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Coming Soon to Arab TV's: U.S. by J Rutenberg
HEARTS AND MINDS
Coming Soon to Arab TV's: U.S.
By JIM RUTENBERG
New York Times, December 17, 2003
SPRINGFIELD, Va. - The United States' next great hope for winning Arab hearts and minds hides in a squat two-story building in a generic industrial park here, just off I-95. The only hint of what may lie within is the black-tape lettering on the front door that reads "News."
Inside, construction crews are working seven days a week to complete studios for the most ambitious United States government-sponsored international media project since the Voice of America began broadcasting in 1942.
It is to be called Al Hurra, a slickly produced Arab-language news and entertainment network that will be beamed by satellite from this Washington suburb to the Middle East. The name translates to English as "The Free One."
Al Hurra is meant to be America's "fair and balanced" pan-Arab answer to outlets like Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite network that White House officials accuse of fanning anti-Americanism in the Persian Gulf region.
The network may start broadcasting as early as next month. But it already faces skepticism, even from an outside Middle East expert appointed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to review American public relations efforts in the Arab world.
Many Middle East scholars have questioned whether its target audience, suspicious of all things American, would ever accept it, especially when its main hub is in Virginia.
Even if it does gain acceptance, some scholars said they doubted that a single television network could have enough impact to justify $62 million in first-year costs.
The team behind Al Hurra, an odd mix of American media executives and longtime Arab journalists, said it would be editorially independent, in keeping with other outfits of its kind: Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
Acknowledging the challenges, they say it will exemplify the best values of American journalism and present the best chance so far to deepen understanding of America in the region.
"We're contending with a media environment that includes hate speak in radio and TV," said Norman J. Pattiz, who heads the Middle East committee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the United States agency that is financing and overseeing the project, as it does Voice of America and several other ventures.
"It's in that environment that the Arab street gets its impression of our policies, our culture, our society," Mr. Pattiz said. "We simply cannot ignore the indigenous media."
Al Hurra will be available everywhere in the Middle East that Al Jazeera is, said Mr. Pattiz, chairman of Westwood One, the largest radio network in the nation.
By midwinter, he said, the network will have a separate outlet and studios in Iraq, paid for by a $40 million appropriation included in the president's $87 billion financial aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan. It will have other bureaus throughout the Middle East.
The network, along with an Arabic-language radio venture that began nearly two years ago, Radio Sawa, was put on the fast track after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when American officials recognized a need to address anti-United States sentiment in the Arab media.
Other projects born of the time have failed or faltered, a source of considerable frustration and disappointment in American diplomatic circles.
In one of the more embarrassing examples, an Arabic video produced last year by the State Department highlighting Muslims living prosperously in the United States was met with skepticism by Arab viewers.
Officials behind Al Hurra said this project was better thought out, built with American marketing and production skills. Yet they hope it will have an Arab sensibility, delivered by its Lebanese-born news director, Mouafac Harb, a former Washington bureau chief for the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat. Mr. Harb is in the process of hiring a largely Arab staff of more than 200 people.
Bert Kleinman, the network president, said people in Egypt and Bahrain who had taken part in focus groups had reacted positively to a description of Al Hurra - "fair and balanced," "empowering," "tolerant." But he acknowledged, "When we asked if a fair and balanced channel like this could be American, some said absolutely not."
With that sort of data in mind, Edward P. Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker III Public Policy Institute of Rice University, said, "We're skeptical that it will be able to jump over this barrier, this obstacle of credibility, in terms of being a state-run media outlet."
Mr. Djerejian, appointed by Mr. Powell to study American public relations efforts in Muslim countries, reported back those concerns. But M. C. Andrews, acting director of the White House Office of Global Communications, said the administration fully supported the network. Two senior State Department officials said they disagreed with Mr. Djerejian's assessment of the venture.
Executives of the broadcasting board said they were heartened that Radio Sawa, a youth-oriented radio station that mixes Western and Eastern pop and was also supposedly doomed, had built an audience of at least 15 million throughout the Middle East.
And, they said, some members of focus groups criticized Al Jazeera for being overheated and said they would give Al Hurra a chance if it was credible.
Establishing credibility falls to Mr. Harb, 36, a Muslim whose parents live in Beirut. Mr. Harb said he had come up with the idea to name the network Al Hurra instead of the more Western sounding "Middle East Television Network."
"This is a very Arabic name, `The Free One,' " he said. "Not `The Freedom Network.' That would sound militant. This says, `I am free, and if you want to be free, come and watch me.' "
Al Hurra's identifying symbol is an Arabian horse, which will trot onto the screen during programming breaks.
Getting people to watch, Al Hurra officials acknowledge, will be a major challenge. They say the channel should stand out in the 150-channel environment in part because it will have the highest production values in the region.
But the most important distinguishing feature, Mr. Harb said, will be its journalistic approach.
"In all Arabic newspapers, the op-ed section is on Page 1," he said. "It's created a culture where you can't tell the difference between news and opinion."
He added: "We have to disseminate objective, balanced news. In the West this might sound like Journalism 101, but in that market it'll be a departure." For instance, Mr. Harb said, in a report about an Israeli raid into one of the Palestinian territories, Al Jazeera tends to point out that the Israelis were flying "American-made" aircraft. Al Hurra will not do that.
"Why say that?" he asked. "You can feel which way they are leading you."
He and other officials say the channel will not pull its punches when it comes to the United States. For instance, Mr. Pattiz said the channel might feature a translated version of the BBC documentary "Blair's War," which extensively broadcast the views of critics of the Iraq war.
Al Jazeera officials took issue with Mr. Harb's criticism and said Arab viewers would see the network for what it was, a tool of the American government.
"His mandate is clear - that's to promote American points of view," said Jihad Ali Ballout, a Jazeera spokesman. "We are two different beasts altogether: Al Jazeera's job is not to promote anybody's point of view."
Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland who served on an advisory group convened by Mr. Djerejian, predicts that the network will come under pressure in Washington if it proceeds the way it says it will.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board, said he would shield the network from external pressure, though he said he did not expect any.
"The people aren't stupid," he said. "If we're slanting the news, they'll figure it out. If we establish long-term credibility, people will begin to ask questions. What went wrong? What retarded a civilization that was once far ahead of the West? And we'll be there to answer them."