ouafac Harb wants many things. On a July afternoon in Washington, he wants to watch a presidential press conference on CNN, prepare for a meeting and get a news crew into Iraq. All at once. "You can be in Kuwait in 12 hours," he tells a reporter on the telephone, keeping one eye on the television. From Kuwait, the crew could travel, with a military escort, into neighboring Iraq, where Harb has 15 reporters gathering news for Radio Sawa.
Sawa is a U.S. government-operated radio station, whose programs are beamed to the Middle East from Washington-in Arabic-via satellite, FM and shortwave radio frequencies, and the Internet. Harb, a seasoned Lebanese-American journalist, is Sawa's news director. Launched in March 2002, Sawa recently added a radio broadcast to Iraq. It airs speeches by U.S. officials, reports from U.S. government journalists in the region as well as interviews with locals. Harb wants Sawa Iraq to be the primary source of news for Iraqis about the hurricane of post-war events reshaping the country.
But that's not all Harb wants. The former Washington bureau chief for the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat, based in London, is girding for a fight against what he sees as America's chief adversary in the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East: 24-hour satellite news channel Al Jazeera, the most well-known news network in the Arabic speaking world, including Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf States, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Al Jazeera is Harb's nemesis. He contends that the controversial network's reporters want to incite their viewers, rather than inform them. For example, he says, Al Jazeera takes every opportunity to underscore the U.S. government's support of Israel. Al Jazeera reporters covering Israeli air raids on Palestinian targets have pointed out that the bomb-dropping jets are "American-made," Harb says. While he admits the reporting is accurate, he says the link to America is drawn with the goal of "steering [viewers] to make a conclusion."
"They cater to people's emotions," he says. "They go out of their way to highlight the negative." Around Harb's offices, in the belly of a federal building a few blocks from the Capitol, Al Jazeera is mockingly described as "CNN meets Jerry Springer."
Al Jazeera's programming swells with "anti-Semitic" rhetoric, say members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the presidentially appointed body that oversees Radio Sawa. Al Jazeera has made an on-air pundit of David Duke, the former Louisiana politician and ex-Klu Klux Klan leader. In July 2001, an Al Jazeera talk show host declared Hezbollah fighters, considered terrorists by the U.S. and Israel, "heroic" for "expelling the Zionists from southern [Lebanon] like dogs-my apologies to the dogs." Harb says Al Jazeera, which is owned by the government of Qatar, isn't far removed from its news media forbears, the television and radio networks wholly controlled by Middle Eastern regimes.
But more important than what Al Jazeera says is what the United States doesn't say in defense of itself and its allies, Harb and his colleagues believe. The U.S. government has failed to offer Middle Eastern television viewers any alternative to what they're watching now.
That's about to change.
In December, the Broadcasting Board of Governors will launch the Middle East Television Network, a 24-hour satellite channel that will broadcast American television shows and movies and air original news programming in Arabic. Harb will be the network's news director.
The goal of MTN, as it's being called, is articulated in a promotional video that board officials prepared for congressional appropriators. Quintessentially American images flash on the screen-the Statue of Liberty, the White House-underscored by Bruce Springsteen's anthem "Born in the U.S.A." Over the music, a narrator proclaims, "The Middle East Television Network can end the deafening silence from America."
For Harb, ending that silence will vastly improve the ability of the United States to influence Middle East policy. "You cannot be present anywhere in the world unless you have a media presence," he says. And American networks such as CNN and Fox are "not up to the task" of promoting and sustaining freedom and democracy-the broadcasting board's official mission-Harb contends.
He and other board officials say American networks also have failed to "discredit" the anti-Western, anti-American information that Al Jazeera and other Arabic networks broadcast throughout the Middle East. The announcer on the MTN video echoes these sentiments, asking, "If we don't rise to the challenge, who will?"
MTN will air news, American TV shows and movies and perhaps even original Arabic game shows and morning talk programs. It will aid the war on terrorism, its producers say, by seeking to win the battle for perception. Harb and his colleagues believe the United States is losing the information war that is raging in the Arab and Muslim worlds. MTN is their attempt to turn the tables. Its mission is clear: Sell America.
