Propaganda or journalism?

Congress believes a U.S. government-run TV network can deliver independent news to an Arab audience -- and make them like us, too.

Published April 21, 2003 9:58PM (EDT)

On the morning of April 10, Iraqis who turned on Channel 3 may have gotten a surprise. Viewers of the station, whose broadcasters once called Americans "the sons of monkeys and pigs and people of fornication and vice," were now being greeted by a smiling President Bush, speaking to them in English with Arabic subtitles.

Controlling Iraq's airwaves was one of the first goals of occupying American forces. By the time they had taken control of Baghdad, the new home of Iraqi television and radio programming was an American C-130 aircraft known as Commando Solo, the source of five hours of daily television programming and American radio broadcasts transmitted across the country on five different frequencies.

The rush to get Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Iraqi airwaves underscores the important role media will play as efforts to rebuild Iraq get underway. Efforts to reprogram Iraqi television are part of a larger project of changing attitudes about America, both in Iraq and around the Arab world -- a project in which media will play a central role.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says U.S. military control of Iraqi state television is temporary. But that doesn't mean the U.S. government is getting out of the media business in the Middle East. On the contrary. Soon, the rest of the Arab world may have access to the kinds of programming currently seen on what once was Iraqi state-run television. Congress has approved $32 million in seed money, and another $30 million set to be passed in this year's budget package -- for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to launch a satellite station to compete with stations such as Al-Jazeera in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab street. Those involved with the station hope to have it on the air before the end of the year.

The television station, which has widespread bipartisan support in Congress, has emerged as the centerpiece in the Bush administration's public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East. In fact, money for the station is the only piece of the president's public diplomacy budget that is slated for increased funding.

Creators of the new network, including Norman Pattiz, chairman of radio powerhouse Westwood One, BBG member and major donor to the Democratic Party, point to the success of Radio Sawa, the new radio voice of America in the Middle East, as a promising sign for the new television venture. Radio Sawa has replaced Voice of America Arabic, and according to BBG surveys, is winning over large portions of radio listeners in countries like Jordan and Egypt. Pattiz was one of the major forces behind Radio Sawa, advocating a move away from news-only content, and he hopes to incorporate some of the successes the Sawa stations have had across the region into this new television venture.

Instead of the policy-heavy programming of VOA, Radio Sawa offers blocks of American music, including pop, hip-hop and techno mixed with local popular music. The broadcasts are in both English and Arabic, punctuated with two, 10-minute newscasts per hour.

According to surveys commissioned by the BBG, which oversees American government and government-sponsored international broadcasting services, Radio Sawa is the most popular station in Amman, Jordan, particularly among young listeners. According to the survey, the station pulls 43 percent of the young Jordanian audience.

The focus on attracting younger listeners through music is no substitute for the old VOA message, says David Ransom, former ambassador to Bahrain. "This marks a shift from our attempt to reach elites who make decisions, to a youth cohort that is lacking in power, but has large numbers," he says, and he questions whether that shift can bring about the change in hearts and minds the new media strategy is designed to accomplish.

Pattiz insists that unlike the Sawa stations, the new television network will not be specifically targeted toward younger audiences. The new government-sponsored television station will have different kinds of programming, he says, to attract the widest possible audience.

Though the final mix has not been determined, Pattiz envisions a "Today"-style morning news and fluff show, sports programming, children's shows and other types of soft programming to balance out the station's heavy dose of news and public affairs shows -- some of them, at least initially, American shows translated into Arabic, and gradually more original programming.

"Unlike Radio Sawa, this is going to be news and information driven," Pattiz says. "A lot of it will have the look of a CNN or MSNBC or a Fox."

But unlike those other networks, this station will be run solely on funding from the U.S. government. And while journalistic independence from funders is always an issue, even for private sector news outlets -- pressures from advertisers or financial supporters often influence content in both subtle and obvious ways -- those questions will be more acute for this network, because its sole funder, the U.S. government, is creating the network itself as part of a larger political and public relations strategy. There's a paradox in its founding: Just as viewers in Arab countries are turning away from state-run programming and embracing independent networks like Al-Jazeera, the U.S. is trying to compete with what is essentially state-run programming, only run by the U.S., not an Arab government.

Pattiz concedes there is an apparent conflict between government funding and journalistic independence. But he says over the BBG's 60-year history with Radio Free Europe, VOA and other ventures, it has learned how to maintain journalistic independence while being funded by the U.S. government. In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, VOA aired an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Omar to the chagrin of U.S. government officials. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized the interview, saying, "We didn't think it was right. We didn't think that the American taxpayer, the Voice of America, should be broadcasting the voice of the Taliban."

It is difficult to imagine that sort government pressure won't influence the network's programming, and even Pattiz concedes there are some inherent restraints on what they can and will do. But, he says, they are the same limits that constrain other American journalists.

"We're clearly limited by our principles and taste," he says. "We're not going to start calling for jihad just because we think it might get us viewers. We can't engage in the same kind of radical techniques that these other stations do. But just like CNN or anyone else, we will not be shy about criticizing the government when that criticism is warranted."

