How one Marine flack left the Control Room and Found Al Jazeera
November/December 2006 Issue
At the time, Lieutenant Josh Rushing didn't give much thought to the filmmakers who followed him around the Pentagon's Central Command press operation in Doha, Qatar, for a few weeks at the outset of the Iraq War. But then, back in the States a year later, the Marine public-affairs officer got an anonymous voice mail. "I just saw your movie at Sundance," the caller said. "I just wanted to say thanks."
"I Googled my name and Sundance," Rushing recalls, "and up came all these stories" on Control Room, a documentary about theArabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera. He was startled to notice that "a lot of them weren't just about the movie—they were about me." The film had captured the earnest 30-year-old, with striking blue eyes and the signature high-and-tight haircut favored by his fellow Marines, as he grappled with his feelings about the war and the gulf between how the Western and Arab media were portraying it. Though Rushing, now 34, never strayed from his official talking points, he remembers being troubled that American reporters "were buying into the government's message without challenging it." Some journalists would ask him prior to on-air interviews if there were "any messages you want to get across today."
Amid the sudden publicity, Rushing ran afoul of the Pentagon. After defending Al Jazeera in an interview with the Village Voice, in which he suggested that the network showed a more realistic image of the war than the American media ("In America war isn't hell—we don't see blood, we don't see suffering. All we see is patriotism"), he was ordered to stop talking to the press. That didn't sit well with him. "It's a weird place to be in when there's a national dialogue about you and you can't take part in it," he says. "When I came back from the war, I was frustrated by what I'd seen. I felt that what America thought it knew about Al Jazeera was wrong, and the way that America was engaging or not engaging with Al Jazeera was not only wrong but dangerous."
Rushing resigned his commission after 14 years of service in the fall of 2004, a move that meant forsaking the pension and lifetime medical coverage he and his family would have received had he remained in the military for another six years. He took out a second mortgage on his Los Angeles home and went on the speaking circuit, addressing the film he'd been forbidden to comment on and offering his perspective on the oft-derided Arabic-language news channel that he saw as a vital way to engage the Muslim world.
By that winter, Rushing was running low on money and close to taking a job with a PR firm when he was approached by Al Jazeera, which was in the early stages of planning an ambitious English-language channel that would rotate its daily coverage among bureaus in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London, and Washington, D.C. Last fall, Rushing officially became one of the new faces of Al Jazeera International, along with such seasoned Western journalists as former ABC correspondent Dave Marash and BBC veteran David Frost. They were met with cries of treachery from the right; Rushing earned a special kind of scorn, with one conservative columnist calling him "a bigger boob than Anna Nicole Smith's entire chest combined," Al Jazeera's "American propagandist," and an "enemy-pandering nimrod" in the space of a single piece. There were online death threats, too—one urged special-ops troops to "take him out"—which worried him enough to hire bodyguards to protect his family.
As a correspondent covering the United States for the network, Rushing has made it his personal mission to pursue stories "that illustrate America to the world." In May, he traveled to North Dakota to shoot a piece about the emptying out of the rural towns of the Great Plains. During filming, a local sheriff—suspicious of the crew's Al Jazeera affiliation—alerted the Border Patrol. Generally, Al Jazeera's project has not been received with open arms in the United States. According to executive producer Joanne Levine, a major American accounting firm and an international bank have refused to handle Al Jazeera International's finances. The nascent network has also had difficulty securing distribution in the United States, which it insists has nothing to do with its image, and it missed its target launch date in May. Network executives will only say that Al Jazeera International will begin broadcasting before the end of the year. "I truly believe that once we're on the air, it's going to get easier," says Levine.
But the delays don't seem to bother Rushing; they've given him time to acclimate to his new profession. When he joined the network almost a year ago, he saw himself as a cultural emissary who could help the rest of the world understand the America he loves. Now, "more and more I see myself as a journalist," he says. "It's taking a long time to let go of that spokesperson side of me who wants to control the message and to embrace the side that's about letting the message be whatever you find. There's a real value to this journalism thing."