Promulgating American news and culture in the backyard of the nation's adversaries is familiar territory for the broadcasting board. It oversees the Voice of America, whose radio transmissions into the Soviet Union were a mainstay of the U.S. Cold War arsenal. For decades, VOA's news and jazz broadcasts were a shortwave umbilical cord for Soviet citizens otherwise dependent on the state-run news media.
The nine-member board is an independent, autonomous federal entity that oversees all U.S. government and government-sponsored international broadcasting. (It does not oversee military broadcasts.) With the enactment of the International Broadcasting Act in 1994, the board took over management of VOA as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Asia and a host of VOA broadcasts that air news in 55 languages. Before that, those broadcasts were directed by the U.S. Information Agency, which was merged into the State Department in 1999. Despite the change in oversight, the programs kept their staffs.
Today, the VOA-style programming, with its heavy emphasis on talk and news, looks dated to some board officials. Chief among them is Norman Pattiz, the creator of MTN and Radio Sawa, and one of the most successful media moguls in the United States.
In the 1970s, Pattiz reinvented modern radio programming, creating pop music-laden packages that he sold to local stations, which in turn sold airtime to advertisers. Pattiz built his company, Westwood One Communications, into the largest radio network in the United States. Today, it has more than 2,700 employees, produces more than 150 news, sports and entertainment programs, and is affiliated with more than 5,000 stations around the world.
Pattiz and his cohorts at the board contend that America needs a hipper way of getting its message across abroad: programming more like MTV's than National Public Radio's. It must appeal to young people, the audience that is key to the success of U.S. policy.
People age 18 and under are the largest and fastest growing portion of the population in the Middle East. They are future decision-makers-academics, journalists, government officials and businesspeople-and friends the United States needs now, MTN's producers believe. Like American youth, they respond to popular culture.
To get their attention, Pattiz says government broadcasting must follow the path he set out with Radio Sawa, which last year replaced the Voice of America's Arabic broadcast.
VOA Arabic was aimed at an older audience and featured government broadcasting's traditional news and talk format. On average, Sawa airs 15 minutes of news every hour. It airs longer segments when news is breaking, but the majority of its programming is Top 40 hits. During transitions between songs, an announcer reminds listeners in English that Sawa is "cool."
Listeners are treated to the latest stylings of Western favorites such as Shakira and Celine Dion and Arab heartthrob Amr Diab. According to Pattiz and Harb's strategy, listeners who tune in for the music will stick around for the news. This is the formula Pattiz has used at Westwood, but it has been criticized as lacking in substance and for giving short shrift to major news.
For instance, during a bloody spate of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in April 2002, only one-tenth of Sawa's airtime was devoted to "news and reportage," writes Alan Heil, a 36-year VOA veteran who penned Voice of America: A History (Columbia University Press, 2003).
Middle Eastern youth are the future leaders of the region, but they also are its future terrorists. MTN producers understand they won't succeed in selling America to people whose hatred of the U.S. compels them to violence. Those hearts and minds already are lost, they believe. What MTN covets are the minds of those who already have some affinity for American culture, ideas and products. The idea is to build a base of support for America so that anti-American views are less tolerated.
But research and polling data indicate that Middle Easterners already distinguish between the social and cultural facets of the America they admire and the policies and actions of the U.S. government, which they resent.
Many Arabs and Muslims don't hate America so much as what America does, experts explain. And they're far more savvy about the country than many in Washington give them credit for.
"They know a lot more about us than we think they do," says James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute in Washington and a senior political analyst for polling firm Zogby International, run by his brother John. James Zogby says Middle Easterners aren't getting their information solely from Al Jazeera, and that the network doesn't turn its viewers into America-haters.
Zogby's research shows that Middle Easterners watch a variety of channels, including American networks such as CNN and MSNBC. "The most popular TV show in the Arab world is Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," Zogby says. Television viewers in the region can get a panoramic picture of what the U.S. government does and of what being American means, he contends.
