How an Obama adviser got played by a freelance writer with an agenda

Fred Kaplan writes: About a week ago, I told a friend that I didn’t understand how people like Ben Rhodes — who’s been working as deputy national security adviser since President Obama’s first day in the White House — could stand the nonstop pressure without going crazy. Then came David Samuels’ profile of Rhodes in the New York Times Magazine, and I wondered if he’d gone nuts after all.

The piece quotes Rhodes as ragging on the press corps (27-year-olds who “literally know nothing” other than political campaigns) and the foreign policy establishment (“the Blob”); boasting of how he manipulated reporters and commentators on the Iran nuclear deal (“We created an echo chamber,” with reporters “saying things that validated what we had given them to say”); and boosting his own status considerably (“I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends”).

Why was an experienced operator like Rhodes saying these things to a reporter on the record? And does he believe what he was saying?

It’s a very strange article all round. Samuels presents Rhodes — a 38-year-old, erstwhile aspiring novelist — as “the Boy Wonder of the Obama White House,” “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy” besides the president himself, “the voice in which America speaks to the world.” The story’s headline hails Rhodes still more dramatically as “Obama’s foreign-policy guru” who “rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age.”

Many have commented on the article as a fascinating, if gruesome portrait of how power works and how official narratives are woven in the age of Obama and social media. It is all that, but not entirely in the way that many bloggers and tweeters have inferred. It struck me as interesting in two ways: first, as a story of a senior staffer who has been hunkered down in a windowless West Wing office for too long; second, as the story of a freelance writer — David Samuels, the author of this piece — who has an ideological agenda to push and who hides it by hyping the importance of the man he’s profiling. [Continue reading…]

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Adventures in the Trump Twittersphere

Zeynep Tufekci writes: Every morning since August, I have steeled myself to enter an alternate universe. I scroll through social media feeds where people are convinced that Congress funds the Islamic State, that our president hates this country and wants it to fail and that Donald J. Trump is the only glimmer of hope in this bleak landscape.

It’s my look at a list of Twitter users whom I’ve identified as Trump supporters. Some accounts have only a few followers while some have tens of thousands. (No one comes close to Mr. Trump himself, at more than seven million.) They include people of many professions and backgrounds. I found them by reading at responses to news media or political accounts, and then went on to seek out other accounts they followed. It’s a large, sprawling network.

As an academic, I study social media and social movements, from the uprising in Egypt to Black Lives Matter. As I watched this election season unfold, I wanted to gain a better understanding of the power of the Trump social media echo chamber. What I’ve been reading has surprised even my jaded eyes. It’s a world of wild falsehoods and some truth that you see only rarely in mainstream news outlets, or hear spoken among party elites.

It’s popular to argue today that Mr. Trump’s success is, in part, a creation of the traditional news media — cable networks that couldn’t get enough of his celebrity and the ratings it brought, and newspapers that didn’t scrutinize him with enough care. There is some truth in that, but the contention misses a larger reality.

Mr. Trump’s rise is actually a symptom of the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say. [Continue reading…]

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The mutual dependence of Donald Trump and the news media

Jim Rutenberg writes: Did you catch the Trump-Kelly bout Friday night? What a show.

It had Donald J. Trump, The Likely Republican Presidential Nominee, throwing the first punch (of that day) at the star Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly by composing a Twitter post describing her as “overrated” and calling for a boycott of her show.

Then Fox News Channel counterpunched, accusing the candidate of having a sexist and “sick obsession” with its popular journalist. Boom. Another Trump News avalanche!

The Trump-Kelly feud once again became a focal point of the presidential campaign coverage, cascading across Twitter, cable news and digital news outlets, including this one.

As in any good prizefight, everybody came out the richer Friday, putting aside the potentially severe internal injuries.

Mr. Trump riled up his fans against a recurring villain in his running campaign narrative and ensured the news was once again all about him. Fox News, the cable news ratings leader that is so often impugned as an arm of the Republican Party, got to ring a bell for journalistic independence. Ms. Kelly got the sort of support from the network that she has described as lacking from her colleague Bill O’Reilly; guaranteed big ratings to come; and got more fodder for the book she sold for many millions of dollars after the Trump feud began.

Newspapers and online news organizations got a click-worthy story line tailor-made for a fast read on the iPhone. And, finally, there were the viewers and the readers, who are benefiting from a transitioning media industry’s desire to give them what they want, where they want it, as fast as possible. As the people have made clear, they want Trump.

