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Interview With the Reporter

In early March, FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot sat down with reporter Greg Barker to talk about his story on Arab media. Both have spent time reporting in the Middle East. In this wide ranging discussion about the war of information playing out in the Arab world, they discuss the Pentagon and State Department's media "charm offensive" across the region and the questionable effect of the U.S.-government-backed Al Hurra satellite network, which continues to beam its pro-American message into Arab homes. They also turn the tables and discuss the controversy around the recent decision by cable operators in the U.S. not to transmit the new Al Jazeera English to American viewers.

You begin your report with this State Department unit, this Rapid Response Unit, which is fascinating. Tell me about that group. What are they doing?

greg barker

Greg Barker in Beirut

Well, it's a relatively new group. It was begun under Karen Hughes, who's the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, one of Bush's closest friends. And I have to say, she's begun a whole new initiative within the State Department, trying to revamp the internal culture in terms of how they respond to public opinion and media opinion, not just in the Arab world, but everywhere else.

So what the Rapid Response Unit does is that it monitors what the global media is saying about America. It monitors it, and then it prepares a briefing paper every morning that goes to 2,000 top officials in the U.S. government - from the White House to the commanders in Iraq and around the world, all the bureaucracy in the State Department, the Defense Department, and tells these top people what the rest of the world is saying about America each day. And, of course, they spend a lot of time focusing on the Arab media, but not exclusively. And it was really trying to change this culture within the State Department, where, you know, they would read, for example, the newspapers in Egypt and see what they were saying about the States. And maybe 24, 48 hours later, there might be some sort of response to it. And they recognized that the United States was just really lagging behind in the public debate in the Arab world and also in Europe where I live, and they decided, "OK, we've got to be out there, faster."

It's like a campaign, really. Campaigns have war rooms and all that. This is what that is. It's saying, "This is what they're saying about us. Now let's get out there and give our line." So, I have to say that the career foreign service officers, they love this thing. They love it. And they actually really - I mean, setting politics aside - they really think that Karen Hughes is doing a great job with this initiative because it's changing the way the State Department bureaucracy works. I think a lot of the traditionalists at the State Department are kind of upset about this, but a lot of the people we actually talked to who are doing the job, who are out there, the Arabists, love it because they could actually see that the United States was actually losing the public debate in the Middle East.

I mean, they, these guys, work like 24 hours a day. They've got people watching Al Jazeera, they watch Al Arabiya, they watch all the major Arab and European broadcasts. And they've developed this message, and they have people out in the field who actually try to monitor the media both in Dubai, for instance, and in Brussels, and then go out and give the U.S. position in the local language, in real time.

It's a revolutionary change in the bureaucracy of the State Department. And they were kind enough to open up their doors to us. I think it's a good initiative, and I think they want to highlight what they're doing.

It has the feel of a war room.

It is a war room - that's exactly what it is, and that's how they see it. A war that the United States was losing.

I want to step back for a minute and say that not that long ago, in the Middle East, you only had state-controlled television. But there has been a media revolution in the Arab world that you show in your film. I've spent some time in the Middle East, and I know you can sit in a hotel room in Beirut and watch 100 channels from all around the world. And there is this competition you can see, right before you, between these new Arab media networks.

In Syria also, in Damascus, where there was just state-controlled television, you now see - and they're still technically illegal, I believe - satellite dishes on the top of all these apartments, getting this news from all over the world. This has had a huge impact on the citizens of the Middle East, hasn't it?

Yes, it has. I mean, this is one of the things I took away from making this. We sort of think of this in terms of being "What the Arab world is saying about us? What are they saying about America?" You know, that's important - but it's really about "What are they saying about themselves?"

And you know, we're at the beginning of their information revolution. And a couple of people said: "I mean look, for us, this is like the Gutenberg Bible. We've never been able to talk to each other across borders." So I think we're just seeing the beginning of this, and we really don't know how it's going to shake out. It is, from what everyone is saying, it is changing the way people in the Middle East, in the Arab world, exchange ideas, think of themselves, think of their own leaders.

