Ex-Marine Matinee Idol on Al-Jazeera

032607 article sinderbrand Ex Marine Matinee Idol on Al JazeeraJosh Rushing, the former Marine and Control Room star turned Al-Jazeera English reporter, spent nearly his entire adult life around combat gear. But a week ago, he seemed a bit uneasy with the pile of brand-new body armor piled in a corner of his downtown Washington office. He fingered the bright-blue canvas over the heavy protective plates—a major departure from the military’s more subdued palette—and decided the vest was “the wrong color.” Then he hefted the gear onto his forearm with a practiced motion, groaning in surprise with the strain of it. “Geez, Louise—it’s heavy! It’s much heavier than any military one I’ve ever worn.” He laughed. “Then again, I’m Al-Jazeera going inside Iraq. You could put metal around me like a medieval knight and I’m not sure I’d be safe.”

Mr. Rushing is heading back to Iraq today, roughly four years after his last trip, and nearly three years after his big-screen debut in the documentary Control Room—Jehane Noujaim’s surprise hit that explored Al-Jazeera and the dynamics of the media war during the chaotic early days of the Iraq invasion. His star turn made blue-state audiences swoon and marked him as a matinee idol for the nervous new century: a U.S. Marine, clean-cut, thoughtful, culturally sensitive.

These days, the blue eyes and Texas drawl are the same, but the new vest won’t be the only change from his last trip to a war zone. His hair is longer now; the combat boots are long gone. And this week, when Mr. Rushing joins a team of American military advisors headed to northern Iraq to help train the Iraqi Army’s Second Infantry Division, he will be an embedded observer, not an officer. “This is my first time ever to enter a combat zone not armed, and not with other Marines, and that—it feels like going to prom in your tighty-whities,” he said. “It feels very naked for me.”

Mr. Rushing, 34, is making his way across uncharted terrain, as one of only a handful of Americans—and the only former military officer—to go to work for the controversial, Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera. Still, he seems so confident in his new path—so at ease with his choice—it’s easy to forget that he initially debuted as an unwitting, and unwilling, media star. He first heard of his role in Control Room via a voicemail from an anonymous stranger shortly after the movie’s film-festival debut: “You don’t know me, but I just saw your movie at Sundance, and I wanted to say thanks.” The veteran public-affairs officer hadn’t signed a release to appear in the documentary; he barely remembered chatting, just once, with a few film students from the American University in Cairo during a single afternoon at CENTCOM. Heart thudding, he headed for the Web. “I Googled ‘Sundance’ and ‘Josh Rushing,’ and there I was,” he said.

Even for a veteran flack like Mr. Rushing, the media learning curve that followed was breathtakingly steep. As his story made its way from the entertainment section to the front page, he found himself muzzled by the Pentagon, his 14-year military career essentially over. As it happened, Mr. Rushing had already started to imagine life outside uniform. “I left [the military] because it occurred to me that I finally had a platform to say something that only I could say,” he said as he perched on the edge of his chair, sleeves rolled up, just a few feet from the buzzing Al-Jazeera newsroom. The bureau is housed on several floors of a nondescript K Street building just a few blocks from the White House; Mr. Rushing’s sunny office is dominated by Longhorns paraphernalia and family snapshots. “Only I could—because I was the only one who had that vantage point. And also, I had the right background where I could go onto Bill O’Reilly’s show and tell him that he should reconsider Al-Jazeera, and he couldn’t dismiss me as some lefty from somewhere.”

Now Al-Jazeera English has given Mr. Rushing a permanent platform—albeit one that’s still virtually unavailable on U.S. cable systems (“Thank God for YouTube,” he said). The network went live less than five months ago, but Mr. Rushing has already churned out an impressive stream of investigative pieces—reports on rural America and foreign child soldiers, the mechanics of military training and Hollywood’s portrayal of Arab characters; soon after he gets back from his embed, he’ll be heading to Moscow to report on a special on the weapon of revolution, the AK-47. “Josh is a natural,” said Joanne Levine, an AJE executive producer and Nightline vet, who puts Mr. Rushing in the same category as other high-profile news personalities she’s worked with, like Peter Jennings and Bob Woodruff. “He has that charisma—a presence that pops just off of the screen.”

BUT MR. RUSHING’S APPEAL AND APPROACH aren’t quite that of the traditional broadcast newsman; his method seems inextricably linked with the audience’s perception of his persona and story—the political as personal as political. One of his early projects for the network was Spin: The Art of Selling War—a mea culpa of sorts, where he systematically debunked talking points he’d spouted in his former career (the special featured a parallel penitent appearance by a regret-wracked Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff). After an innovative, extended series of cuts from press-conference footage of President George W. Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to eerily similar Gulf of Tonkin–era remarks by Lyndon Johnson, Mr. Rushing steered the special to unusual territory for a foreign-policy piece: the reporter himself. As a result, the broadcast—a scathing j’accuse directed at administration policy—wound up in a place far more raw than traditional, objective journalism, with Mr. Rushing as a sort of Al-Jazeera Anderson Cooper: the same earnest emotiveness, the same blue-eyed magnetism. The production values were top-of-the-line, the reporting rock-solid—but clearly, for good or ill, 60 Minutes this wasn’t.