A July 2001 Zogby International survey of five large Middle Eastern countries found that 60 percent of all households had more than one television. A 2002 survey of nine predominantly Islamic countries by polling firm Gallup found more than 75 percent of Middle Easterners watch television daily. The majority pay a lot or some attention to current affairs, pollsters found.
Harb and Pattiz are working out MTN's ratio of news to entertainment programming. Pattiz is spending most of his time in Los Angeles trying to strike deals with TV and movie producers to air their content. He's adamant that American culture and values can precipitate social shifts. "It was MTV that brought down the Berlin Wall," he told The New Yorker magazine in February 2002.
For his part, Harb says MTN's news division will follow the tenets of Western journalism-objectivity, impartiality-to counter what he sees as the subjective, polarizing force of Al Jazeera. MTN will air news broadcasts as well as roundtable talk shows, and Harb will select and manage the MTN journalists, whom he might hire from outside government.
American news networks haven't attempted an all-Arabic format because it's not in their commercial interest, says Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. But "it's very much in the interest of the U.S." to mount a pro-Western channel that shows a side of political debate people aren't getting from local news media, he says. "We need to bring enlightenment to the Arab world," says Tomlinson, the former editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest.
A NEW PLAN
After being named to the Broadcasting Board of Governors by President Clinton in November 2000, Pattiz pushed to expand the Voice of America Arabic radio service, believing the U.S. lacked a strong voice in the Middle East. The attacks of Sept. 11 reaffirmed his belief, and that of many other officials, that the need for that voice was stronger than ever. "Nobody is carrying the water for the United States" in the region, he told online magazine Salon in October 2001.
Radio Sawa was the first step. Pattiz's idea quickly gathered support on Capitol Hill, and Congress appropriated $35 million for Sawa in fiscal 2002. "After Sept. 11," Pattiz told a reporter in May 2002, the idea "became a slam dunk."
Sawa, and now MTN, have the backing of government leaders. In less than two years, Pattiz has secured almost $100 million in funding for both projects. That's remarkable because the VOA Arabic service-which Sawa replaced-was so underfunded that it couldn't build enough FM transmitters in the Middle East to reach a wider audience. More than $16 million of Sawa's funding paid for those transmitters. By contrast, the Arabic service budget was only about $3 million for fiscal 2000. The fiscal 2002 budget for all Broadcasting Board programs sought $16.9 million for improvement and purchase of transmission facilities.
One of Pattiz's biggest supporters is Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the former chairman and now ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At a June 2002 hearing, Biden said he was "so impressed" with a Sawa promotional CD that he told Pattiz to "make it available to every member of the United States Senate, every member of the House."
As Biden noted at that hearing, Pattiz is a longtime friend. He's also one of Biden's financial supporters, a position that has landed him in hot water with federal authorities. Federal Election Commission records show that Pattiz and some of his Westwood One employees made $13,000 in unlawful contributions to Biden's 1988 presidential campaign. The executives agreed to pay more than $72,000 in fines for using corporate funds as reimbursement for their donations.
Pattiz and MTN also have allies in the executive branch. Pattiz told The New Republic in June 2002 that President Bush's senior adviser on Middle East policy, Elliot Abrams, is one of the strongest MTN backers in the White House. And broadcasting board Chairman Tomlinson is a longtime friend of Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove. In the early 1990s, they served together on the U.S. Board for International Broadcasting, which oversaw the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty radio broadcast.
In a supplemental spending bill to fund the war in Iraq, Congress gave MTN $30 million this year, and Bush has asked for another $32 million in the fiscal 2004 budget. But even that isn't enough, board officials say. Furthermore, producing a television network within the government's bureaucratic confines isn't easy.
But MTN won't be governed like a traditional federal agency. It will be an incorporated entity, just like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, which are chartered in Biden's home state of Delaware. Those operations are private but fully funded through federal grants.
They're also largely exempt from civil service rules. Board officials want MTN to have the freedom to assemble news and production teams without governmental employment restrictions, according to the board's spokeswoman.
