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PBS Ombudsman

A Relatively Disappointing Finish

The four-part PBS Frontline series "News War" wrapped up on Tuesday night with a segment titled "War of Ideas." In it, producer/reporter/narrator Greg Barker "travels to the Middle East to examine the rise of Arab satellite TV channels and their impact on the 'war of ideas' at a time of convulsive change and conflict in the region," according to the producers. This was the shortest of the four parts, only 40 minutes, and it came after a month-long pause in the series. The other three parts had aired on consecutive Tuesday evenings beginning in mid-February.

In the March 7 ombudsman's column, after the conclusion of the 90-minute Part III, I described the series thus far as "excellent and ambitious." It was also a part of an earlier column Feb. 16 after its debut, which I thought made "compelling television."

I should say that there has been at least some viewer reaction directed to the ombudsman's mailbox after each of those first three parts, and especially after Part III. But there has been none in the immediate aftermath of this closing segment. So what follows are my views rather than those of viewers.

Part IV was well worth watching. The role of the rapidly expanding international and pan-Arab television networks is, indeed, a vital part of the global "war of ideas" and is only barely understood in this country. There are several important issues that come through in this report, especially the credibility challenge the U.S. faces in the Arab world, although that is not exactly a surprise.

Not Your Father's Frontline

But in its totality, this final offering of the "News War" series was, to me, a disappointment, a letdown, a missed opportunity. The time allotted was also probably too short to allow much of a feel for what is on Arab TV news. It was better to have seen this than not to have been exposed to the issue. But to me it seemed below the level of invested time, care and substance that one usually associates with Frontline. There was less in-depth reporting and a reduced sense of confidence in the authoritativeness of the reporting. Writing in The Washington Post, reviewer Paul Farhi said "the finale — which raises intriguing questions but answers almost none of them — is by far the weakest and least focused" of the series. I thought that was on target.

The program starts out with an important fact: The U.S. Department of State has over 30,000 employees yet only 20 speak Arabic fluently. Yet Frontline and Boston's WGBH send out a producer/reporter on this look into Arab television who also doesn't speak a word of Arabic and who is frequently filmed either watching television or listening to people and not understanding a word, on his own, about what he is hearing. Barker is an award-winning producer who won acclaim for a previous Frontline special on the "Ghosts of Rwanda; Campaign Against Terror." But this one didn't work, in my view.

In a shortened format, there is a fair amount of wasted time and film of producer-and-subject just standing around and chit-chatting upon entering offices or leaving hotels. It has, at times, a travelog quality rather than an investigative report. There are too few questions, challenges, expansions or explanations offered about various points and not much sense, in part because of the language problem, conveyed to a viewer (me, in this case) of a producer/reporter really on top of his subject.

Did They All Follow Orders?

The film, properly, devotes a fair amount of time to an important subject, the Al Jazeera network, the pioneer in bringing Arab-language satellite news throughout the pan-Arab world, and now globally, and still the largest and most popular network in the region with more than 50 million viewers. And it reports about the newly-established Al Jazeera English, headquartered in Washington and broadcasting to millions of English-speaking Muslims around the world.

It points out that the only way Americans can watch this is online and then focuses attention on an interview with Cliff Kincaid, the chief of a conservative media-watch group known as "Accuracy in Media," who says of the Arabic version, "everybody knows it's been a mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda." The narrator says "this conservative media group launched a campaign to keep Al Jazeera English out of America" and adds that, "Every major cable and satellite provider in the country refused to carry it."

The clear implication is that that they all caved in to the "Accuracy in Media" campaign. Is that true? That would seem to be a heck of a story. But there are no follow-up interviews with cable and satellite providers to ask them exactly why they won't handle Al Jazeera English. Or, for that matter, nobody asked WGBH, for example, if they would like to have Al Jazeera English available for broadcast and, if not, why not?

Are BBC and CNN Neutral? Was Coverage of Lebanon Biased?