In an early draft of his upcoming book, Mission Al-Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World (coming later this spring from Palgrave Macmillan), Mr. Rushing keeps up that balancing act, trying to reconcile the advocate he was and the journalist he’s become into some crusading combination of the two. “This is a strange time for America. Everywhere it seems people are seeing things through a prism of their own fears and stereotypes,” Mr. Rushing wrote, adding that he was “trying to practice a form of journalism that is skeptical and challenging in a news environment that seems increasingly less so.” The book chronicles his journey from a teenage Marine out of small-town Texas to the public face of Al-Jazeera English, including a behind-the-scenes look at CENTCOM’s press operation during the early days of the conflict, and a bracingly candid account of his growing disillusionment with the war on terror. “I [often] find myself traversing the battle lines of American’s struggle with the worst of itself,” he wrote. There have been no terror attacks since 9/11, but “reports from the front lines of America’s greater jihad—the struggle for our soul, for what is best in us—are much more grim.”

For the past few months, Mr. Rushing has been edging his way back to the battlefield, feeling around the margins of the story that helped define Al-Jazeera: the Iraq War. If Mr. Rushing is his network’s own Anderson Cooper, then this is his return to the Big Easy. “I feel personally responsible for what’s going on there [in Iraq],” he said last week. “Not that I did all of it, but anyone, I think, who was involved in the beginning and believed in the reasons we were doing it and thought we were creating a better situation for these people—now, clearly, it’s not a better situation—has to feel some sense of personal responsibility and desire to some way be involved in trying to make that right. And if my way of making that right involves asking the right questions, the tough questions, and examining what we’re doing there, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Mr. Rushing’s wife Paige, he says, is “nervous as hell” about his embed. He pauses. “Um, I don’t blame her …. I think there was some sense she had that when I got out of the Marine Corps, she was like, ‘Whew, we made it through; we’re done.’ And now the fact I’m going back—she thought she was done with that, and, of course, we’re not. We’re not done with that.” His son Luke is nearly 15; baby Ethan Coltrane is getting close to his first birthday. Meanwhile, back in Lone Star, Tex.—where his father is a volunteer firefighter and his mom works for the city council—his supportive parents are already dealing with the fallout from their son’s new line of work. “I feel for them in many ways, more than anyone, because—it’s easy for me being in Washington and taking the heat. But they have to explain to their friends on the fire force … to their friends at church, who—it’s not the same kind of international crowd as here,” he said quietly. “And it shouldn’t necessarily be their burden to have to explain. But, of course, they do. So I really feel for them, because in many ways they have the tougher fight to fight than I do.”

This resistance to Mr. Rushing—less to the man himself than to the ideas and ethos he has come to represent—has, at times, gotten in the way of his reporting. His recent attempt to join U.S. forces in Iraq wasn’t his first try at an embed slot. In the months before Al-Jazeera English’s official launch, he made a futile bid to join U.S. forces in Iraq—but, he says, U.S. officials in Baghdad told him that military policy prohibited Al-Jazeera from participating in the embed program. (Actually, the Arabic-language network was given permission to embed in the early days of the war, before its relationship with the Pentagon soured completely.)

IN THE IRAQ WAR’S EARLY DAYS, relations between the administration and the Arabic-language network famously fractured over the latter’s editorial leanings. Now, new leadership in military public affairs is trying to change the way the coalition deals with Al-Jazeera and the rest of the Arab media. (This reassessment of existing policy extends to American reporters as well—recently, a Defense Department representative embarked on an informal listening tour of major broadcast bureaus in New York and Washington, sounding out producers and correspondents on ways the military might alter the evolving embed program, among other issues.) It’s still a work in progress, but the changing attitudes are part of what made Mr. Rushing’s journey possible.

Meanwhile, although the Marine Corps may not have come around (“The Marine Corps [and I are] a bit like a bad relationship,” Mr. Rushing said. “They haven’t quite gotten over the breakup. ”), large swaths of the officer corps in the other services have quietly embraced the former captain. At least once or twice a month, Mr. Rushing is invited to address large military gatherings on bases nationwide. He’s made repeat appearances at West Point and Annapolis—including the former’s counterterrorism training center—and spoken at the commencement ceremonies of most of the military’s freshly minted public-affairs officers. In the months before he left for Iraq, he addressed the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, as well as the National Defense University. “There’s a sense, if you’re doing the right thing, that you have nothing to hide and you want everyone to see it—particularly those who accuse you of not doing the right thing,” Mr. Rushing said. “So I think [military officers] see in Al-Jazeera an audience that they would very much like to see what they’re doing here, because they believe in what they’re doing.”

He understands the military’s mission, he said, and he supports it. But he no longer views it as his own. “I’m at a point in my life where the questions are more important than the answers,” he said. “It’s a new way of approaching things for me …. I started out with all the answers, and now I’ve worked my way back to the questions.”