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Monday, Apr 25, 2011, 7:43 am

Live From the Middle East, It’s Mediocre U.S. Propaganda!

By David Szydloski

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Early last week, the Washington Post reported that newly released cables from Wikileaks show that the United States has been secretly funding a London-based satellite television station, Barada TV, produced by exiled Syrian dissidents, to the tune of at least $6 million during the last six years.

This is hardly surprising.

The United States has been using television and radio as soft power supplements to overt military action since at least World War II. The biggest player in U.S. media spin overseas is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which, in its own words, is an "independent, autonomous entity responsible for all US government and government sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting." It's the BBG's job to supervise and develop a plethora of television, radio, and internet “surrogate programs," which include: Voice of America radio stations, which broadcast in 59 languages (from Amharic to Uygher), Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Radio/TV Martí—a project run by anti-Castro Cuban exiles that, according to a communications professor speaking on NPR's On The Media, Cubans barely listen to.

Many people would call the BBG's work propaganda. The government calls it "public diplomacy." Whatever you call it, the BBG does not come cheap. Since it was founded in 1994, the BBG's budget has grown tremendously. In 1999, its budget was around $400 million. The currently projected budget for the 2010 fiscal year is $757 million dollars. All and all, the BBG’s work makes the covert government investment in Baranda TV look like peanuts.

One of the most recent additions to the BBG family is the Middle East Broadcasting Network, Inc (MBN). MBN was developed in 2002--just after we invaded Afghanistan, but before we invaded Iraq. First the government wanted to retool its Voice of America’s Arabic broadcast, which it did in the form of Radio Sawa. The more ambitious goal, however, was to develop its own Arab language satellite network. On Valentine’s Day of 2004, Al-Hurra (The Free One) made its first broadcasts to Arabic listeners from its offices in Springfield, Va. Since then, it has been repeatedly criticized by both government and civilians--including In These Times--for everything from its management to its shoddy production values. All the while its budget has steadily grown each year.

The most recent high-profile criticism was a report produced by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations titled : “U.S. International Broadcasting: Is Anybody Listening?” While discussing the problems face by all BBG programs, its summary of Al-Hurra's state was not good.

Alhurra—the U.S. 24-hour Arabic television news channel—is expensive, and with the exception of Iraq, little watched elsewhere in this vital region. Alhurra’s budget of some $90 million surpasses the combined budgets of Radio Free Asia ($37 million), Radio/TV Marti ($30 million) and VOA’s Persian News Network Television ($17 million). Given the crowded media environment of the Middle East, either greater resources must be devoted to marketing and promotion or additional programming changes must be enacted in pursuit of increasing the channel’s market share. Should these efforts fail to improve the overall viewership levels, policy makers will have to decide if continuing Alhurra’s operations is worth the costs.

So Al-Hurra has been criticized by the U.S. policymakers looking for a return on taxpayers' investment. But what does the station's target audience—young Arabic speakers—think about it? Well, if they’ve actually seen it, generally not much.

The Arabic satellite news market is already extremely competitive, with more than 100 news stations available in the region, including the two main pan-Arab stations, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. Even in the best of circumstances, Al-Hurra would be hard pressed to make significant advances in that market.

The number of actual viewers of Al-Hurra has been a matter of contention. The BBG reports that it has had an audience of around 26 million listeners a week for the last three years. If you look at MBN's publicly available tax records, you see a steady audience of 35 million weekly listeners during the same time period. However, a 2006 GAO report mentioned that an objective evaluation of the total number of listeners was difficult due to the “weakness in MBN’s methodology and documentation.”

There is also a question whether MBN is reporting the reach of its broadcasts rather than the actual number of unique viewers. In Iraq, the numbers are indeed significantly higher than the rest of the Arab world, but this is most likely a result of Al-Hurra’s Iraq “stream” with a focus on Iraqi issues and an office in Baghdad. Overall, a 2009 poll conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International found that only 2 percent of those interviewed said they regularly watched Al-Hurra.

So why isn’t the audience connecting with the station? In 2007, BBG commissioned the Center on Public Diplomacy at USC's Annenberg School to research just this very question--research that was only released after increasing pressure by Congress and journalists, particularly Dafna Linzer of the website ProPublica. The report was the result of a two-track approach, including hiring Arab language coders to watch 77 hours of Al-Hurra programming and rate the station on how they presented certain issues as well as general professionalism and creating focus groups in Cairo, Beirut, and Dubai to see what people in the region thought of the station.

The biggest problem, the study found, was that the quality of the programming pales in comparison to the professionalism of Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya. Many of the focus group members complained that it seemed like they were getting a second- or third-hand production from what was supposed to be the entertainment capitol of the world. The programming was not much better and included a lot dubbed documentaries. The report pointed out that many of the people they spoke with actually wanted to learn more about America but that Al-Jazeera actually had more programs on that topic than Al-Hurra.

Also, Al-Hurra and its audience find themselves separated by a common language. As Neil MacFarquhar pointed out in his excellent book The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday (2009):

Language was another Achilles’ heel of Al-Hurra. The newscasters on stations like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya spoke formal Arabic particularly well, to the degree that it was usually impossible to identify their country of origin. Dialects are readily identifiable, but fusha [a kind of formal Arabic used in newscasts] does not come in national or even regional accents, with the notable exception of Al-Hurra’s heavily Lebanese staff. … The broadcast team on Al-Hurra was plainly marked by either their names or their poor Arabic as Lebanese Christians, a group long suspected in the region as a fifth column for all things Western.

In general, the focus groups reported the Arabic spoken on Al-Hurra was “exceptionally poor.” A woman in the Beruit focus group singled out one program—"Inside Washington"—as having Arabic that was so bad that it was almost “an insult.”

One interesting study of Al-Hurra was undertaken by a graduate student at the University of Michigan, William Youmans, who found that when he was interviewing former MBN workers for another project, they started telling him about the jokes that the staff had developed to deal with the problems the station had. For example, some staffers often joked among themselves that they were “Abd Al-Hurra”—the slaves of the free one.

But not everything Youmans uncovered was so funny. One of the first big mistakes the station made was when an influential Hamas leader was assassinated by the Israeli military. It was the biggest story in the region covered by all the major news stations, but Al-Hurra was showing cooking shows.

There have been some indications that President Obama is less interested in the station than his predecessor, particularly his choice to give his much touted first Arab language interview to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya rather than Al-Hurra.

Of course, Al-Hurra's purpose is its core problem. It was explicitly created to show the bright side of America and its foreign policy while at the same time attempting to become a channel popular in the region. The same University of Maryland/Zogby International poll quoted above also asked the people it spoke to whether American values or American policy affected their feelings towards America more. An overwhelming majority reported that they primarily disliked American foreign policy, specifically in regards to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the U.S. military presence in the Arab world, particularly on the Arabian peninsula. If Al-Hurra covered these issues more in line with the opinions of people in the Middle East, it would not be in the interests of its "public diplomacy" goals. On the flip side, it is not endearing itself to anyone by ignoring or whitewashing these issues either.

Comedian Jon Stewart once made a very insightful comment about George W. Bush. He said it was incorrect to call him stupid--he wasn't stupid--he just talked to people like they were stupid. Poorly produced television programming like Al-Hurra, produced with explicit U.S. government connections, has not fooled potential viewers in the Middle East. Instead, it merely sends another message that the United States does not know or does not care about the people in region. At this point, a better public diplomacy move might be to shut down Al-Hurra altogether.
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