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Al Jazeera America Replaces CEO Amid Lawsuit


Al-Jazeera America is a network in crisis. Since its launch in 2013, it's won journalism awards but has drawn meager audiences. Internal tensions have erupted into public view, with a $15 million lawsuit and a string of high-profile departures. Yesterday the CEO was ousted. And, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the behind-the-scenes drama isn't over.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I caught up to Marcy McGinnis on Tuesday, the day she quit. She had been senior vice president for news gathering at Al-Jazeera America and previously served as a top official at CBS news.

MARCY MCGINNIS: I'd just updated my LinkedIn page. I put myself down as a journalist.

FOLKENFLIK: Al-Jazeera America's parent company is financed by the ruling family of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. But the job involved a mission she believed in.

MCGINNIS: We were a channel that was for Americans, run by Americans. We were going to be offering an alternative news channel to what's on the air now. We were going to be doing serious news, in-depth news - a really strong, hard news channel.

FOLKENFLIK: The acquisition of the cable channel Current helped it to reach more than 50 million households. And it hired a roster of familiar faces from CNN, MSNBC and ABC. On the air, McGinnis says, Al-Jazeera America lived up to its promise. Off the air, she says, she encountered a culture of fear and dysfunction. The ratings are estimated to be in the low tens of thousands - maybe five or 10 percent of what CNN might enjoy - and that led to severe pressure to cut costs. Several Al-Jazeera journalists told me the CEO, Ehab Al-Shibani, appeared to shift programs on a whim and that experienced producers who ran afoul of him might vanish from the newsroom.

MCGINNIS: We had a group of executives with a huge amount of experience in television news. And what frustrated all of us was having to take decisions from someone who didn't really seem to understand the American market the way we did.

FOLKENFLIK: One official named Osman Mahmud rose quickly from video editor to senior vice president for operations. Colleagues say he boasts of his family connection to the head of Al-Jazeera's parent company. Late last month, a former Al-Jazeera staffer named Matthew Luke filed a lawsuit alleging that Mahmud made anti-Semitic remarks, interfered in news and programming decisions outside his areas of responsibility, cut women out of projects and routinely denigrated women in the news room, even those who out-ranked him. Luke was fired days after lodging an internal complaint. The heads of both human resources and of public relations left last week, the same day Luke filed his lawsuit. On Tuesday, Al-Jazeera America scrambled to assert control of its image, denouncing outside attacks on the network and announcing new programming shifts. It set up a telephone press conference, too. That didn't go well.


O'BRIAN: There are many things that we want to talk about in terms of the growth of the channel and the re-launch of some terrific shows.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Al-Jazeera America president, Kate O'Brian.


O'BRIAN: I would like to have an opportunity to highlight some of the things that we've been doing already.

FOLKENFLIK: This audio was shared with NPR by Hadas Gold, a media reporter for Politico.

HADAS GOLD: It was just a surreal press conference.

FOLKENFLIK: Reporters repeatedly pressed network executives about the lawsuit and the executive departures, but they wouldn't comment. The Associated Press's David Bauder weighed in.


DAVID BAUDER: I'm just a little curious about why you decided to have this briefing here. I thought this briefing was supposed to be about this case.

FOLKENFLIK: Hadas Gold said it felt like an exercise in futility and an ironic one at that.

GOLD: Especially also because they were talking about how they're such a transparent and inclusive network.

FOLKENFLIK: Marcy McGinnis confirms one of the allegations in the lawsuit. She tells NPR she had previously complained about Mahmud's sexism and interference to human resources officials but no one ever followed-up. Earlier this year, she decided to leave news and briefly accepted another senior position. But she says she finally quit Tuesday in disgust. Last night, the CEO at the center of the storm was forced out too, but he remains at the company. He announced he would stay on as chief operating officer. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.