Airing an interview with Mullah Omar is one thing, but what about more subtle pressures the network might be under to influence its coverage of, say, Syrian government criticism of the United States, or Israeli crackdowns in the occupied territories? Anyone watching the news of the Iraq war on Al-Jazeera, for example, has gotten a very different view of the war than a CNN viewer. Al-Jazeera's coverage has been much more focused on Iraqi casualties, showing images that American viewers have not seen.

Pattiz admits the programming on the network will look different than what you'd find on CNN or Fox, saying the network must "show great cultural sensitivities" to the region.

But it is still unclear exactly what that means. Perhaps it would translate into something like MTV Indonesia agreeing to air a call to prayer on its network five times a day. Or maybe there would be more images of suffering Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, images which are mainstays of existing Arab network stations but virtually absent from American television screens. However this "cultural sensitivity" manifests, Pattiz maintains that these decisions will be made from marketing and journalistic perspectives, not taking into account the government's desire to promote a specific policy agenda.

While final programming decisions are yet to be decided, some key decisions have been made. The first is the selection of a news director, Mouafac Harb, the current news director at Radio Sawa. Harb is the former head of a Lebanese television station and a veteran of ABC's "Nightline." Much of the programming for the station will originate in Washington, but the station itself will most likely be based in Dubai, with news bureaus in Amman, Cairo, Kuwait and Baghdad.

Initially, at least, it will include a lot of American English-language network programming translated into Arabic. Pattiz says he has met with television and film producers about contributing content to the network, and that all of the major American news networks except CNN will be contributing programs to air on the station early on. Pattiz eventually hopes to run predominantly original programs, and from Day One will include original reporting by Arabic-speaking reporters and newscasters on the station. But like Radio Sawa, the station will be more than just news.

This will be the first time the U.S. government has funded and operated a 24-hour news station anywhere in the world. But support for the project underscores the priority the administration has placed on trying to communicate with the Arab world since Sept. 11. U.S. government representatives like Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Chris Ross, the State Department's special coordinator for public diplomacy, have appeared on Al-Jazeera and other Arabic-language satellite networks in an attempt to explain the administration's positions on everything from the bombing in Afghanistan to U.S. views on the Palestinian question to the invasion of Iraq, in hopes of changing America's image as the Great Satan on the Arab street.

The United States is not alone in its efforts to influence Arab minds through the media. In June, 2002, the Israel Broadcasting Authority created the Arabic-language Middle East Channel, hoping to compete against the more that 140 Arab satellite channels that the Israeli government fears is promoting violence against Israeli civilians.

But Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the new Israeli station is having virtually no impact on Arab public opinion toward Israel, and he is skeptical about the potential success of the new American-sponsored network.

"It would be sadly ironic at a moment when Arabs are turning away from state-run television networks because they find them less interesting, if the United States government decides to compete in this arena with its own state-run network," he says.

Pattiz contends that American state-run television will be nothing like the stations run by Middle Eastern governments, who generally use their state-sponsored programming for propaganda.

"We know what doesn't exist over there now is a voice that presents the United States, its policies and its people in a way that we would be comfortable with. We can't just continue to let the characterization of America and its policies and people to go unchallenged." He insists the new station will adhere to a code of American journalistic ethics that other state-run stations, and even the satellite stations in the region do not. "There certainly are parts of the United States government that engage in PsyOps and propaganda. It's not the BBG," he says. "We're not a propaganda organization, we're a journalistic organization." Advocates of the new network say it is crucial to combat the image of America portrayed on Arabic-language news stations. The popularity of Arabic satellite networks comes from their sensationalist programming and their relative independence from regional governments, most of which are dictatorships that exercise extremely tight controls on information. The best-known Arabic satellite network, Al-Jazeera, has been known to most Americans for less than two years, primarily as a mouthpiece for al-Qaida and Taliban leaders in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But long before the network was causing waves in Washington, Al-Jazeera was making enemies closer to home. Born with the aid of $140 in seed money from the emir of Qatar in 1996, the network quickly made enemies across the Arab world. Moammar Khadafi pulled the Libyan ambassador from Qatar after the station ran an interview with a Khadafi foe. Algerian leaders went so far as to cut the electricity in many Algerian cities to keep residents from watching a program that implicated the Algerian military in a series of massacres. The birth of Al-Jazeera was seen as the beginning of journalistic independence in the region, and it was generally welcomed by the West and embraced by television viewers across the Middle East.

Yet while Al-Jazeera may offer a respite from state-controlled propaganda, Satloff says it is by no means balanced journalism. He says the handful of Arabic satellite stations -- like Al-Jazeera or Al Manar, a Hezbollah-run station out of Lebanon -- make allegations of bias at CNN or even Fox seem trivial.

"Those stations do things no American station can do, and certainly that no American government-run station can do," he says of Al-Jazeera and other Arabic news stations. "They put on crazies and let them argue back and forth. They show more blood and guts than a Terminator movie."