There is a brief interview, through a translator, with the news director of Al Manar TV, the channel of the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon that declares itself "a station of resistance against the Zionist enemy." The news director asks the questions. He asks Barker "Do you know any neutral media in the world? Can we say that BBC, for instance, is neutral? Can we say CNN, if they are neutral? There is always an influence between the owner of the media and the people who work there," he said. Barker doesn't answer the questions and says only, "Yeah, I understand." Maybe he just meant he understood, through the translator, what Manar was saying. But there is no notion offered that independent, adversarial journalism is practiced at these and many other organizations elsewhere.

The managing director of Al Jazeera English says, in the film, he didn't think the world's major English-language broadcasters were "particularly balanced" in covering last year's war in Lebanon and the narrator points to critics who claim that reporting was "an example of the Western media's bias towards Israel." That, too, draws no challenge. What's the evidence that the coverage of the war in Lebanon was biased toward Israel? Most of the criticism of the coverage that I heard, and read about, was from people who thought exactly the opposite.

The film spends a good deal of time reporting on the U.S. State Department's efforts to try and understand what is being said on Arab television and also to get into this battle through the establishment of the "Al Hurra" channel, which means "free one." It is based in a suburb of Washington and is designed to beam "the U.S. government's view of the news to the Arab world 24 hours a day." This is a useful segment, and Barker points out that "outside experts" say the real number of viewers for this channel is "closer to a tenth" of the 20 million viewers it claims. But the time spent on this probably marginal American player in the Arab world also diminishes the time allowed for focusing on and understanding what is really being reported on those Arab TV channels that most Arabs get their news from.

Making a Case for Al Jazeera

Ironically, one of the most important insights and challenges in the film come, in part, from some surprising sources. On the one hand, the case for Al Jazeera English is made most succinctly, although not surprisingly, by Dave Marash, formerly of ABC's "Nightline" and now the Washington anchor of the new Al Jazeera English.

"America," says Marash, "has never been perceived as more isolated and less influential. I think that probably we're pursuing that angle harder than our network colleagues are and it's not because we want to undermine America's position. It's because the reality is that America's position is undermined, and nobody needs to understand that more than Americans."

The surprise comes in the words of two U.S. military officers who work for the media unit of the U.S. Central Command in Dubai and who are, as the narrator says, "the vanguard of the military's new strategy to embrace Arab news channels."

Navy Capt. Frank Pascual and Army Capt. Eric Clark talked about their roles and why they appear as spokesmen on the main Al Jazeera television operation in the Middle East. (Neither of them speaks Arabic).

Here's Capt. Clark: "We are trying to get rid of the hatred towards America, particularly America's military members. I've been to Bosnia, I have (been) to Kosovo. But clearly fighting the perception, fighting the likes of Al Manara, Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya and those who want to use those outlets, Al Qaeda and others, those who want to leverage those media outlets to reach and propagate their lies and extremist viewpoints. This is a tough, tough fight . . . What I think people forget is that Al Jazeera is much like any other media outlet. It's a business. They are catering to their audience. The message (is) just like a Fox News. Fox caters to its audience. They deliver and package news with the right message, content that will resonate to their audience. There is no question that Al Jazeera is the same way."

"In addition," Capt. Pascual says, "when you consider that they reach 50 million throughout the Middle East, throughout the Arabic speaking world, we find ourselves in a position of, those are the people we are trying to reach. And if Al Jazeera helps us get to those people, we want to talk to them. We want to have the opportunity to be on camera. We want to have the opportunity to talk to them on background. We want to be a source. We want them to call us up."

Later in the film, Barker asks Capt. Pascual what he thinks about the controversy in the U.S. over Al Jazeera English.

"I think it's ludicrous," Pascual says. "I think it's absolutely ludicrous. It's another outlet, another chance to get another point of view out to the American public. So the fact that they can't get a license in America I think is preposterous. It's a disservice to Americans, who, unfortunately, are becoming more and more insulated, more and more insular . . . And by not having Al Jazeera available in the US, it doesn't allow it to stand or fall on its own merits . . . I've never been afraid of ideas, and I have no fear that any ideas brought through journalism to the United States would be something that would so harm us (that) we not only can't survive, but can't learn something from it and do better. And it's a part of the world we need to do better in."

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