On the "Ground Zero Mosque" and Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal
by David Folkenflick
The proposed construction of an Islamic center and mosque close to ground zero in New York City has inspired intense scrutiny from news outlets this month — and few have outstripped the Fox News Channel in their interest.
That's especially true on Fox's opinion-driven shows in the morning and evening hours. Familiar figures including Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have repeatedly asked where the money for the center will come from.
Yet the parent company of Fox News shares a financial backer with the imam who is at the center of the firestorm. The second-largest holder of voting stock in News Corp. is Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a nephew of the Saudi king. And through his philanthropies, Waleed has given generously to initiatives pursued by the imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf.
But that connection has not been spelled out by Fox to viewers. Fox's intense coverage of the Islamic center, combined with its lack of disclosure about the corporate connection to Waleed, has sparked scorn from some media critics and from liberals — including, repeatedly, from satirist Jon Stewart.
Former ABC News correspondent Robert Zelnick, who covered the Middle East, praised Fox News' straight reporters for their stories on what he said was a legitimate issue. But he said disclosure might have been warranted.
"I think in a circumstance where an apparent — or at least arguably apparent — conflict of interest is present, the better part of valor is to simply broadcast information about the person in question," Zelnick says.
On the morning show Fox & Friends, Fox News analyst Dan Senor referred to Waleed as "the guy who tried to give Rudy Giuliani $10 million after 9/11 that was sent back" and said "he funds radical madrassas all over the world."
Senor did not refer to Waleed by name, and his characterization was true as far as it went, though some Muslims would take exception to that characterization of the madrassas. But other people characterize Waleed more generously. Among those others is Rupert Murdoch, the controlling owner of Fox News' parent company, News Corp.
In a 2005 documentary about the prince, Murdoch called Waleed "very shrewd, very analytical, yet at the same time prepared to gamble — and to go against sort of the prevailing thoughts about markets."
Murdoch added, "He's very original in his thinking."
The prince had long been Murdoch's business partner in News Corp. — but that year he arranged a share swap in which he obtained more than 30 million voting shares.
Al-Jazeera anchor Riz Khan, formerly of the BBC and CNN International, wrote that documentary and a companion biography about Waleed. Khan tells NPR that despite the criticism from Senor, Waleed is friendly to Western interests and to Murdoch's.
"Rupert Murdoch said, 'Well, the thing about the prince is, he's there for you,' " Khan recalls. " 'When you need the help, he is there. He will try and do his best to make things work.' "
Indeed, according to the latest filings with the SEC, Waleed now holds 7 percent of the voting stock in News Corp., more than any other person not named Rupert Murdoch, and he has repeatedly voted to support Murdoch's priorities. And News Corp. has invested in Waleed's own fledgling Middle Eastern media venture, called the Rotana Media group. Khan described sitting by the billionaire prince and the media baron as they strategized about billion-dollar deals and exchanged tips about fuel efficiency on their respective jets.
Khan says he asked Waleed about anger in some Arab circles about the rhetoric heard on Fox, and the prince replied this way:
"Look, I'm not there to direct the news policy, I'm there to invest in News Corp. — and hopefully they've got some sense to do news properly."
Officials at News Corp. and Fox News declined to comment for this story, while officials at the Kingdom Foundation, the prince's charity, did not reply to a request for comment.
Investigative reporter Neil Chenoweth of The Australian Financial Review has written extensively about corporate intrigue at News Corp. In an e-mail, he says Murdoch valued the prince for two reasons: His investment helped Murdoch hold some rival investors at bay, including Liberty Media CEO John Malone; and it helped him smooth the path for the expected succession of James Murdoch, his younger son.
But News Corp. is not the only big-name investment Waleed has made in the United States. He has helped rescue the American banking giant Citigroup twice and is one of its largest holders. He also has big stakes in rival media giants Time Warner and Disney. And his portfolio took a big hit when the U.S. stock markets tanked.
That exchange involving Fox's Senor was the only one this reporter could find on Fox News that made direct reference to the prince. But Senor did not name Waleed — nor was the prince mentioned in any of the speculation about the financing for that proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan.
Yet Waleed is hardly unknown to Fox. Anchor Neal Cavuto portrayed the prince as a savvy investor early this year during an extensive interview carried both on the newer Fox Business Network and on Fox News. On those programs, Cavuto disclosed the prince's stake in News Corp.
But the neoconservative Muslim commentator Stephen Schwartz argues that the seeming tension between the prince's investments and his charities provides evidence that he wants to keep one foot in Western business and political circles — and the other in radical Islamic camps.
"Al-Waleed bin Talal wants to be seen as a modernizer and a person who's open to various points of view," Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, tells NPR. "But it always comes back to the grievance paradigm."