- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 7, 2016

Despite paltry ratings and ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Jazeera America had gained a measure of respect among U.S. journalists for its in-depth investigations, a hard-won reputation now at risk over its explosive sports-doping report.

The investigation, “The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers,” has been widely criticized since airing Dec. 27, and not just by the 10 pro athletes named in the report. Two Major League Baseball players — Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals and Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies — filed a defamation lawsuit Tuesday against Al Jazeera America.

Analysts in the journalism business have pointed to a troubling lack of credible sourcing behind the documentary linking top sports figures to performance-enhancing drugs. Some of the most incendiary accusations are made by one source captured on hidden camera who has since disavowed his statements.

“I think this was a pretty shoddy piece of work. I’m not at all impressed with what I saw in there,” said Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute senior faculty for broadcasting and online journalism. “To me, it was a report that was sort of premised on a wink and a nod — ‘You know what we mean, right?’”

Launched in August 2013, Al Jazeera America has struggled to gain a foothold in major markets while combating doubts about its journalistic independence. Funded by the government of Qatar, the Al Jazeera Media Network has been accused of promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and harboring a pro-Sunni bias. Indeed, the network first became known to most Americans for its coverage of the Iraq War and subsequent insurgency, which seemed to favor, and be intimately tied to, the al Qaeda Islamists killing U.S. soldiers and Marines.

Al Jazeera America also has grappled with its own newsroom chaos. Last year, CEO Ehab Al Shihabi was replaced, and a reporter filed a lawsuit accusing a manager of sexist, anti-Semitic and anti-American behavior. Despite all that, the network has won awards for the kinds of monthslong, in-depth investigations that other broadcasters are increasingly unable to afford.

“It’s disappointing to me, to be honest with you, because they have done some pretty reputable work over the last few years,” said Mr. Tompkins. “That’s one reason that this particular piece was so out of left field for them. It’s just not in keeping with what I’ve seen them do.”

At the same time, finding itself in the middle of a high-profile squabble with famous athletes may come as a plus for Al Jazeera America, which has been plagued with low viewership. Available in about 60 million homes, the channel averages about 30,000 nightly viewers, according to industry publications.

Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington, raised alarms about potential anti-Israel bias at Al Jazeera America when it debuted but says the English-language programming has been far more objective than that of its Arabic arm.

Plus, few people watch it. “The saving grace here is that it’s also not very interesting and Americans don’t watch it,” said Ms. Bryen. “It really doesn’t matter all that much because they never have had more than about 35,000 viewers on a given night in a country of 322 million. So I guess the problem solved itself.”

Given those numbers, the controversy surrounding the doping report may come as a mixed blessing for the network, said Mark Feldstein, a professor at the University of Maryland Merrill College of Journalism.

“There’s still a big stigma attached to the Al Jazeera name. It can still be hard to find on cable outlets, but any publicity is good publicity for Al Jazeera and their buzz,” said Mr. Feldstein. “People are talking about them. There’s the hope that ratings can increase from what they are now.”

Problems with source

At the heart of the criticism is Al Jazeera America’s decision to air the documentary a day after a key source, former Guyer Institute pharmacy intern Charlie Sly, recanted claims he made in hidden-camera footage against a number of high-profile athletes, also including future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.

During the 49-minute program, Mr. Sly, who does not realize he is being taped, tells British hurdler Liam Collins that he provided seven pro baseball and football players with performance-boosting drugs, in some cases Delta 2, a prohormone banned by the MLB and NFL.

Mr. Sly is the only source to make accusations in the documentary against five of the players.

In his lawsuit, Zimmerman says the network “chose to publish their defamatory story in an attempt to stir scandal and increase Al Jazeera’s low ratings.”

John Feinstein, regarded as the dean of American sportswriters, said Wednesday that the problem with the report was that the Al Jazeera investigative team “didn’t have it nailed” before running with the story.

