Mideast Media Mess
by Stephen Schwartz
Since the shock of September 11th, and parallel to military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. government officials in various agencies have sought to "win hearts and minds" in the Arab and Muslim world by crafting publicity schemes and media projects. All of those produced so far have been characterized by a combination of bombast, naivete, and silliness that, according to many friendly watchers and listeners in the targeted publics, does more to undermine than to reinforce American credibility.
First there was Charlotte Beers, a former executive at such leading advertising firms as Ogilvy & Mather, named Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy under Colin Powell, soon after the Twin Towers and Pentagon were attacked. Beers was handed millions of dollars by the Congress to try out Powell's theory of "branding" -- that U.S. policies could be sold to the Arab and Muslim masses like so much Coca-Cola.
Beers' product, however, turned out to be seriously flawed, including an official State Department website that conveniently steered foreign Muslims to the Saudi-backed "Wahhabi lobby" organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The State website she inspired also showed American Muslim women in full covering, or hijab, as well as Wahhabi mosques, suggesting that Muslims in America lived more or less like Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
Beers resigned her post early last year. Her latest successor, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco Margaret Tutwiler, quit last week, effective June 30. But about the same time Beers was charging around Washington, another alleged media magician, named Norman Pattiz, was also active on the scene. Pattiz is the founder of Westwood One, a Southern California AM radio conglomerate. He had been named by Bill Clinton to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency with oversight over U.S. media programs directed abroad, including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Marti, and Radio Free Asia.
Cannibalizing the VOA Arabic service, Pattiz was the godfather of Radio Sawa ("Sawa" is Arabic for "together"), a dumbed-down radio service mixing pop music, both American and Middle Eastern, with a minimal supply of news. The inspiration was similar to that of Beers: unlike RFE/RL, which specialized in hard news and political commentary aimed at the former Communist countries, Radio Sawa was dedicated to making young Arabs like America because Britney Spears lives here. But condescending to the Arab world did little to cut into the large audience dominated by such terror-supporting satellite TV networks as Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, and the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya.
Radio Sawa was followed by a similar misbegotten project aimed at Iran, Radio Farda ("Farda" means "tomorrow" in Farsi). Where Radio Sawa had established itself on the ruins of the VOA Arabic service, Radio Farda replaced Radio Azadi, a talk-format station that had contributed significantly to the political ferment visible in Iran. If Radio Farda was more effective than Sawa, it was a consequence of the crisis of the Iranian regime; nothing similar has yet begun in the Arab world, not counting Iraq. But Farda's news content, like that of Sawa, is minimal.
Iraq was also endowed with a U.S.-subsidized media enterprise, originally known as the Iraqi Media Network (IMN). At the end of 2003, a $96 million dollar contract was signed with Harris Corporation, a producer of broadcasting equipment, and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), as a provider of content, to get al-Iraqiyah, the renamed IMN, in shape as the voice of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
Al-Iraqiyah has its own universe of problems. Its previous operator, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), was served with a stop-work order by the CPA, and was excluded from the rebidding process for the continuation of al-Iraqiyah, because of the abysmally poor quality of content, absurdly abusive payments to consultants, lost equipment, and similar complaints. Late in March 2004 the Inspector General of the Pentagon issued a report ripping into SAIC's record as operator of al-Iraqiyah. SAIC's contract for al-Iraqiyah had totalled $82 million, and was the largest single contract for the reconstruction of Iraq. It was originally awarded on a noncompetitive basis.
But Harris Corporation, SAIC's successor, also has become the object of complaint. Numerous observers of the Iraqi media situation expressed their discomfort that production of al-Iraqiyah's content had been handed over to LBC, which, although it is considered aligned with Lebanese Christians, and features publicity spots with females clad in a tantalizingly Western style, is 49 percent owned by Saudi Prince Al-Walid Bin Talal, whom we last heard of when New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told him to stuff his proffered donation of $10 million for aid to the stricken city after 9/11. Giuliani's action came in response to Bin Talal's declaration that the attack on the Twin Towers could have been avoided by the U.S. adopting a stance less favorable to Israel. True to form, Bin Talal ascribed Giuliani's rejection of the donation to "Jewish pressure."