The BBC actually began the first satellite news channel in the early 1990s, 199394, partly funded and distributed by the government of Saudi Arabia, or a company that was owned by the government. And when the BBC showed a controversial documentary that they had made for domestic television, and they put that on this Arab satellite channel, the Saudis pulled the plug and literally turned it off, wouldn't distribute it anymore.

What was that documentary?

It was about Saudi politics, and it included interviews with Saudi dissidents from outside the country. And that wasn't allowed, so they pulled the plug. The emir of Qatar, who doesn't like the Saudis, said, "I'm going to start a satellite news channel, and I'm going to recruit a lot of BBC-trained Arab journalists to come down and begin it." I mean, a lot of the people who worked for the BBC Arabic service, who were suddenly out of a job, went to Qatar and helped found this new channel, which was called Al Jazeera.

Then they started broadcasting news about the Middle East that no one had ever seen before. Suddenly you had Saudi dissidents, Egyptian dissidents, Syrian dissidents, on the air, talking about what was happening in their countries. This was totally revolutionary.

Of course, it's owned by the government of Qatar - you don't see a lot of Qatari dissidents on there, so it's certainly not an independent news organization, but it was revolutionary and it sparked this phenomenon of, this explosion of Arab news channels. Along with changes in technology, cameras became cheaper, all that kind of stuff that's changed the media worldwide, that happened at a time when there was a hunger in the Middle East for news and for a different kind of news. It's really extraordinary. There's been a real sea change in the way Middle Easterners get information.

Now one of the satellite networks, small compared with Al Jazeera, but very important, certainly in Lebanon, is the station that's actually run by Hezbollah. So here you have a group that's officially on the terrorist list of the U.S. State Department, a very important political movement in Lebanon with an armed militia, and it has its own satellite network, Al Manar, that reaches throughout Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. I remember visiting their offices in 2004. You cover it in your report. You went there. Why do you think they were able to survive the Israeli bombing during the war last summer? How did they possibly manage to stay on the air?

They had anticipated at some point a confrontation and an attack. They had a series of backup broadcast centers around Lebanon in secret locations, control rooms, newsrooms, camera crews, camera equipment hidden, ready to go. They see themselves as part of an underground guerrilla organization. So they say they're journalists, but they also say they're soldiers and this is their cause. So they knew they might be a target.

The war happened. I think it's interesting that they clearly had been planning, they thought at some point there would be a war. They were ready, and so when Israel bombed their broadcast centers in Lebanon, they were back on the air almost immediately from somewhere else. They kept moving their operations around, and they just treated it like they were an underground guerrilla organization. It was meticulous planning. They're incredibly proud of it - that they never were really bombed off the air.

And what's their programming like now? We did a story on FRONTLINE/World back in 2003, "Party of God," CNN reporter David Lewis did it for us, about Hezbollah. And he showed some of the programming then. They had soap operas; they had entertainment programs; but they also had clear propaganda. I remember one thing vividly - they had a station break that was comparing Bush with Hitler. The two images of Bush speaking and Hitler speaking morphed into one person. Is their programming more subtle than that these days or not?

They do have soap operas and all that, because they recognize that if you want to get eyeballs, you have to provide entertainment and all that kind of stuff, so they try to draw people to the channel. But when we were there, they were running these long, heavily produced pieces paying homage to the war against Israel last summer. Showing the funerals, showing widows crying, showing children crying, all with this really heavy-handed music and narration, and it was clear propaganda.

When I asked their director of programming about it, he said, "Look, we're trying to inspire our population, particularly our young people, to support our cause, our anti-Zionist cause." So they're really blatant about it, that this is propaganda. They say they're part of Hezbollah, and they're trying to give the Hezbollah message.

What's interesting is that Al Manar began as an underground Lebanese TV station, and then it got, after various negotiations, it got official status within Lebanon, and it was a Lebanese TV station for a while. All the political parties there have their own TV station.

And then, I guess it was 2001 or 2002, they decided to go on the satellite, so they could beam across the Arab world, and it was to jump on board this bandwagon that Al Jazeera had started, trying to shape public opinion across the Middle East, so they actually now have two channels. They say it is part of this battle about ideas, over the future of the Middle East, and they see media as a crucial tool in that battle.

