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U.S.-Funded Arab Language TV Network Under Scrutiny

June 23, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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A U.S. government-funded Arab language television network, Al Hurra, has been the focus of recent criticism over both its lack of viewership and content choices. Two experts discuss how the network has fared and its ties to U.S. diplomacy efforts in the Middle East.

JEFFREY BROWN: Al Hurra, Arabic for “The Free One,” is a 4-year-old U.S. government-funded satellite television channel, part of an ambitious effort in public diplomacy, to win hearts and minds in the Arab and Muslim world in the aftermath of 9/11.

From its headquarters in Springfield, Virginia, Al Hurra broadcasts its news by satellite to 22 Arab countries, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, with a total population of some 170 million people. But the effort has been controversial from its inception.

On CBS last night, “60 Minutes” reported that, after spending nearly $500 million, the channel has been mismanaged, has broadcast unchecked anti-Israel rhetoric, and is not competing effectively in an ever-growing Arab media market.

SCOTT PELLEY, Correspondent, “60 Minutes”: The U.S. government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this, and we don’t know what’s on the channel?

LARRY REGISTER, Former News Director, Al Hurra: Well, the State Department has a team that watches it, but in the chain that you just mentioned, no fluent Arabic speakers.

JEFFREY BROWN: The report was a joint investigation with ProPublica, a new nonprofit journalism effort that partners with print and broadcast organizations.

Al Hurra was also the subject of a critical front-page report in today’s “Washington Post” that states that, quote, “The station is widely regarded as a flop in the Arab world, where it has struggled to attract viewers and overcome skepticism about its mission.”

Al Hurra: success or failure?

James Glassman
Under Secretary of State
This is not easy stuff. It's been four years. We now have an audience of 26 million people in the Arab world that tune in to us at least once a week. We've grown -- that's from three million before we started. We think we're doing very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: We discuss that mission now with James Glassman, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and former chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that oversees all U.S. government international broadcasting, including Al Hurra.

And Shibley Telhami, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Maryland and author of numerous books and studies on public opinion in the Arab world.

Well, James Glassman, a lot of criticism put on the table in the last 24 hours. Four years into this, how do you define Al Hurra's mission today? And is it meeting its goals?

JAMES GLASSMAN, Undersecretary of State: I think Al Hurra is meeting its goals. What Al Hurra was conceived to do was to bring to the Arab-speaking world -- in this case 22 countries -- a free press, to show them what a free press is like, to report in many cases stories that are not being reported by their own press or by the pan-Arab press, much of which is quite inflammatory, and to explain American policy and what's going on in America in general, American culture in the United States.

Now, we've been in this business for 66 years, starting with Voice of America, and we know it's tough and that some of the neighborhoods that we operate in are tough. We had four people who work for us for the Broadcasting Board of Governors killed last year.

This is not easy stuff. It's been four years. We now have an audience of 26 million people in the Arab world that tune in to us at least once a week. We've grown -- that's from three million before we started. We think we're doing very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Professor Telhami. You look at polls. You look at what's going on. How effective do you think it is?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University of Maryland: Well, first of all, let's differentiate between the impact on public opinion from market share. The two are not one in the same. In terms of impact on public opinion, I would say it's zero.


SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Zero. And why? How do we know this? Well, first of all, since Al Hurra has been established, anger with America has only increased. It hasn't -- you know, if it was supposed to have any kind of impact on American -- you know, and public opinion toward the U.S. has only gotten worse, so it can't be that.

In fact, all of the polls, all of the analysis that we have done -- and we've done a lot of analysis -- of what people watch on television and their attitude toward the United States. We found that there is no relationship whatsoever between what people watch, the station that people watch, and their attitude toward the U.S.

That shouldn't be a surprise. We have been, in same ways, after the -- just before the Iraq war, right after the Iraq war -- after 9/11, we've heard this deflection of responsibility.

It's not our policies. No, that has nothing to do with the opinions out there. It has to do with bad media.

Well, you know what? They don't have Al Jazeera. They don't have Al Arabiya in Africa. They don't have it in Latin America. They don't have it in much of Western Europe. Anger with America is as pervasive. It's not a surprise.

People don't form their opinion based on the media. Our own public, 85 percent of our own public, is frustrated with our foreign policy. They're watching the American media. So it's not -- first of all, it has no impact on public opinion.

In terms of market share, Jim is right. There are people who watch it. We don't know what that means, because people scan. They might watch it for five minutes. If you ask them, "Do you watch it several times a day?" You don't know.

But when you ask them, "What is your first choice for news? What is your second choice for news?" Al Hurra gets only 2 percent of the Arab public who say this is their first choice for news.

Measure of achievement differs

Shibley Telhami
University of Maryland
I watch the dozens of stations that are available to every citizen, whether it's in Rabat, Morocco, or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. And Al Hurra is not distinguished in any shape or form.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me -- are there specific ways that you can measure to know that you're having the kind of influence, in terms of mission, I'm talking about, not numbers?

JAMES GLASSMAN: Right. First of all, our mission is not to improve America's standing in the world. That's not the job of any of the entities of the BBG. That's not what our job is.

Our job is to be professional broadcasters, to show the world, to show people in places like Tibet, and in Burma, and Tajikistan what a free press is like and to tell them what's happening in their own countries, because the broadcasters in those own countries are either government-controlled or they're not doing a particularly good job.