When Sawa began airing programs, most of the 37 VOA Arabic broadcast employees moved to the new station. However, eight of them were not brought over, and they filed a complaint alleging discrimination, based on their nationality, age and religious affiliation, says Tim Shamble, a VOA production specialist and president of the VOA chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Shamble says many of the employees who joined the youth-oriented Radio Sawa were the younger members of the VOA Arabic team. This caused a rift between two staffs, says one current Sawa employee, who asked not to be named. "They stormed in," the employee says of Pattiz and Harb, and "kicked out some of the old-timers. . . . It was a takeover.
"They wanted to get in their new people," the employee continues.
Harb says, "When we started Radio Sawa we had to build our own staff." He hired journalists from print, television and radio from across the Arab world, he says. Internal feuding between Sawa and other VOA broadcasts has continued. One VOA staff member says Sawa was the subject of a few mocking skits performed at the agency's holiday party last year.
Resistance to the Sawa style of programming, and to Pattiz's plans for MTN, springs from a battle between old and new approaches to running U.S. government broadcasting.
What's more, some VOA staffers suggest Pattiz's effort to launch MTN may be commercially motivated. "Pattiz is a businessman," the Sawa staffer says. "Obviously, he's discovered a gold mine" with the Middle Eastern market. The staffer continues, "Is Mr. Pattiz doing [MTN] for America? The answer is no. I think that he will gain from this in the long run."
As a private organization, like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, MTN will retain copyright of all the material it produces. A former VOA Arabic staff member, Hafez Al Mirazi, who was a journalist with the agency for 12 years, says Pattiz could assume full ownership of MTN, rather than using taxpayer funds as startup money. Al Mirazi thinks that would give the network more credibility among Middle Eastern viewers, who, he says, probably will dismiss MTN as U.S. government propaganda.
"The whole concept for people over there of a free media or American media is that it is not government-controlled," Al Mirazi says. "They are sick and tired of government control."
Al Mirazi is in a good position to know. He is currently the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, and one of the best-known Arab journalists in the world.
The issue of government control isn't the only hurdle Harb and Pattiz face. Having examined the MTN plan and Radio Sawa's programming, some American image-makers question whether the approach is justified. "Brand U.S.A." already has made a significant mark in the Middle East, and not everyone thinks highly of it, they note.
"When you think from the customer's perspective about any brand, what they think about is the association of that brand with a set of other icons," says Steve Silver, a partner with marketing firm Helios Consulting in New York.
Silver has spent his career helping corporations find their identities. As president of a marketing subsidiary of Young & Rubicam, one of the world's largest advertising firms, he noticed that large companies often saw themselves as peddlers of products, rather than representatives of a brand that transcends the corporation itself.
Coca-Cola is an example of such a brand. Coke is more than just a soft drink. It's a symbol of American life. For some, Coke recalls a simpler, bygone era of drug store soda fountains. Others remember the 1970s anthem about buying the world a Coke, and associate the soda with a set of political ideals. And with Coke's unmistakable white ribbon trademark-the most recognizable on the planet, research shows-the Coca-Cola Co. has extended the brand beyond soda and emblazoned its emblem on all manner of products, from T-shirts to watch faces to stuffed animals.
Successful companies do what Coca-Cola has done, according to Silver's logic. They think about their products "systematically," he says, to understand how they're connected to other concepts in the minds of the public. This is difficult to do, however, and Silver contends the U.S. government hasn't done it well.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Silver and his colleague, Sam Hill, mapped out a branding strategy for America, just as they would for a corporate client. They examined the government's efforts to improve its image in the Middle East, particularly the efforts undertaken by a prominent advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, former chief of advertising giant Olgilvy & Mather and before that, J. Walter Thompson. Beers had been hired by the State Department to head U.S. public diplomacy. One of her marquee projects was a series of videos about Muslims prospering in America. Silver and Hill reviewed Beers' campaign and also examined the "alternate views" put forth by terrorists and fundamentalists. They found the government "was not even taking advantage of the best thinking," Silver says. So Silver and Hill created the "Brand America molecule," a diagram with a central nucleus and web of emanating branches, each with a set of "atoms."