It was the perfect boil-down of the disturbing symbiosis between Mr. Trump and the news media. There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential years. But in my lifetime it’s never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes. [Continue reading…]

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The Baltic elves taking on pro-Russian trolls

Michael Weiss writes from Vilnius, Lithuania: My elf was on time and surprisingly tall.

Mindaugas is an unassuming, thirtysomething advertising agency director by day, and a ferocious cyber-warrior by night. He started a phenomenon, here in Lithuania, of countering Kremlin propaganda and disinformation on the Internet. “We needed to call our group something. What to name it? Well, we were fighting trolls. So I said, ‘Let’s be elves.’”

There were 20 or 30 at first, when the trolls began a targeted campaign of leaving nasty comments about the Lithuanian government and society, usually pegged to a hatred of NATO, the European Union and, of course, the United States. Since then, elves have proliferated into the hundreds. They’re now scattered about neighboring Latvia and Estonia and have even been spotted as far north as Finland. The elves pride themselves on clandestinity and reclusiveness, and so I was quite lucky to catch this Lithuanian Legolas on my last night in Vilnius.

“Most of us were already participating in some online groups,” said this man, who suggests we call him Mindaugas in person. “Fighting the trolls on Facebook and vKontakte, giving examples of Russian lies. That’s how we met.”

Facebook is where the light skirmishes take place; the mortal combat is reserved for the comment sections of Lithuanian news articles, where the trolls loose a constant drizzle of falsehoods and complaints, each comment helping to construct an alternate reality version of life in this Baltic country of 3 million. Rather than a thriving and patriotic post-Soviet success story, which it is, the image the trolls cultivate is that of a demoralized and angry society whose people are ready for regime change, be it through internal democratic mechanisms or through “liberation” by a friendly neighboring army. [Continue reading…]

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The Donald Trump show

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Tech companies are eating journalists’ lunch. Shouldn’t they at least pay for it?

Richard Jones, University of Huddersfield

Journalism is in an existential crisis: revenue to news organisations has fallen off a cliff over the past two decades and no clear business model is emerging to sustain news in the digital era.

In the latest in our series on business models for the news media, Richard Jones asks whether tech companies that benefit from journalism should pay a levy to help sustain it.

Twitter was once described as the most significant innovation in journalism since the telephone. More than three quarters of journalists in the UK use it to gather stories, promote their own work and keep up with what’s going on.

But Twitter is in trouble. User growth slows every quarter, and is flat in the US. Squished between Facebook, Google and Apple, and under pressure to do more to tackle abuse, Twitter has lost some of its sparkle, not least to Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp.

Now back at the helm of the company he co-founded, Jack Dorsey recently signalled that Twitter’s most famous feature – the 140-character limit – might soon be lifted.

[Read more…]

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The BuzzFeed business model: data, learning, dollars

Fast Company reports: Across all the platforms where it now publishes content, the company generates 5 billion monthly views—half from video, a business that effectively did not exist two years ago. Traffic to the website has remained steady — 80 million people in the U.S. every month, putting it ahead of The New York Times — even though as much as 75% of BuzzFeed’s content is now published somewhere else.

BuzzFeed has become the envy of the media world for its seemingly magical ability to engineer stories and ads that are shared widely — whether it’s a dress that looks to be either white and gold or blue and black, an investigation into taxpayer-funded “ghost schools” in Afghanistan, or an older cat imparting wisdom to a kitten on behalf of Purina. Rivals in the insular media world carp that BuzzFeed is gaming Facebook’s algorithm, or buying ads to pump up its content, and both are unsustainable; viral smashes like the dress are mere luck; even traditional brands such as The Washington Post can beat BuzzFeed with their own traffic-oriented gambits.

What’s lost here is a true understanding of what Peretti, one of the world’s most astute observers of Internet behavior, has built. The company’s success is rooted in a dynamic, learning-driven culture; BuzzFeed is a continuous feedback loop where all of its articles and videos are the input for its sophisticated data operation, which then informs how BuzzFeed creates and distributes the advertising it produces. In a diagram showing how the system works, Peretti synthesized it down to “data, learning, dollars.” [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s people are not happy with The Interpreter

James Miller writes: The last two years have been rather tough for the Russian government’s main English-language propaganda outlet, RT.

Following Russia’s illegal and nearly-universally-condemned annexation of the Crimean peninsula, RT anchor Liz Wahl, then anchor and correspondent Sara Firth, quit in protest of what they called “propaganda” which they were forced to spread in order to cover up the Kremlin’s foreign policy activity.

