Given the threat of ISIS, the Gulf states are less divided, and their media outlets reflect that, Helfont said. And the outlets are more numerous. There’s Al Arabiya, and Al Sharqiya TV, too.

“They have their agendas, similar to how our media outlets have their agendas,” said Helfont — a reference to the Fox News, CNN, MSNBC divide. “Everybody knows what it is, and if you choose to watch one, you know what you’re getting.”

“They’re interviewing the same people that the Washington Post is interviewing. I think what was once polarizing or could have been problematic, today is simply just another [network] with a particular view,” she said. Helfont should know. She has appeared on Al Jazeera herself.

I was going to end this column with a quote from Ossoff on the irony of Republicans attempting to link a Jewish candidate with Islamic terrorism. Voters in the Sixth District “are too darn smart for this B.S.,” the Democrat said. And that might have worked.

But then I had a sudden flash of memory from last July. I was sitting at a sidewalk restaurant in downtown Cleveland, watching a mass of humanity flow to and from the Republican National Convention.

A familiar face suddenly appeared. It belonged to Bruce LeVell, who is now running against Ossoff and 16 other candidates in the Sixth District. I asked LeVell where he was bound.

As a representative of the Republican presidential candidate, LeVell said he was going to spread the Gospel of Donald Trump to a new and different audience. He was going to be interviewed by Al Jazeera.