Being the Bridge

 

A blue-eyed Marine from Texas, Josh Rushing faced fire when he left his post as military spokesman to help found Al Jazeera English in hopes of connecting two vastly different cultures. Seven years later, was his choice worth it?

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Marine lieutenant Josh Rushing, BA ’99, sat in an empty bar, his eyes glued to the horrifying images flashing across the TV screens in a Desert Hot Springs, Calif., hotel. He’d just walked out of a Marine Corps public-affairs conference where the speaker refused to let the officers tune into the breaking news.

“The room was full of people whose lives were about to change forever,” Rushing, 40, recalls. “It was their Pearl Harbor moment, and an egotistical general wanted to disconnect them from what was happening.”

So Rushing rebelliously left in search of a TV elsewhere. And what he discovered was chilling.

“I remember sitting there, watching the towers fall, smoke rising from the Pentagon,” Rushing says. “Then we were recalled to our base.”

On the other side of the world in Doha, Qatar, Arab television network Al Jazeera made the first of many controversial editorial decisions that would land it the title of “Terrorist TV” in the eyes of some Americans. While Rushing sat watching the events that would claim almost 3,000 American lives, Al Jazeera broadcasted live footage of Arabs celebrating the attacks in the streets, as well as disturbing images of Americans jumping to their deaths out of the Twin Towers.

That day, no one—not even Rushing himself—could’ve guessed that one day his ideals would lead this small-town Texan to Al Jazeera… and get him called a traitor to his country in the process.

Growing Up Southern

There’s a scene in 1997’s Grosse Point Blank where actor John Cusack’s character returns to his hometown and finds a convenience store where his childhood home used to be. “He says, ‘You can never go home again,’” Rushing recites, “‘but you can shop there.’ That’s how it is with Lewisville.” Lewisville, Texas, known for its Western downtown, rodeos, and cow patches when Rushing was growing up, is now home to a popular shopping mall.

As a kid, Rushing already had a rebellious streak. “He was just so independent—a freethinker,” says his mother, Dinah. She recalls a time she took young Josh to retake a computer test he had failed because he was goofing off. “He just laid his head down on the desk and went to sleep,” Dinah laughs. “He pushed every button I had, as many times as he could.”

To curb Rushing’s wild side, his parents sent him to the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas, the summer he was 13. There, he got the entire military experience, shaved head and all. Instead of feeling scared, Rushing flourished, so much so he asked to stay and finish high school there. But his parents wanted him to close out his adolescence at home, so he graduated from Lewisville High School in 1990. The pull of civil service was still there, though, and at 17, Rushing was ready to enlist. He even brought a Marine recruiter home—prompting his mother to throw the man out of the house.

“She didn’t think the Marine Corps would follow through on their promises,” Rushing remembers.

His parents, who had never attended college, always told Rushing and his sister, D’Lee, that higher education wasn’t optional. “College would have opened a lot of doors for him,” Dinah laments. But, knowing their headstrong son would just enlist on his own a year later at 18, his parents let him go.

Rushing shipped out to boot camp in San Diego, then to Camp Pendleton for infantry training, where he gained a reputation as equal parts hothead and academic. “One day while walking from one building to another, I was engrossed in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and eating an apple,” Rushing writes in his book, Mission Al Jazeera. “When I crossed paths with an officer, rather than rendering the proper salute … I distractedly put the apple in my mouth pig-at-a-luau style, saluted with my left hand, and kept reading and walking… It wasn’t long thereafter that I found out I wouldn’t be making a career out of the infantry skills I was learning.”

Instead, Rushing was assigned to the Marines’ Defense Information School in Indianapolis for journalism 101. He had little interest in the field, and showed it by falling asleep in class—even while standing—to the point of being sent for a narcolepsy test. He graduated, but just barely.

In 1995, Rushing finally fulfilled his mother’s dream when he became one of just 64 Marines to be part of the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, enabling him to enroll at UT. Banking on a career with the Marines, Rushing indulged his personal interests by majoring in ancient history and classical civilizations. He spent his days studying the origins of Western philosophy and translating ancient Greek texts by Homer, Aristotle, and Plato.

“The first time I met Josh, he was enrolling in my summer intensive Greek course,” UT professor Thomas Palaima remembers. “The course was five hours a day, five days a week. That was his level of commitment to the subject.”

An active-duty Marine, Rushing was also involved with UT’s Naval ROTC program, mentoring younger military hopefuls. Through the program, Rushing met his wife, Paige, when she attended a NROTC physical training session with a friend.

After he graduated, Rushing and his new, very understanding wife shuttled around to duty stations throughout the country, including the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and the Los Angeles Motion Pictures and TV Liaison Office as public-affairs officer. There he handled requests to use bases and Marine equipment in TV shows like JAG.

