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Dogged By Problems, Al Jazeera America Launches with Interview of Conspiracy Theorist Stephen Walt

Media watchers spanning the political spectrum – from the Washington Free Beacon to Bloomberg and Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg – expressed something between resignation and outrage yesterday, as Al Jazeera America aired within hours of its launch an interview with Harvard professor and noted conspiracy theorist Stephen Walt.

The interview was ostensibly aimed at analyzing the geopolitical stakes surrounding the crisis in Egypt, which Walt at the end of the broadcast described as complicated by the U.S.-Israel relationship. The point was made more explicitly in a recent post published by the professor, in which he minimized the U.S.’s interests in the Middle East and sarcastically noted that “Israel isn’t the United States (despite what some senators and congressmen seem to think).” Walt has long been criticized for implying that Americans who support Israel harbor so-called “dual loyalties.”

Walt is famous for developing a theory of international relations grounded in relatively rigid assumptions dictating that nation-states will act rationally in response to threats, and then abandoning that theory for one in which a “loose coalition” of American Jews (and Christians who have been won over) drive America to irrationally support the Jewish state. The latter theory was developed in “The Israel Lobby,” a 2006 article followed by a 2007 book, both co-authored by University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer.

Walt has in recent years heavily emphasized the role American Jews in “the Lobby,” deemphasizing the initial gesture toward Christians.

The thesis struck even authors not known for their pro-Israel leanings as both conspiratorial and inaccurate. Christopher Hitchens described it as “wishfulness” that “seriously mischaracterize[s] the origins of the problem” and “is redeemed from complete dullness and mediocrity only by being slightly but unmistakably smelly.” Professional Israel critic Norman Finkelstein asserted that he “just can’t find any evidence” for Walt and Mearsheimer’s general claims.

Al Jazeera America, the latest addition to the Qatari ruling family’s broadcasting empire, had taken over the struggling Current TV network and gained an immediate foothold in America. Its launch was met with enthusiasm in some quarters. The New York Times described it as “something a journalism professor would imagine,” and quoted observers describing it as “transformative.”

Al Jazeera bought a prominently displayed banner ad in the New York Times’ online international section seeking to emphasize Al Jazeera America’s objectivity:

Nonetheless skepticism over Al Jazeera’s objectivity in general has dogged the network’s stations. Prominent are charges of interference from Al Jazeera’s Qatari funders. David Marash, the first Washington anchor for Al Jazeera English, quit in 2008 over attempts to erode the station’s objectivity. Dozens of employees from Al Jazeera’s Egyptian outlet resigned this year amid accusations that Qatar was forcing the station to provide positive coverage to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al Jazeera America had already struggled to distance itself from the Qatari network’s brand. The New York Post noted this week that it has no significant advertisers. Time Warner had dropped the network months ago, and this week AT&T’s U-Verse did the same.

The Walt interview is likely to further complicate the station’s efforts at establishing credibility.

[Photo: Maarten Dirkse / Flickr]