In Silver and Hill's molecule, "America," the word and the concept, is the nucleus. The atoms are dozens of American icons: McDonald's, democracy, dollar, Abraham Lincoln, cowboy. Different colored lines between these icons show whether their association to the America nucleus-and to one another-is positive or negative in the eyes of non-Americans. It also shows whether those associations are weak or strong.
For instance, "capitalism" is strongly and positively associated with America, as are "land of opportunity" and "democracy." But "capitalism" also is associated with "mass production," which is associated with the negative notion that things are "disposable." Disposability is negatively related to "instant gratification," and from there, it's a short hop to America's role as a "superpower" and a land of contradictions-"racism" exists in spite of "civil rights," the "death penalty" is the rule of law in a "land of opportunity."
The Brand America molecule is a tool for understanding the swirl of ideas competing in people's heads when they think of the United States, Silver says. It doesn't suggest a course of action, but rather a way of understanding the links that America's brand managers appear to be missing. The molecule reflects what many scholars and pollsters have argued: Foreigners see America as a collection of good and bad ideas, some of which they like, some of which they're ambivalent about and some of which they despise. The government's branding strategy for the Middle East has failed, so far, because its managers haven't listened to Muslims and Arabs in order to understand their perceptions of America, says Arab scholar Zogby.
He thought that giving Beers control of the U.S. ad campaign was a "perfect" idea, "because an advertising person knows you don't go into the market unless you've tested" how people will react to a product. But Beers' campaign failed. Her videos were dismissed as too soft and as propaganda. She resigned in March, citing health reasons, and the videos stopped airing.
MTN producers Pattiz and Harb appear to grasp that a vast constellation of ideas, icons and products constitutes "America." Yet they persist in warning of a "deafening silence from America" in the Middle East, even as the area is saturated with Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks and McDonald's. The producers also say there's an insufficient news media presence in the region, and that most of what is there is owned and run by governments.
However, in the past decade, the number of satellite channels in the Middle East has mushroomed from one, in 1990, to more than 100 today. Airwaves are full of news programs and talk shows, some of which challenge conservative Middle Eastern social values. American movies and television shows-including popular sitcoms such as Friends and Will and Grace-are seen on satellite channels. Critics suggest the media are too vibrant, and the American presence too widespread in the Middle East for MTN to make much of an impact.
MIND THE MESSAGE
Zogby says Middle Eastern viewers are "discerning." They watch Al Jazeera for a take on the news that they don't find elsewhere, he says. The network has made its name by being polemical, and not flinching from criticizing governments. Few networks do that, Zogby says. "You cannot compete with Al Jazeera, because Al Jazeera has responded to a niche."
Al Mirazi questions how MTN can be a credible source of unbiased journalism when its connection to the U.S. government is well known. "The message is very contradictory," he says.
Other experts wonder how MTN and Radio Sawa can succeed where the Voice of America failed in winning Arab and Muslim audiences to U.S. policies and ideas.
Nevertheless, public diplomacy has become a key weapon in the war on terror. The State Department has funded a youth-oriented Arabic magazine called Hi. Seasoned ambassadors Christopher Ross and Margaret Tutwiler have been named to high-level public diplomacy positions. Bruce Gregory, the executive director of the nongovernmental Public Diplomacy Council in Washington, says Pattiz and Harb's experimentation with Sawa is what the "aging institution" of VOA required. He holds out hope for MTN's success.
But measuring that success may be impossible. Advertising brand managers know their work has paid off when sales increase. MTN producers have no such bottom line. "They do have some idea of who they're reaching," says Ira Teinowitz, the Washington bureau chief for Ad Age magazine, who covered Charlotte Beers' public image campaign. However, "the problem isn't who they're reaching," Teinowitz says. "The problem is does it affect what [those people] do?"
MTN is slated to air by the end of the year. For his part, Al Jazeera's Al Mirazi says to Pattiz and Harb, whom he's known for years, "I wish them success." MTN's producers will find the Middle East media market thriving and fiercely competitive, he warns, but he welcomes the new challenge. "The more the merrier," Al Mirazi says.