So in that battle, you now have not just Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and Al Manar, you now have an American Arab-language satellite network.

Al Hurra, "the free one."

You make a case in your film that Al Hurra is not doing so well in this propaganda war, that it hasn't really taken hold. Why?

I think it's because it's seen as an American mouthpiece. And America doesn't have a particularly good image in the Middle East. People in the Middle East tend to watch a lot of news because there's a lot of stuff going on in the region. Most people get their news from TV. They watch a lot of channels. So people do tune in to Al Hurra, they do, but in terms of, is it fulfilling the mission that the U.S. Congress gave it? They give it like $67 million a year. In terms of getting America's message out and changing opinions, I think it is pretty clear that it's no, it's just not taken that seriously.

I think the journalists that work there, the ones we met, are serious journalists that are doing a good job. They're trying to be objective. It's not so much that, it's how Al Hurra is actually seen in the region.

And frankly, people who are involved with the State Department's public diplomacy campaign, they don't talk about Al Hurra as a particularly crucial part of their effort. They say it's much more important to get on Arab TV and to get on the channels people are actually watching.

Al Hurra came about because the U.S. Congress and supporters and some Arab businessmen wanted to do it and got support from Congress and so it exists, but in terms of actually changing public opinion, it's impact is negligible. I couldn't find anyone who actually took it that seriously.

I remember going to a conference at a university in Beirut and discussing the media and looking at some of these Arab satellite networks and someone came in and showed the promo package for Al Hurra, and I was blown away - it was obviously a very expensive, well-produced piece, with images of light and people opening doors and doves and peace. Very, very stirring, but then everyone in the room laughed. They weren't buying it.

But you go out to their headquarters, which is right outside Washington - it's a big operation.

I think one of the fascinating things in your piece is that you find these two American military men, whose job it is to go around to the Arab satellite network stations and basically try to sell America's position, try to make our case. Try to make the case of the administration at least, to get the word out, into the Middle East.


So you have an offensive, someone in your story calls it a "charm offensive" but then goes on to say that the problem that the United States has in this charm offensive is that they have an "unsellable product" to sell in the Middle East. Do you think that's right?

Well, that's the way they see it. And it's interesting, because the guy who says that is the news director of Al Arabiya, which is a channel funded by the Saudi government, basically, and begun as a response to Al Jazeera, to offer a much more moderate tone. Their model is "We see hope everywhere" - it's written right outside their building. And they're generally much more favorable toward the American position than Al Jazeera.

But it's not just the media. If you talk to people in the Middle East - you know, I've been going there for a long time - you can really sense the difference now. There's just a lot of dissatisfaction with U.S. policy there.

What that guy's point is, is that, sure, you know, they're all happy that America has officials out there to make the case because these guys want to have a different side, they want spokesmen out on the air, but his point is that no, that's not really going to do it. Really, if you want people to think differently of the United States, you've got to change the policy, and you hear that all the time.

It's no surprise, and actually, a lot of the spokespeople, I mean, they know that. And a lot of them, in private particularly, aren't enamored with U.S. policy, but they have to go out and sell it.

The labors of Sisyphus, for some of these guys in the military - but they seemed excited about their job.

They love it, they love their job, and, you know, they're great guys, and they really are passionate about it, and they've come to admire the Arabs. And they love the Middle Eastern culture, and they really want to try and change people's minds. So, more power to 'em, but it's a tough, tough job.

Let me ask you about a big contradiction that you raise in your piece, which is that Al Jazeera has now started Al Jazeera English. And you say it's the biggest media startup in the history of the world, a billion dollars that the emir of Qatar spent on this.

That's what we think. It's amazing.

A lot of money. Spectacular state-of-the-art facilities. They've started this, it's beamed throughout the Middle East, you show young Muslims in London, where you live, watching it, thinking highly of it, as they say. Yet we can't see this in the United States on television. Comcast, any number of companies that deliver cable television in America, none of them would pick it up. You have to go online to see it here. And yet they've employed some serious journalists.