Al-Iraqiyah and Harris Corporation have another problem: they also have responsibility for Iraq's largest daily newspaper, al-Sabah (Morning). And although the documentation supplied to bidders for the Al-Iraqiyah contract specified that the whole network, comprising TV, radio, and print, would be run on the model of our own Public Broadcasting Service, nobody told the staff of al-Sabah that their newspaper would not be financially and professional independent. The al-Sabah journalists now say they will declare their newspaper an independent media institution whether the CPA or Harris "like it or not."
And then there is the tale of al-Hurra, the new Arab satellite TV station subsidized by U.S. money, again delivered through the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the same entity responsible for the laughable efforts of Radio Sawa and Radio Farda. "Al-Hurra" is Arabic for "the free one," and the channel was launched as an open challenger to al-Jazeera.
Yet al-Hurra, like Radio Sawa and Radio Farda before it, has failed to gain credibility with Arab or Muslim viewers. Here the "Lebanese problem" present in the Iraqi operation also plays a role, for Lebanese influence is obvious, down to the Arabic dialect spoken on al-Hurra's programming. In a caustic article titled "The Giant American Media Tiger Labored and Brought Forth a Weak Kitten," Arab journalist Muhammad Abdullah Nab commented as follows on the London-based website www.elaph.com:.
"Before al-Hurra began broadcasting, we thought of it as a huge media wave... We waited eagerly for this channel, to learn the principles of leading global media and to see how it would capture the Arab audience and embarrass Arab media professionals by, more than ever, exposing their backwardness. But the tiger we awaited was only a kitten [the word hurra is similar to the Arabic word for kitten]."
Nab continued, "We believed al-Hurra would offer a mighty challenge to [al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya], which could never compete with the colossal American media machine." But, Nab wrote, neither the prince of Qatar, who owns al-Jazeera, or Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, boss of al-Arabiya, found any reason to be concerned with the "competition from the American kitten channel," which he described as no more than a mediocre Lebanese product inferior even to LBC.
Nab described al-Hurra as "meagre presentation, reticent, boring, and determined not to irritate anybody." Was this both, he asked, "brought about by its Lebanese management or by the bureaucratic nature of any government agency, which has made it very similar to the two extremely stupid Saudi domestic channels?" Nab suggested that fear that al-Hurra's American directors would actually force it to compete for an audience "caused its Lebanese managers to remain cautious and timid." Finally, he warned, al-Hurra would fail, gaining no more than a passive influence, and become a voice lost in the babble of Arab electronic media.
Non-Arabic speakers can judge the innocuous character of al-Hurra's programming by reading its English website at http://www.alhurra.com/, which revealed last week that its schedule included a profile of Goldie Hawn, which will certainly do little to advance the cause of democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Watchers of al-Hurra emphasize that at first they did not know if it was an American or a Lebanese station. Nab, among others, pointed out that while Lebanese TV stations are strikingly successful in producing entertainment, they lag behind in serious news reporting and political commentary. Critics describe al-Hurra's announcers as stumbling over words, and using non-Iraqis to report on the situation in Iraq, when broadcasts by real Iraqis have, obviously, much greater impact. They also suggest that other Arab nationalities, such as Moroccans, Tunisians, and, certainly, Gulf and Saudi subjects, should appear in al-Hurra's airtime.
It's outrageous to think that while coalition troops are dying in Falluja and Najaf, coalition media and its counterparts are wasting time and energy on pop music and soft news. American money can make a difference in the Arab media universe. But it can only do so by committing to media independence, professionalism, and a keen attitude of competition with the Arab "hate satellites." We don't need to tell the Arab street how nice we are, how welcoming our country is to other cultures, or how much we want them to like us. Arabs and Muslims respect knowledge, and we have to convey a simple message: we know that the majority of Arabs and Muslims, in Iraq and elsewhere, seek to enter the world of freedom; we know who stands in the way of their liberation, and we are ready to help break down barriers. Arab-language American media can accomplish as much as American military force in changing the Middle East for the better. But not if it stays in the kiddie corner. It's time to produce Arab-language media that treat Arabs and Muslims as the adults they are, spelling out the choices the face and our will to assist them in making the right decisions for their future.