Veteran TV-news correspondent Dave Marash's recent assignments for ABC's Nightline have included stints in Iraq, Pakistan, areas affected by the Asian tsunami, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Good training, perhaps, for the flak he's about to take for his latest career move: The former New Jersey resident will become an anchor for Al Jazeera International, an English-language news network based in Washington, D.C.
Marash said that he anticipates being hosted at "piñata parties," where critics of the controversial Arab-owned news service will skewer him for his career choice.
"I expect to be the poster child of their attacks, and I welcome the opportunity to defend myself and the channel," the newsman said in a lengthy cell-phone interview.
Marash will be one of two broadcasters to anchor the American-based news programs on the network critics have labeled a "mouthpiece for terrorists." His co-anchor has yet to be announced.
The 63-year-old veteran journalist – a familiar presence on New York local news before his years at the ABC network – insists the Arab-owned news satellite channel's agenda is one of "open discussion and information exchange and not … ideological triumphalism."
He pointed out that he is "not the only Jewish person they have hired, and they've made it quite clear that they regard my religious background as incidental to my professional credentials."
Preceding him on the AJI payroll was New Yorker Rebecca Lipkin, a colleague of his at Nightline, who's based in London as AJI's executive producer for documentaries.
In addition, his Jewish wife, Amy Marash, a former photographer and field producer at American networks, has been hired as the Washington bureau's deputy news editor.
"I don't believe Al Jazeera is anti-Semitic," said Marash. "I don't believe we are anti-Israeli. I don't believe we are anti-American. I don't believe we are anti-Western."
"I am very, very comfortable that I am not betraying my Jewish heritage or my American citizenship. But in this job, I think I am going to be able to express the best sides of my religious, cultural, social and political background. It is what makes this such an attractive job."
Controversy on All Sides
Launched a decade ago, Al Jazeera came to Western attention following the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused it of "working in concert with terrorists" and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained of "reporting that's purely inaccurate."
On NPR's "On the Media" program, host Bob Garfield said the network "has been, if not necessarily an advocate of Islamism and jihadism, or even necessarily being sympathetic to those causes, it's certainly been hospitable to rhetoric about them, and has all sort of accompanying, very inflammatory images."
Marash draws a distinction between the new English-language service and the one now broadcasting in Arabic, which emanates from Doha, Qatar, and reaches an estimated 30 million viewers in the Arabic-speaking world.
"Let me make one point extremely clear," he said. "Al Jazeera in English is an entirely different channel."
Even as he stressed that difference, Marash said that "the philosophy of Al Jazeera's Arabic network is very much like our philosophy."
He noted the original Al Jazeera attempts to "represent as broad a spectrum of political opinion as possible, and certainly in the Arabic-speaking world, a large segment of that palette is very unpalatable to us as Americans and very hostile to Israel and, frankly, anti-Semitic. But always, those points of view are presented in a package with alternate points of view."
The broadcaster also argued that among Arab-language news-gatherers, Al Jazeera was the first to use Israeli sources: "If you believe in the possibility of peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, between Jews and Arabs, between the West and the Islamic worlds – any way you draw the line in the clash of civilizations and cultures – Al Jazeera is the bridge."
But Alex Safian, a professional media watchdog for the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, felt otherwise: "Al Jazeera is not a legitimate news source, contrary to what Dave Marash is saying."
Calling the anchorman "Marash of Arabia," Safian said that since its inception in 1996, Al Jazeera's Arabic-language broadcasts "have done a tremendous job of inflaming the Arab world against Israel and the United States."
Safian said he's "extremely skeptical" of Marash's claims that AJI will be fair and objective.
Nor is Safian impressed by Marash's talk of his own Jewish background. "It doesn't matter that he is Jewish," said Safian. "I think any American or any Western newsperson who goes to work for Al Jazeera – regardless of their religion – is betraying their profession, regardless of what Marash says about the guarantees he's had."
Al Jazeera International is expected to be launched "some time in late spring," said Marash.
Marash, who first began reporting for Nightline in 1989, is leaving the show as it undergoes major changes, including the departure of anchor Ted Koppel, who reportedly turned down an offer from Al Jazeera and has since joined the Discovery Network. Before Nightline, Marash was as an investigative reporter for WNBC-TV and the news anchor for WCBS-TV, both New York City-area stations.