The anti-American bias on Arabic-language stations has led many government leaders and diplomats looking for an alternative. They say an American-run station in the region will help dispel some of the misinformation many Arabs are getting about Americans and American foreign policy.

"The need for this is obvious," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. "We're waging a battle on a number of different battlefields, and the battle for hearts and minds is every bit as important as the battle being fought with bombs and bullets."

But Arab experts fear the station may be the latest well-intentioned but often ham-handed attempts at government-supported public diplomacy. The new money for the network -- which is expected to cost about $45 million a year to keep running -- is the only piece of the president's proposed public diplomacy budget that has been expanded. After Sept. 11, these efforts at diplomacy were a high priority for the administration. Madison Ave. marketing executive Charlotte Beers, former head of advertising giants J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, was brought on as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs to help guide the effort to explain America to the rest of the world. But in March, Beers left the State Department for "health reasons," and was replaced by a political insider, Tucker Eskew, who served as director of the White House Office of Media Affairs.

So is a new satellite network just another expensive project destined to fail, or an essential piece of the puzzle that will help transform attitudes toward Americans on the Arab street?

Supporters of the station say it is vital to get something on the air to counter Al-Jazeera. To American cable news junkies, Satloff's description of "crazies" running the political debate on Al-Jazeera may not sound entirely foreign -- some nights Fox, MSNBC or CNN shows could be described that way. But Pattiz says what Al-Jazeera calls news would pass for entertainment in the U.S. "Al-Jazeera likes to say they're the Arabic CNN. I like to say it's CNN meets Jerry Springer," he says. "Here, Jerry Springer gets laughs. There, that programming incites violence."

But that speaks to a larger problem for the new television product. Al-Jazeera, like Jerry Springer, is able to pander to a base element -- angry Arabs who are already predisposed to demonize the United States and Israel. It is far easier to indulge that element through television than it is to try to use the medium to alter long-held notions of what America stands for. For this new network to succeed, they will have to build an audience, and will not be able to use the techniques and stunts Arab networks use to lure viewers.

In a recent speech to House Democrats, Samer Shehata, a professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, criticized the nascent network, saying "the venture reflects an obsession with Al-Jazeera," that as Americans struggled with the question "Why do they hate us?" after Sept. 11, the power of Al-Jazeera has been overestimated. Shehata argues the money for the new American television station would be better spent on other forms of public diplomacy, such as more money for student and professional exchange programs, and money for education in the Middle East. "U.S.-funded classrooms in the Middle East and the Islamic world would be a highly visible and effective form of public diplomacy," Shehata said.

But advocates for the station say it would be foolish to ignore the power of television as part of a larger effort to educate 300 million people in the Middle East about American culture, values and politics. "Exchange programs are great, but when Coca-Cola wants to sell their product in a country, they don't invite professionals over to come look at the plant. They go on television," says Sherman. "That's essentially what we're doing here -- selling America."

But the details of just what that sales pitch will look like, and how it will manifest itself in terms of programming on the station, are still being worked out. Pattiz says cultural programming will be a key component of the network's initial format. Pattiz even suggests that with the proliferation of tabloid-like news on other Arabic networks, the new American venture may be able to distinguish itself with thoughtful, in-depth reporting like what is found on American public television.

But Satloff is skeptical. He points out that when American media consumers are given the choice between the thoughtful programming of public television and a more sensationalist cable news format, the latter usually wins out. "With this television network, they say we're going to attract different audiences with sports and children's shows and documentaries to which I reply, 'Have you ever watched Arabic satellite TV? Can we produce more soccer games? Can we compete with soap operas? With documentaries?' These things already exist. That's not what's going to draw people into our network.

"Sure, on the surface, you can understand it. These guys are winning the hearts and minds [of Arabs] with these crazy stations, let's put up our own and compete," he says. "There's a certain superficial logic to it, but it doesn't stand up under closer inspection."

Ransom says while access to the airwaves is important, the voices in the Arab media are at least in part a reflection of the attitudes of the Arab street. Simply changing the message is not enough, he says. American policy in the region must also change.

"We now have policies which are essentially unsellable, and there's really nothing we can do to make them more acceptable," he says. "The decision to invade Iraq without U.N. support raised an issue at the center of Arab politics -- this anti-imperialist, colonialist strain," he says. "They've only been out from under this yoke for 50 years or so, and many people think independent Arab states were the greatest advent in their lifetime. They are prepared to let those states do all sorts of dumb things under the auspices of sovereignty and independence. We violated all of that by invading and occupying Iraq."

Pattiz says that is not the mission of the new television venture, and that critics of the new program unfairly conflate the two. "As a private citizen, not as part of the administration, I can say that I think the amount of money that is spent on public diplomacy is in some ways disgraceful," he says. And though the approach of the new station will be different than that of Radio Sawa, Pattiz remains committed to the idea of the soft sell of America overseas.

"It's not [the television network's] job to win support for U.S. policy. It's our job to promote freedom and democracy, to be an example of a free press in the American tradition. I think people will be more favorably disposed toward the American form of democracy if they're exposed to a free press that covers the news fairly."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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