Dave Marash [Al Jazeera English's U.S. anchor], whom you interview, a former co-anchor of Nightline. They have a big operation in Washington. You have the U.S. military people watching it. You have the State Department's Rapid Response Unit watching it. But ordinary Americans can't see it.

Right, right. Well, you know, there was a campaign by a conservative media group, Accuracy in Media, to put pressure on cable companies not to carry this thing. Frankly, it's a commercial decision that a lot of these businesses have made.

The U.S. government has not banned it. There's often that impression that somehow it's illegal to show it. No, it's just that the cable and satellite companies won't do it. I think nobody wants to be the first, to put Al Jazeera on and incur the wrath of the conservative watchdogs, the media watchdogs.

Is there a bias behind Al Jazeera?

From what I've seen there is, there's a certain slant to certain stories.

One British guy working for them in the Middle East, in Qatar, tells you, we're certainly going to be sympathetic to the Palestinians.

"Occupied Palestine," he says. That's right, and in watching some of their Lebanon coverage, from when Hezbollah staged demonstrations, some of the reports were very favorable to the mood on the street and the efforts of Hezbollah to overthrow the Lebanese government.

But often that was balanced by other reporters saying something else. One of the [U.S. military] Centcom spokesmen makes the point that America is "generally open to ideas, and what do we have to be afraid of? And let's listen to what people are saying about us."

The other thing is, I've spent a lot of time in Africa and other parts of the world, and Al Jazeera English, because they have a lot of money, is covering stories that the rest of the media just doesn't cover. I heard that they sent a lot of really experienced British journalists off to the Congo with $50,000 in cash and said, "Come back with some good stories."

You know, it's great - and why not? And I want to see that kind of stuff, and CNN certainly doesn't do it, and certainly not CNN domestic. And BBC doesn't really have those kinds of resources.

But isn't it part of the fear, which several people speak to in your report, that really America has become more isolated and less influential in this war of ideas in the Middle East?


And not hearing Al Jazeera and what other people have to say about us, doesn't that isolate us even more?

You want my personal opinion?


I live in London, and one of the great things about living overseas is that you see your own county in a different way. I'm probably more proud to be an American than I was when I first moved over there. But it's really interesting to see what the rest of the world says about America.

And I've always just lapped up every bit of foreign media that I can. And so I can see Al Jazeera English at home, in London. It hasn't really changed my views, hasn't really tainted me, and it's right there next to Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV, Fox TV, Bloomberg and CNN. So what? It's interesting to compare how they're covering the day's events as opposed to the other news channels. Why not?

It's provocative, but it's also interesting to hear the U.S. military guys in the Middle East saying that Al Jazeera is like Fox, that they play to their audience, they know who their audience is. So they've got a bias - get used to it.

The big interesting question about Al Jazeera, English and Arabic, is "What are they actually trying to do?" It's funded by the government of Qatar, both channels. Qatar is one of America's closest allies in the Middle East. Centcom's headquarters are in Qatar. Both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq are run out of their huge military base. They also have, they are one of the few countries in the region to have an Israeli Economics office in their country.


Yes. So what is Qatar actually doing? What is the government actually doing by having Al Jazeera? And the theories that we heard were: It sort of makes sense, this is very small country. They don't have particularly good relations with the Saudis. They're worried about internal instability. They got Iran just across the Gulf, and this is a way for them to sort of hedge their bets. Because they welcomed the U.S. military. After 9/11, the U.S. military moved its big base out of Saudi Arabia and went to Qatar. And so they have some basic security guarantees from the U.S. military. At the same time, their credibility on the Arab street comes from allowing Al Jazeera to exist. They also managed to score points against the Saudis by having Saudi dissidents and Egyptian dissidents on Al Jazeera. So it's a complicated game that they're playing. And they've put themselves on the map. I mean, Qatar and the capital Doha are booming. An Arab journalist who was there at the startup of Al Jazeera said that when he first went there, there were only three hotels in Doha, and other Arabs hadn't even heard of Qatar, didn't even know it was a country. Now everyone knows what it is in the region.

They're playing a very sophisticated long-term game, and from a purely national security point of view, it seems to be paying off for them.