Many of the personalities who remained on the network had their reputations damaged by their own words. The Interpreter alone documented an RT editor who knew information on their website was fake but kept the content up for weeks; a German “expert” and frequent guest who is really a major neo-Nazi leader and publicist; another frequent RT guest who is a 9/11 truther and avowed racist; an RT host who believes that some of the victims of 9/11 knew about the attack beforehand and tried to capitalize on it; a “whistle-blower” and financial expert for RT who thinks that the World Bank and the Vatican are run by a species of non-human coneheads (which is why the pope wears a big hat); yet another RT host who thinks North Korea would be a nice place to live; an anchor who interviewed an entertainer (named by RT as a journalist) who thinks HIV does not cause AIDS; an (already discredited) RT field correspondent who made up a story about being shot at in Ukraine and filmed evidence that proves he was lying; a “human rights expert” who, despite being a holocaust denier who is friends with convicted hate criminals, is a frequent guest on RT; and an RT columnist who is an associate of a now-deported Russian agent and who threatened to sue us just for asking basic questions about his resume. Our work on RT had an effect — basic Google searches of some of RT’s favorite guests and personalities netted our articles exposing these people as cranks. And this, of course, does not even mention our near-daily debunking of Kremlin propaganda, spread by RT, concerning Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, and our special reports tearing apart RT’s coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the shooting down of civilian airliner MH17. [Continue reading…]

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How to create a better politics

I didn’t watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, but news reports alerted me to this passage:

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

It’s easy to view politics as a marketplace in which trading is taking place as competing constituencies haggle over power. From that perspective, the only question is which group best represents your interests and if no such group exists, politics then becomes a dull spectator sport. Such a marketplace is inevitably dominated by the loudest voices.

Even if that characterization is reasonably accurate, it is likely to have a constricting effect.

Politics seen as jostling power groups, makes those groups into somewhat static entities and it saps a spirit of inquiry.

If the activity of asking and answering questions — an activity that needs to be driven by curiosity — seems pointless, it gets replaced by a much less constructive exercise: the solidification of opinion through affiliation.

In other words, politics is reduced to the question of who you want to stand with and who you stand against.

In the Republican response to Obama’s speech, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said:

Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.

It would be easy to dismiss these appeals from Obama and Haley to reduce the level of rancor in politics as simply calls for a cosmetic change — as though politics can be reformed by making it more pleasant. But I don’t think these calls for a tone change should be trivialized.

The dynamic at issue is driven by the cycle of attention-seeking and attention-giving.

Donald Trump’s success has had less to do with either his financial independence or his alignment with a large segment of the population, than it has with his skill in co-opting the services of the mass media.

He took reality TV to the next level (cliche intended) by turning a presidential campaign into a form of mass entertainment. Trump supporters commonly say that a significant part of his appeal is that they find him entertaining. The tedium of politics has been turned into a raucous circus with Trump as ringmaster.

He couldn’t have done this without the help of a media which salivates at each and every opportunity to boost ratings and make more money.

Ultimately, this is an issue of American values. If creating wealth is the axis around which American life turns, then the media will inevitably function like every other branch of commerce.

The health of any society, however, requires a balance between self-interest and collective interests.

If government, the legal system, the media, education, medicine, and the arts, are controlled by commerce then we all end up as the slaves of profit.

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Al Jazeera to shut down American news channel

The Wall Street Journal reports: When Al Jazeera America was launched to great fanfare in 2013, its then-leader boasted he didn’t have to worry too much about profits.

After all, the cable news channel was backed by the oil-and-gas-rich government of Qatar, and oil was trading around $100 a barrel.

On Wednesday, with oil trading near $30, Al Jazeera made an about-face, announcing it was shutting its American cable channel by April 30 for economic reasons.

“The economic landscape of the media environment has driven its strategic decision to wind down its operations and conclude its service,” wrote Al Anstey, an Al Jazeera executive who took over as chief executive of the American channel in May after its founding CEO was ousted in the wake of discrimination suits.

Charles Herring, president of Herring Broadcasting Co., which runs the conservative One America News Network, said his company is interested in buying the channel because of its valuable affiliation agreements. One America is currently available is about a quarter as many homes as Al Jazeera America and would like to put its channel in this wider footprint, he said. A spokesman for Al Jazeera declined to comment. Trade publication Multichannel News earlier reported Herring’s interest.

Partly as a result of its weak negotiating position, Al Jazeera America was forced to stop streaming Al Jazeera English online in the U.S., which had helped it build influence thanks to its close-up coverage of the Arab Spring. It was a condition of its deals with distributors, who are never fans of paying for channels that also put their content online free.