It was while he was at Miramar that he made the trip down to Desert Hot Springs for that public-affairs conference on 9/11. Sitting on a barstool in that empty hotel bar, Rushing knew the world would never be the same.

“I had been a Marine for 11 years—my entire adult life,” Rushing wrote in a Reader’s Digest article. “And on that day, especially, I felt fortunate to be one. I knew a military response would soon follow.”

Rushing desperately wanted to be on the front lines, repeatedly requesting a transfer. His wish came partially true when, in 2003, he was reassigned. Armed with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Iraq and an Arabic language tape, Rushing took off for U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar—where he would first encounter his future employer.

Political Provocateur

Al Jazeera (literally, “The Peninsula”) was founded in 1996 by Qatar’s new ruler, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, out of the ashes of an Arabic BBC channel shut down due to lack of financing and support in the area. The emir envisioned a new cable satellite channel that was journalistically sound and free from government meddling. So he abolished Qatar’s Ministry of Information—known for its censorship—and gave Al Jazeera’s reporters freedom to do their jobs on his dime.

With a tagline that translates roughly to “the opinion and the other opinion,” Al Jazeera has gained a reputation for challenging official accounts of news in the region. It has also become infamous in the United States for depicting death and violence, seen seldom on American news.

“You can’t please everyone,” says Philip Seib, author of The Al Jazeera Effect and professor at the University of Southern California. “Al Jazeera has been very sincere about trying to make it as an international news organization. But they aren’t perfect—then again, neither is the New York Times.”

Until 9/11, the United States generally regarded Al Jazeera with disinterest, but opinion changed fast when war broke out in the Middle East. The network was criticized for airing tapes sent in by Osama bin Laden, as well as gruesome images from Iraq and Afghanistan, prompting some to associate Al Jazeera with terrorism.

“Al Jazeera has repeatedly served as a voice for Al Qaeda,” says Cliff Kincaid, director of Washington, D.C.’s Accuracy in Media Center for Investigative Journalism, a right-leaning nonprofit. “They worked hand-in-glove with terrorist groups. There is blood on their hands.”

That sentiment struck fear into those associated with Al Jazeera, especially after the network’s bureaus were hit twice by U.S. missiles. In November 2001, Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan, was struck during an invasion. Two years later, in April 2003, a U.S. missile killed an Al Jazeera reporter after it hit the network’s Baghdad office. U.S. officials called both strikes accidents, but Al Jazeera execs insisted they gave the military their office coordinates just before the bombings.

It was into this environment that the idea for an English-language Al Jazeera channel emerged. In Seib’s latest book on Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera English: Global News in a Changing World, senior Al Jazeera journalist Marwan Bishara says, “the Al Jazeera in English initiative was grounded in the idea of building greater understanding between different peoples and different cultures through cross-cultural news media storytelling.” In other words, being a bridge between East and West.

“Think about it. Only 350 million people speak Arabic,” Seib says. “But billions speak English. AJE would reconcile a serious market failure.”

After an English web initiative called Al Jazeera Net failed, thanks in part to Yahoo and AOL terminating their ad contracts, work began to establish what was then called Al Jazeera International. Prominent journalists like veteran British reporter Sir David Frost and CNN International’s Riz Khan quickly signed on.

News broadcasts would be rotated throughout the day between Doha; London; Washington, D.C.; and Kuala Lumpur in order to gain a more global perspective.

“I compare Al Jazeera English to the Economist,” Seib says. “There’s a wide breadth of coverage— from Sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America and beyond. While vis-à-vis Time or Newsweek focus a lot on celebrities, AJE is really on a mission to be the voice of the global south.”

Two Worlds Collide

Back in Doha, Rushing forged a relationship with Al Jazeera reporters, who were often neglected or deliberately shafted by military personnel.

“I was a military authority who was humble enough to want to learn something from them,” he writes in his book.

The same curiosity that led Rushing to study ancient Greek philosophy at UT pulled at him while in Doha. He was fascinated by the lack of cultural understanding Americans had of the Arab world. Rushing worked to learn Arabic, often calling the AJ newsroom just to test how far he could go conversationally.

Years later, in 2004, Rushing would learn his interactions with the Al Jazeera staff at U.S. Central Command had become part of a documentary, Control Room. The only American prominently featured in the film, he and his candor about the horrors of war gained acclaim worldwide. What he expected to be just a student film on media coverage of the war turned into a worldwide sensation— and the Pentagon wasn’t pleased.

Rushing received orders to not talk to the media about the film after telling the Village Voice, “In America, war isn’t hell, we don’t see blood, we don’t see suffering. Al Jazeera shows it all. It turns your stomach, and you remember there’s something wrong with war.” He was told to keep Paige quiet as well.

At the time, Rushing was already becoming increasingly weary of his role as a military spokesman.

