How Questioning the Saudi Regime’s Legitimacy Got Me Suspended by the National Press Club

Turki al FaisalOn November 15 I went to a news conference at the National Press Club, where I am a member, titled “His Royal Highness Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia.” I asked a tough question at the news conference — a question that dealt with the very legitimacy of the Saudi regime. Before the end of the day, I’d received a letter informing me that I was suspended from the National Press Club “due to your conduct at a news conference.”

The letter, signed by the executive director of the Club, William McCarren, accused me of violating rules prohibiting “boisterous and unseemly conduct or language.” After examining what happened, the Ethics Committee ruled that my suspension at the National Press Club should be lifted. I welcome this decision and aim to ask ever tougher and sharper questions. I hope others will as well. I had asked the Saudi ambassador about the legitimacy of his regime, but if tough questions are not welcome at the Press Club, or at other media institutions, then their legitimacy is also undermined.

The Ethics Committee of the National Press Club asked me to present my journalistic credentials following the controversy of my suspension from the Club because of my questioning of the former head of Saudi intelligence Amb. Turki bin Faisal al-Saud. (See: Journalist Questions Legitimacy of Saudi Regime, Is Suspended from National Press Club)

The proof that I am a journalist is the very fact that I asked the question that I did.

There’s been a lot of talk about the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir. You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth. Human Rights Watch and other reports of torture detention of activist, you squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain, you tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does you regime have — other than billions of dollars and weapons?

It’s a particularly critical question as the Saudi regime backs counter-revolutions and the Egyptian military attacks pro-democracy activists. It’s a question that needed to be asked. And critically, it did draw a response, however disingenuous, from Amb. al-Saud. (He didn’t respond to the Saudi role in curtailing democratic movements; he talked of how funds from the Saudi regime give it legitimacy — effectively ignoring my “other than billions of dollars” — and did not address domestic repression like torture.)

It’s this question and other challenging questions of those in power that journalists need to be asking.

Journalism is in crisis and it must be reinvented for its own good and for the good of society as a whole. A substantial part of that re-invention is the capacity to ask tough questions of powerful officials. Being a journalist in essence isn’t about “credentials” and professional affiliations. It’s about the practice of it.

Instead of supporting this, William McCarren, the executive director of the Press Club, who founded a press release distribution company, has made false statements about my journalistic integrity and has attempted to paint me in a false and negative light.

As prominent journalists and other notables have learned about my suspension, I have received many heartening statements of support. Among them:

Chris Hedges, author and part of the team of reporters at The New York Times awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism: “I was distressed to hear of the ruling of the Press Club concerning Sam Husseini, who certainly meets the qualifications to be considered a journalist and who is permitted in this capacity to ask difficult and provocative questions. I hope the board will reconsider the ban on his participation in the Press Club.”

Author and Professor James K. Galbraith, Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations, LBJ School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin: “As a long-time follower of the Institute for Public Accuracy, I find it a valuable antidote to the slack treatment of the high-and-mighty that has become habitual. The notion that Sam Husseini is not a journalist is, well, silly — considering that the problem he continually deals with is the low standard for qualifying as such in Washington.”

Dean Baker, author and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research who writes the “Beat the Press” blog: “Sam Husseini does what journalists are supposed to do. He does his background homework to gather evidence about a situation, and then he asks tough questions based on this work. It is understandable that Sam’s questions make people in power uncomfortable. That is what real reporters do. The goal for reporters is not supposed to be becoming friends with the powerful, it’s supposed to be getting information to the public. That will often mean embarrassing people in power. If the Press Club sanctions this behavior, it says a great deal about the Press Club and its vision of journalism.”

There’s a serious question of double standards about when tough questioning is encouraged and when it is discourage or even prevented. For example, when Jörg Haider, the Austrian neo-Nazi, was at the Press Club several years ago, I was allowed by Peter Hickman, the same moderator at the recent event, to ask several follow-ups in a very similar, rigorous manner and gave me his congratulations. I’ve been unable to obtain a transcript or video of the event, but I recall being visibly angry when questioning him — realizing I was talking to someone who, if he were ever to actually come to power, could commit unspeakable evil, and I was at least as tough with him as I was with Amb. al-Saud.

Real journalism is asking tough questions of all the players. Or, more appropriately, asking the toughest questions of the most powerful. Too often, I’ve seen reporters fawn over a figure more the more powerful they are. That I think is exactly the wrong instinct.

We should have an open discussion of such issues. But while the Ethics Committee of the National Press Club asked to meet with me, it insisted the meeting be in private. No members of the public allowed. No other members of the Press Club allowed. No recording of the event allowed. There is a complaint against me, I have asked for a copy of it, but have been told it is confidential. If I were to go to a meeting of the Ethics Committee, I’d be questioned about the complaint, but would apparently still not be able to actually see it. I cannot take part in such a meeting.

As I indicated in my original piece, Mr. McCarren has in the past indicated to me that his concern about my tough questioning is that it causes some officials to go to other venues in D.C. I indicated to him and continue to believe that ultimately the response to this serious issue cannot possibly be to curtail asking tough questioning. Prominent officials go on Stephen Colbert’s show because he uses humor to attract a mass audience even though he in effect ridicules these officials. I’m certainly not saying that the Press Club should resort to ridicule, parody and satire. I’m saying that there are solutions to the issue of access other than to go soft on officials. For example, there’s a measure of prestige associated with an event at the Press Club and a key part of that should be that critical questions are asked here. Otherwise, it’s a public relations event.

I was also heartened by the statement of Let’s Press Ahead — a slate of young members promising reform in the upcoming Dec. 9 National Press Club elections:

We, the members of Let’s Press Ahead condemn the suspension of NPC member Sam Husseini in the strongest terms. Journalists are professional antagonists. While decorum is important, it’s our job to ask tough questions, especially of those who hold power. If there is one place on Earth where that kind of spirited, inquisitive work should be celebrated, it’s at the NPC. The video of Mr. Husseini shows nothing that would come close to warranting his suspension. We’ve asked the NPC executive director and ethics committee for an explanation. So far: nothing. The NPC is supposed to be “the World’s Leading Professional Organization for Journalists.” Sadly, this kind of action against an NPC member for doing his job tears it down.

The Ethics Committee, despite the secretive process, has an opportunity to rescind my suspension and issue an apology. Hopefully the members will do the right thing.

Sam Husseini is the communications director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. Additional information on process, responding to charges and answering questions are available at: husseini.posterous.com.