As part of its announcement on Wednesday, Al Jazeera said it will now “expand its existing international digital services to broaden its multiplatform presence in the United States.” [Continue reading…]

Hopefully this means the return of full online access to Al Jazeera English programming. Stay tuned…

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Gaza journalist says he was tortured in Hamas jail

The Associated Press reports: Palestinian journalist Ayman al-Aloul frequently writes about the hardships of life in the Gaza Strip, and is one of the few voices willing to publicly criticize the rule of the Islamic Hamas movement.

But after nine days in jail, al-Aloul says he won’t be writing about politics anymore. He said a painful experience that included beatings and being forced to sit uncomfortably in a tiny chair has made him a “new man” and that he will now focus on less controversial topics like sports, food, literature and fashion.

“I’ve decided not to talk about the general situation anymore,” al-Aloul said in an interview at his home Tuesday, a day after he was released. “The experience I went through was very difficult.”

Al-Aloul’s experience is part of a crackdown by Hamas at a time when the continuing miseries of life in Gaza appear to be driving its population toward more open dissent. Critics have grown bolder on social media sites, and attempts by Hamas to impose new taxes have triggered rare public protests. [Continue reading…]

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How Rolling Stone handled Sean Penn’s exclusive interview with El Chapo

The New York Times reports: Several months ago, Jann Wenner, a founder of Rolling Stone magazine, received a call from the actor Sean Penn.

Mr. Penn, Mr. Wenner said in an interview on Sunday, wanted to discuss something important. But he did not want to speak openly over the phone, so the two began to speak elliptically about a potential project.

That vague conversation was the beginning of what eventually became an article, written by Mr. Penn, that rocked both Mexico and the United States when it was published Saturday night. It was an exclusive interview with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the notorious drug kingpin known as El Chapo, that was conducted while Mr. Guzmán was on the run from the authorities after an audacious escape from a Mexican prison last year.

The 10,000-word article includes accusations of cooperation between the military and Mr. Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, as well as Mr. Guzmán’s acknowledgment of his status as a drug dealer and his thoughts about the ethical implications of his business. Mr. Guzmán, whose escape from prison — his second — made him one of the most wanted fugitives in the world, was caught on Friday, before the article was published.

But after its publication, questions have been raised about the ethics for the magazine in dealing with Mr. Guzmán, a criminal being sought on charges of drug trafficking and murder, and in allowing him to approve what would ultimately be published about him. The Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, speaking Sunday on “This Week,” on ABC News, acknowledged Mr. Penn’s “constitutional right” to meet with Mr. Guzmán, but called the interview “grotesque.”

Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said he was concerned by the editorial approval offered to Mr. Guzmán. But ultimately, he said, “scoring an exclusive interview with a wanted criminal is legitimate journalism no matter who the reporter is.” [Continue reading…]

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Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of Las Vegas paper seen as a power play

The New York Times reports: Two days after Sheldon Adelson’s lawyers lost in their attempts to have a judge removed from a contentious lawsuit that threatens his gambling empire, a call went out to the publisher of this city’s most prominent newspaper.

Almost immediately, journalists were summoned to a meeting with the publisher and the general counsel and told they must monitor the courtroom actions of the judge and two others in the city. When the journalists protested, they were told that it was an instruction from above and that there was no choice in the matter.

It is unclear whether Mr. Adelson, who was then in talks to buy the newspaper, The Las Vegas Review-Journal, or his associates were behind the directive or even knew about it. But it was an ominous coincidence for many in the city who worry what will become of the paper now that it is owned by Mr. Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate and prominent Republican donor with a history of aggressively pursuing his interests.

Suspicions about his motives for paying a lavish $140 million for the newspaper last month are based on his reputation in Las Vegas as a figure comfortable with using his money in support of his numerous business and political concerns, said more than a dozen of the current and former Review-Journal staffers and local civic figures who have worked closely with him. [Continue reading…]

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CNN debate ignores climate change, does not ask GOP candidates about historic Paris agreement

Media Matters reports: Three days before CNN hosted the fifth Republican presidential debate, leaders from every country in the world struck a historic climate change agreement in Paris to reduce fossil fuel emissions and face up to one of the greatest threats facing our country and our planet. The Paris agreement was a front page story in newspapers throughout the U.S. and around the globe. So considering that the Pentagon says climate change “could impact national security” and experts have identified a relationship between global warming and the rise of ISIS, the issue clearly belonged in the December 15 CNN debate, which co-moderator Wolf Blitzer described as a “discussion about the security of this nation.”