“There I was, a young lieutenant from Texas saying, ‘Saddam Hussein is a Hitler,’” Rushing writes. “I didn’t realize at the time that the messages I believed to be true were often more tried than true. They were a paradigm the government had used over and over to sell war.”

Angered by the military’s censorship and smarting from his own sense of ethics, Rushing left the Marine Corps. “When I resigned from the Marines, I had no job, no health care for my family, no practical degree,” Rushing says. “But I had to leave because I was the only person who could share what I’d seen.”

Moving Forward

It wasn’t long before Al Jazeera came knocking. Still in the formation stages, the new English network was in search of an American face. And Rushing, after his star turn in Control Room, was the perfect fit.

“He was the quintessential American, a former Marine,” Seib says. “And Al Jazeera needed that.”

Desperately so. When AJE officially launched in 2006, cable viewership extended to only three areas in the United States: Washington, D.C.; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vt.—just 1.7 percent of American households.

The transition was terrifying for Rushing. He was called a traitor. His story hit the front pages of newspapers nationwide. He received so many death threats that Al Jazeera hired bodyguards for his family. His home address was published online.

“When our address was put on that blog, I felt like my personal privacy was violated,” Paige recalls. “Because I had a husband who was gone 60 to 70 percent of the time, it really affected me and the kids. I felt our safety was threatened.”

When Rushing would film segments for Al Jazeera on U.S. soil, Customs officers would follow him and question every person he talked to.

When he appeared on talk shows, he was accused of being unpatriotic. Sean Hannity went so far as to shout, “Do you love America?” over and over when Rushing was a guest.

Even his parents down in Lone Star, Texas, felt the heat. “People would call and threaten us. A lot of our friends really felt like he was a traitor,” Dinah says. “And some still feel like that.”

One of the chief complaints Americans retain about AJE is that it is operated under the Al Jazeera umbrella, which remains under the authority of the Qatar government. Detractors say the channel’s ownership could potentially lend itself to propaganda and anti-American bias.

“The cure for the Al Jazeera blues is to watch it,” Rushing points out. “I’ll bet anything that they’ll change their minds.”

The first real breakthrough with American audiences came during last year’s Arab awakening. During the tumult, AJE offered full coverage from the ground in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond.

Both sides of the American political spectrum took notice. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate: “Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news.” Senator John McCain said he was “very proud of the role Al Jazeera had played.” And President Barack Obama even commented, “Reform, reform, reform. You’re seeing it on Al Jazeera.”

Rushing couldn’t be more thrilled. From the get-go, his personal mission at AJE could be summed up by the subtitle of his book: “Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World.” Now, after gaining wider acceptance worldwide, Al Jazeera English is allowing him to do just that.

“I want to see myself as a cultural bridge,” Rushing writes. “Many Americans don’t understand the rest of the world, and the rest of the world often doesn’t understand America… Openness will help us see something more than danger out there in the world.”

As host of AJE’s documentary show Fault Lines, Rushing travels from the Arctic Circle to Colombia to the South China Sea, investigating the role the United States plays worldwide. “Josh’s strength is sitting down and doing engaging interviews,” says Fault Lines senior producer Jeremy Young. “He’s not afraid to give people on both sides of an issue a hard time.”

It’s hard to believe he once came in second to last in his graduating journalism class. In addition to his book, Rushing has also contributed to the likes of Huffington Post and Reader’s Digest. His photography has been featured in National Geographic and on the cover of the Center for Fine Art Photography’s new book.

“My first year at Al Jazeera, I didn’t call myself a journalist,” Rushing says. “I just wanted to exemplify the best of American principles. In a weird way, I went from not wanting to call myself a journalist to now being a sort of evangelist for the field.”

Newly 40, Rushing says that this birthday caught his attention more than any other. With a job that takes him away from Paige and their four children—Luke, 20, Ethan, 6, Spencer, 4, and Harper, 2—for months at a time, it’s hard not to wonder if his choices were worth the sacrifices.

“Paige sent me a note recently that said I’d only spent 80 hours at home in one month,” Rushing says. “I recognize my life experience has given me a unique perspective. It’s my contribution to this world, and my family recognizes that.”

Traitor, terrorist—he’s been called it all. But the stigma associated with Al Jazeera is slowly fading.

“My goal when joining Al Jazeera was to help establish a world-class news channel— to have what Americans think of it be something close to what it truly is,” Rushing says. “Maybe we didn’t succeed 100 percent across the country, but the opinion of Al Jazeera today is closer to the truth. We got the truth out there.”

From top: Rushing in Al Jazeera English’s Washington, D.C. studio (2); Rushing became the center of a media firestorm when he joined Al Jazeera English; From a 2009 episode of Fault Lines, “Obama’s War.”

Photos by Melissa Golden (2), Josh Rushing, courtesy Fox News, Melissa Golden.

 

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