We've been doing this, as I said, since 1942. We did it during the Cold War, and I think we're very effective at it. We know how to do it.

OK, so do people tune in to us more than they tune in to Al Jazeera? No. What we try to do is be in the mix. In other words, if we didn't exist, then people in the Arab world would only be hearing from the Al Jazeeras of the world.

What we want -- and, by the way, we've got a very sophisticated audience in the Middle East. What they do is, they're not taking as truth exactly what they hear from one particular station or another. They triangulate. We want to be part of that triangulation, and we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you -- we've mentioned Al Jazeera a few times. This is a very rich media landscape in the Arab world, right? What do you see in terms of the content of Al Hurra and how it compares to what else is out there?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, that's where, you know, I don't really agree with Jim about this being a model for the media in the Middle East. You know, I go there a lot.

It's not just the polls that I do annually about public opinion. I, you know, just in the past few weeks have been to six countries in the Middle East. I watch the Arab media. I watch it from here. I go, I talk to people about how they receive it.

I watch the dozens of stations that are available to every citizen, whether it's in Rabat, Morocco, or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. And Al Hurra is not distinguished in any shape or form.

I'm a professional. I want some honest truth. When I'm flipping through, I don't see something that differentiates Al Hurra. It doesn't look like it's freer.

And, actually, frankly, I mean, think about this for a minute. It's a government-funded news outlet. Look at the criticism that it's been receiving just in the last two days about airing a couple of segments that are critical of Israel on Al Hurra.

Well, if you can -- even if they continue to do this, they're going to think about it twice. If you're a reporter, you're going to look behind your shoulder. There's going to be a lot of...

JAMES GLASSMAN: Shibley, we follow guidelines that are set by Congress for us, and they have to do with objectivity, balance, lack of bias. Our reporters follow...

Well, you know what? A lot of members of Congress don't understand -- I want to say it right now on this television show. We are professional broadcasters, and members of Congress who want us to be propagandists, we won't do that. We absolutely will not do that.

Objectivity in a subjective world

James Glassman
Under Secretary of State
These reports, I have to say, the journalism that was in that "60 Minutes" report and the Washington Post report, that never would have passed muster at any of our organizations, where we require objectivity, we require a lack of bias.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those two reports that we cited, CBS and the Washington Post, were going to issues of lack of oversight, so they were raising questions about the editorial professionalism of the operation, what gets on the air, what kinds of views, running unedited speeches by the head of Hezbollah.

JAMES GLASSMAN: Right. There is no doubt, no doubt that a year-and-a-half ago, this station -- it was before I got there. It does not absolve me of responsibility. A year-and-a-half ago, this station made a huge mistake by running an hour-long speech by Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

That was a violation of our own guidelines. It never should have happened. Eventually, the news director resigned. New controls were put into place. There's a report by the inspector general that shows that our controls are much better than they were.

These reports, I have to say, the journalism that was in that "60 Minutes" report and the Washington Post report, that never would have passed muster at any of our organizations, where we require objectivity, we require a lack of bias.

And I really think, frankly, we do do a lot of reporting. I don't know whether you watch Al Jazeera and Al Hurra and all these stations all the time...

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: ... I watch them quite frequently.

JAMES GLASSMAN: OK, we're doing things that they're not doing. We have a weekly program on women's rights. You don't see a whole lot of that from other programming in the Middle East.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I don't agree with that. I don't agree with that, Jim. Jim, I don't agree with that.

JAMES GLASSMAN: We frequently criticize the government or the policies of Saudi Arabia. Now, some of these other networks are actually owned by people in Saudi Arabia, and they're not too happy about that happening.

In a way, we are actually more independent than Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

JEFFREY BROWN: We only have a short time. Do you think this is worth preserving at this point?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, first of all, I don't think even that -- Arab governments are more angry with Al Jazeera and other Arab channels than they are with Al Hurra, because they've put more pressure...

JEFFREY BROWN: They're tougher, you think?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: They're tougher on them, no question, not about their own governments, for sure, but about other governments. That's all that matters. The mix is out there. It's strong.

I think the reality of it is that, in the end, there's a self-contradiction. You can't have a market share and have influence public opinion along the American foreign policy lines at the same time. You can't really have a truly independent station which is government-controlled in the Middle East.

I think the reality of it is the fact that we have -- he has to defend the fact that they put Hassan Nasrallah, when you have the Iran -- when you had the Lebanon-Israel war, everybody in the Arab world is watching Hassan Nasrallah. In Israel, the Israelis, they want to hear what Hassan Nasrallah -- he's the key person...

JEFFREY BROWN: Time for a response.

JAMES GLASSMAN: We just have certain limits. And one of our limits is we don't provide a platform for terrorists. That's what Congress required of us, and I think that's a good requirement.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this goes to the heart -- what he just put on the -- that's the heart of the matter. Can you have this -- is there a contradiction to have...

JAMES GLASSMAN: And my answer to that question is that we do this now in 60 languages around the world. We don't think that the Arab world is any different from lots of other places where we operate.

And we've managed -- and it's not easy, let me tell you. It's not easy. But we have managed to move along this path and do it, I think, very, very successfully in countries around the world. We believe we can do it in the Arab world as we have done it elsewhere.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, we'll have to leave it there. James Glassman, Shibley Telhami, thank you both very much.