CNN’s own Michael Smerconish pointed to the significance of the Paris climate agreement in the cable outlet’s debate preview coverage the night beforehand, yet CNN failed to ask a single question about the agreement or climate change more broadly during the debate itself. While GOP candidates may have their own political reasons for avoiding the issue — and a couple of them dismissively brought climate change up on their own — CNN is a news organization with a responsibility to press the candidates for our nation’s highest office on the most important issues facing the country and the world, particularly when there are major new developments to address. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s media war

Elizabeth Dickinson writes: The driver stops on a crowded, dusty road lined with cars. Used SUVs and sedans are parked two deep in front of tired warehouses bearing sun-bleached signs for a shipping company and a tire store. “Is it here?” I credulously ask the chauffeur who was dispatched to bring me to this desolate stretch of road. “Yes, wait,” he says, pointing as a man weaves his way towards us. I get out and follow the man to one of the warehouses’ unmarked doors. After passing through a lobby that smells of cigarette smoke and mint tea, we push through a second, locked door and into the newsroom of Orient TV, a Syrian satellite channel run and broadcast from Dubai.

The discreet exterior is no accident. Syria’s media is at war, and with its $1.5 million monthly budget, dozens of correspondents, and four regional bureaus, Orient TV is in the middle of it.

As the Syrian conflict has unspooled over the last four years, Orient TV has earned a reputation as an opposition bulwark. A Syrian automotive exporting mogul named Ghassan Aboud founded the channel in Damascus in 2009, intending to broadcast movies and frothy serial drama programs.* But since the 2011 Arab Spring, he has used the channel to become an outspoken advocate of rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. In addition to Orient TV, he bankrolls a chain of field hospitals in Syria. He has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in the form of humanitarian aid, advocated an anti-government stance to policymakers across Western capitals, and trained a legion of young journalists in the opposition.

Along the way, Orient TV’s evolution has tracked that of the broader Syrian media. Like much of the Arab Spring, Syria’s revolution began with a flood of optimism about independent, citizen-driven news. When protesters thronged the streets, obtuse state television and radio networks played patriotic songs on loop, while satellite channels like Orient TV ran grainy cellphone videos of police firing on peaceful demonstrations. By evading censorship, platforms like Twitter and Facebook achieved two things Syria’s tightly-controlled media never had before: They gave the political opposition a voice, and they exposed to the world Syria’s brutal police state.

Within weeks, social media had helped topple decades-old despotic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Orient TV, like so many broadcasters covering the uprisings, tapped into this new pool of readymade sources on the ground. Its journalists built a database of as many as 9,000 Syrian activists ready to send in video and tips. International NGOs and foundations sent smartphones to activists and deployed media trainers to advise them on Skype. A new generation of citizen journalists was born, helping to grow Syria’s mobile phone penetration rate from just 46 percent in 2011 to nearly ubiquitous today.

Yet four years later, the much-vaunted media revolution hasn’t delivered the freedom or the plurality it promised. As unarmed demonstrations gave way to conventional warfare, the media, too, entered the fray. The number of citizen sources grew, but their audiences fragmented. Opposition, regime, jihadist, and ethnic media today rarely resemble one another; the stories they tell speak less to a shared reality than to the fissures between different versions of the prevailing narrative.

These days, every militia and brigade has its own YouTube channel, theme song, and social media network. And as armed groups have grown to resemble media organizations, the media has started looking like militias too: partisan, sectarian, and driven by hate speech. On social media particularly, but in the established media as well, broadcasts don’t just report the violence. With inflammatory language and provocative storylines, they actively incite it.

Orient TV has not been immune to these trends. The channel was a voice of reason in the early days of the uprising, and remains among the most professionally produced and one of the few to have reporters on the ground, breaking news few others can. But Orient TV, which describes itself as a non-partisan opposition channel, also took a side. Critics see a station that panders to a limited, Sunni revolutionary subset, adopting sectarian lingo to speak to and about most everyone else.

Syria is hardly the first conflict in which the media landscape has become a battlefield. But the rapid expansion of social media in the last few years has sped the process. The sheer volume of information the conflict has produced, and the vast number of people who are shaping it, mean that everyone is both citizen and journalist, partisan and reporter. The media war is just as real as any fighting on the ground, because many of the actors are the same. Ending the military conflict likely won’t be possible until the information battle dies down.

This explains why Orient TV operates behind unmarked doors, tucked away a dozen miles from the flashy Dubai neighborhood hosting most other satellite stations. The channel’s stance hasn’t just won it critics, but also enemies. Orient TV and its staff have been targeted by the Syrian government, the Islamic State (ISIS), and many others.

And Orient TV is fighting back. “The journalists don’t take it just as professionals; they take the revolution as their cause,” says Aboud, the owner. “They take it personally because Syria is their home.” [Continue reading…]

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