“I thought that they didn’t dot all their i’s and cross all their t’s before they went with the story, clearly,” Mr. Feinstein said on the “Grant and Danny” show on Washington radio station WJFK, 106.7 The Fan. “The thing you have to do with first and foremost when you’re doing a story like this is you’ve got to make sure that your source is reliable, that your source can be trusted.”

By relying on Mr. Sly, however, “clearly they got involved with at least one source who wasn’t to be trusted. They were backpedaling from the story within 15 minutes of having released it, and that’s just not good,” Mr. Feinstein said.

Network’s defense

Al Jazeera America reporter Deborah Davies has made a spirited defense of the documentary in multiple television interviews, arguing that Mr. Sly’s original hidden-camera interviews are more credible than his subsequent retraction.

On Sunday, Ms. Davies dropped another bombshell by telling CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that Al Jazeera has a second unidentified source who is “absolutely impeccably placed, knowledgeable and credible who confirmed exactly what Charlie Sly said.”

The source was not cited in the report over concerns about confidentiality, she said, and was used only to corroborate Mr. Sly’s statements.

Ms. Davies also argues that Manning has not specifically rebutted the accusation Mr. Sly made in the video, namely that human growth hormone was shipped multiple times to Manning’s wife, Ashley, from the Guyer Institute in Indianapolis, where the quarterback received treatment in 2011.

“We’re saying we have raised questions, and those questions haven’t been answered,” Ms. Davies told CNN.

Mr. Tompkins called that argument weak.

“To suggest that, ‘Well, we never said that, we just asked questions,’ I just think it’s disingenuous,” he said.

“If you don’t have more evidence than one source who doesn’t even stand up when a wee bit of pressure comes — and now they’ve got a secret source that they won’t name?” Mr. Tompkins said. “I’m not impressed at all with that.”

Manning has called the report “garbage” and indicated even before the two baseball players sued that he may file a court case also.

Al Jazeera America did not return a request for comment and declined earlier this week to comment on the lawsuit to The Associated Press.

Also raising eyebrows are the report’s tone and dramatic presentation. The documentary features ominous music and shadowy lighting, along with plenty of filler footage in the form of cityscapes, crowds and people driving.

Although the accusations against Mr. Manning do not appear until the program’s final 10 minutes, his name, image and jersey are used as teasers early on in the report.

The report does make it clear that all athletes named were contacted and either denied the accusations or refused to comment.

Al Jazeera America also has won points in some circles for daring to take on the culture of doping within professional sports, a topic seldom broached by other outlets, many of which are tied to the various leagues for game programming.

“I do think it’s telling that an investigation of this kind was done by Al Jazeera rather than ESPN or the news networks,” Mr. Feldstein said. “It shows a commitment to aggressive undercover journalism that those other mainstream outlets don’t seem to have an appetite for, and I think that’s laudable. How they executed it in this particular case will come out in the wash.”

Network needs to ‘clean up’

Al Jazeera America underwent an upheaval in May when veteran journalist Al Anstey took over the top job amid reports of low morale.

In an August address marking the network’s second anniversary, Mr. Anstey restated his commitment to high-quality journalism. “We’re not here to chase ratings by putting entertainment or opinion on air in the guise of news,” he said.

If that still applies, Mr. Tompkins said, another shake-up is needed in order for the network to salvage its reputation.

“Clean up. I would say at this point, painful as it is, it’s time for a full-blown internal investigation with a full disclosure of what you find. As nasty and dirty as it can be to do that, it’s what you do,” Mr. Tompkins said.

Other journalism outlets have done the same, notably Rolling Stone in the aftermath of its widely debunked report last year on campus rape at the University of Virginia.

“It’s the only way I know to do it. It’s not fun. It won’t be without pain,” said Mr. Tompkins. “But I think they have some confessing to do. I just don’t think what they did measures up. If they’ve got the goods, come forward with it. If they don’t have the goods, then we need to understand how this story got on the air, as half-baked as it was.”

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