lop an American TV viewer in a Middle Eastern living room, and he might think he'd never left home. U.S. news and game shows permeate the region and such American standards as "Will & Grace" and "Friends" are local favorites.
The estimated 250 million television viewers in Middle Eastern countries pick programs from more than 100 satellite channels offering a broadcast buffet of American fare, as well as local shows in native languages. Broadcasters compete aggressively for the market, and few Middle Eastern networks sustain themselves without government support.
Now, some U.S. lawmakers are asking why the federal government is spending more than $150 million to add two more channels to this saturated media landscape. It's not only a question about money, but about whether the Bush administration's campaign to win Middle Eastern support for U.S. foreign policy is focused on the right goals. Does the administration want to lay the groundwork for a free press in the region, and particularly in Iraq? Or is it trying to play counterweight to the area's dominant news outfits, such as Qatar-based Al Jazeera, which are viewed as stridently anti-American by the administration?
Two government-funded networks dominate U.S. broadcasting efforts: A 24-hour Arabic news and entertainment channel called Alhurra, and a Pentagon program to establish a news operation inside Iraq, called the Iraqi Media Network. In February, the Broadcasting Board of Governors-which runs the Voice of America radio programs-launched Alhurra (Arabic for "the free one"), specifically to take on Al Jazeera and other networks. Alhurra now reaches 22 countries and includes special programming aimed exclusively at viewers in Iraq.
IMN was on the scene in Baghdad before Alhurra beamed in. The Defense Department tapped its longtime contractor SAIC Corp., a San Diego firm known for its work on secret intelligence projects, to train local journalists and set up a television station and newspaper. The contract fell apart, however, amid criticism that SAIC-which has no relevant journalistic experience-was putting out an amateurish product that did little to get out the word about the U.S. coalition's plans for Iraq. Middle Eastern media have dismissed Alhurra and IMN as mouthpieces for the U.S. government. And, in a way, they are. Officials at both networks insist their journalists maintain objectivity about U.S. policies, but no one denies the networks are giving more airtime to Bush administration officials than local news programs do.
It's too soon to tell whether either venture will succeed. The Pentagon has shown limited understanding of the Middle Eastern market, having asserted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that IMN will become self-funding in the near future, once the "pent up" advertising potential in Iraq is unleashed, says Mark Helmke, a committee staffer who follows both networks. Few on Capitol Hill buy that logic, knowing that media profit margins are slim at best. Looking at Alhurra and IMN and the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to keep funding them, Helmke says, "I don't think we're going to be able to pay for both."
And why does the United States need both? From its $20 million production center in Springfield, Va., outside Washington, Alhurra runs a global media operation that would impress any network news broadcaster. By contrast, IMN has struggled to get on its feet, having to deal not only with a bungled contract (the Pentagon replaced SAIC with Harris Corp. in January), but also with attacks by Iraqi insurgents.
Though IMN and Alhurra both want to change the tone of Middle Eastern rhetoric, they do have distinct goals. Alhurra aims to reflect the values of a free press and stand as an example for other journalists in the region-including Iraqis, says Norman Pattiz, a governor on the Broadcasting Board who conceived of the network.
IMN, however, is trying to build a free press from scratch, explains Bob Henry, president of Harris' government communications division. There's no tradition of free speech and media in Iraq. Many of the IMN journalists worked for the state-run information ministry. Not only must they learn the rules of the trade, they also must compete with hundreds of other reporters who've poured into Iraq to cover the war and the U.S. occupation. Other Iraqi efforts have taken root and lawmakers wonder if IMN also isn't competing with them, says Helmke, possibly stymieing the very free press the U.S. wants to create.
IMN has been a public relations fiasco for the Defense Department. SAIC was removed amid allegations that it did not complete key portions of its contract-a charge the company refutes-and news reports that said executives were paid exorbitant sums while Iraqi reporters weren't given sufficient salary to buy clothes to wear on the air. Pattiz quips, "What do you expect from a psyops contract?" IMN is run by the Pentagon division that handles psychological warfare operations.
Given Pattiz's long-standing ties to key Foreign Relations Committee members, including the ranking minority member Joseph Biden, D-Del., it's a safe bet that appropriators won't pull the plug on his network, which received $62 million this fiscal year. That sum is a relative pittance in the TV production world, but Pattiz has been able to stretch it impressively. IMN has spent more money-close to $100 million-and can't compete with Alhurra for production quality and volume of programming.
But putting aside the question of which network should be dumped, there's the more basic worry that American-backed media won't actually change anyone's heart or mind. Even the State Department's own public affairs officers don't think international broadcasting does much to achieve the government's goals in foreign countries. The General Accounting Office found in February that only 5 percent of those diplomats said broadcasts were "very effective," and only 22 percent said they were "generally effective." By contrast, a third called the initiatives "very ineffective" or "generally ineffective."
FAIR AND BALANCED
Another report, by a group headed by Edward Djerejian, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said last year that the jury is still out on whether broadcasting has "moved the needle" of public opinion in the Middle East. "Our enemies have succeeded in spreading viciously inaccurate claims about our intentions and our actions," Djerejian's panel wrote, but "the apparatus of public diplomacy has proven inadequate" to counteract it.
Pattiz calls the panel's assessments "incredibly naïve," insisting that his venture will be the most thoroughly studied broadcasting initiative in government history, and that the government's Middle East-focused radio programs already have become brand names. But Harris Corp.'s Henry sounds less enthused about government media's chances in such a competitive environment. Regional journalists "have been operating for a long, long time," he says. The IMN reporters are learning a harsh lesson-what it feels like to get scooped.
Ultimately, the effort and big money IMN is spending on the ground in Iraq may bode well for Pattiz and Alhurra, which beams into the region 24-7 from the comfort and safety of suburban Washington. The relatively low price of Alhurra's broadcasts doesn't hurt its chances for survival a bit.