The View From Washington
America's Efforts to Praise, Discredit, and Compete with New Arab Media

by Sam Litzinger

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This story is part of "24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media," a radio documentary produced by the Stanley Foundation in association with KQED Public Radio.

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Despite the hundreds of television channels available across the Middle East—channels that broadcast a heavy dose of American programming—the cultural gap between Arabs and the West remains wide. In Washington, DC, the explosion of media in the region is being watched with fascination, marvel, and dread by the foreign policy community.

Al Jazeera began showing up on television sets throughout the Arab world in 1996. Following its launch, American officials praised the network's potential for spreading democracy and free expression across the region. These same officials set out on what amounted to a charm offensive, appearing frequently on Al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets to add a US perspective to the mix of coverage. Then came 9/11 and the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Arab media outlets covered both conflicts, though often in ways President Bush and, indeed, many other Americans found troubling. Images of dead American soldiers or hostage beheadings were broadcast. Osama bin Laden and other enemies of the United States garnered airtime. And the US charm offensive turned into a war of words.

Beyond Stiff Diplomacy

For decades, relationships between the United States and Arab nations were forged on a diplomatic level—leader to leader—in meetings similar to the historic Camp David peace talks of 1978.

But this show of stiff diplomacy, tailor-made for state-run media outlets in the Middle East, lacked the "people-to-people" approach the United States employed during the Cold War with the former Soviet bloc. Then, the United States reached out to the Soviet people through scientific and cultural exchanges, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America—all in addition to high-level political summits.

"The US, for many years—for decades, in fact—thought that the way to deal with the Arab world was to deal with the leaders," says Marina Ottaway, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "In other words, it never felt that it had to deal with the Arab publics—the so-called 'Arab Street,' essentially."

But now, more than ever, formal meetings between American and Arab leaders (such as the one between President Bush and Jordan's King Abdullah earlier this year) are just one of the many ways the United States reaches out to the Arab world. This new perspective, Ottaway believes, is reflected throughout Arab society.

"Now since 9/11, because there is doubt about the capacity of Arab leaders to deal with their own populations, the US has decided to reach out to the population directly," she says. "It's the reason for Radio Sawa. It's the reason for Al Hurra."

New Windows?

Radio Sawa—headquartered in Washington, DC—is a 24/7 Arabic-language news and entertainment network owned by US International Broadcasting and funded by the US government. Its eclectic mix of Western pop and Arabic music is one way the US government is trying to win over the Arab audience. The other is Al Hurra TV.

Al Hurra's own promotional video proudly proclaims (in English, ironically) that "on March 14, 2004, a new window opened for Arabic-speaking television viewers all over the Middle East. A window on accurate, objective news reporting. A window on the free marketplace of ideas. A window on a better future." Based in a nondescript industrial park in Springfield, Virginia, Al Hurra beams news, documentaries, and entertainment shows—all in Arabic—to viewers in 22 Middle Eastern countries.

Bert Kleinman is president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, the government-funded agency that runs Al Hurra and Radio Sawa. He believes these US-sponsored media outlets are extending a positive message to the Arab public of the Middle East.

"Al Hurra is about you can, not about you can't," he says. "Our message is one of empowerment, of positivity, of hope for the future, of self development, of self actualization.... This is what America is about. And that's what people love about America."

Politics and Pop Music

But not everyone agrees with Kleinman. The United States spends $90 million annually to keep Al Hurra and Radio Sawa on the air. And the Broadcast Board of Governors, which overseas all government-owned broadcasting services, is seeking a 13 percent budget increase next fiscal year.

Marc Lynch, a political science professor at Williams College and author of the book Voices of the New Arab Public, has found that the political message of these US-sponsored media networks is often lost.

"From almost the moment that Sawa was launched, I heard it being played in Jordanian taxicabs and the like," Lynch said. "[But] there's nothing political about it. I don't think people really paid much attention to the news, and I don't think that it had much of an impact at all on political attitudes. But hey, it was nice to be able to get good pop music on the FM band."

Jim Philips, a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, has similar thoughts on Radio Sawa.

"I'm not sure that pop music on Radio Sawa is going to influence too many people," he says. "It may bring them to the broadcast, but I'm not sure how valuable that would be from the standpoint of US foreign policy.

But Phillips does believe Al Hurra's television programming is meeting the needs of the US government.

"I think there is a great need to get American viewpoints—and especially US government viewpoints—out there to a Middle Eastern audience," Phillips says. "Once people see it, I think, they would grow to trust it. Because it's not a mouthpiece of the US. It provides different views and even some views—many views—critical of the US government. It earns credibility that way."

News "As It Is"

Proponents of Al Hurra agree with Phillips, arguing that the networks are key to national security and the US war on terrorism. But critics see a problem here too. They argue Al Hurra parrots the Bush administration's foreign policy line and, consequently, few in the Arab world are paying attention. Marina Ottaway is one of these critics.

"Al Hurra, I would argue, is a very unprofessional propaganda machine. And this is the great paradox: that while the US is trying to promote an independent press..., Al Hurra really does not cut it as an independent TV station."

"You know, I have participated on programs on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and Al Hurra and so on," she adds. "And while I have never considered not participating on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya again, I have really debated whether or not I should continue accepting invitations by Al Hurra. And I say this very deliberately because they are so unprofessional. They ask leading questions all the time. They have a very definite idea of what they want, and they try everything they can to say it."

Al Hurra executives stand by their objectivity, however, and say they report the news "as it is."

Knowing Your Audience

So who is watching Al Hurra? Audience surveys can be difficult to conduct in the Middle East, but a University of Maryland/Zogby poll conducted in October 2005 suggests that less than one percent of people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates watch Al Hurra as their first choice of television—compared to the 45 percent who pick Al Jazeera.

Marc Lynch sees a conflict between what people want and what the station wants and is able to broadcast.

"To really establish its credibility with Arab audiences, it need to cover news and host political opinion which, if translated and shown to Congress, would immediately get them into a lot of trouble," he says. "Again, because they're ultimately accountable to Congress, they have to be very careful about the kind of things that they put on the station. But by doing so, it then undermines its ability to reach out to these Arab audiences. And that, I think, is one of these fundamental problems with government-funded television stations."

Try, And Try Again

But if Radio Sawa and Al Hurra aren't the answer, how do we engage the Arab public? Marc Lynch believes the United States shouldn't fight against the Arab media, but instead work with it.

"I think that the argument there is simply 'deal with the Arab public as it actually exists.' You've got this enormously competitive media market. You've got a politically attuned population who are deeply skeptical of the United States, but who really want to see change in the region. And instead of setting up Al Hurra, Radio Sawa, those sorts of things, and trying to leap over what actually exists, why not take advantage of what's actually there?"

Both Sawa and Al Hurra remain key parts of the US government's Middle East outreach efforts. But Bert Kleinman, Al Hurra and Radio Sawa manager, says the ideas of pluralism and democracy—unrelated to any particular US administration—have their limitations.

"Do we try?" he asks. "Or do we just give up and say, 'Ah, people don't like our policies, so let's just shut everything down?' I'm too American and too optimistic to just quit and run from the engagement process, trying to engage our audience. And so I can't walk away."

Media and the Market

After six weeks of trying, the State Department declined our requests for an interview with Karen Hughes, the under secretary of state responsible for selling US policy to the Arab world, saying scheduling would not permit. We spoke instead with Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.

Telhami has researched the impact of satellite television on the Arab world and believes that if the United States wants to influence hearts and minds it needs a different strategy.

"If the aim of American television and radio is to change people's opinion of the United States in a big way, I think it can never work."

Telhami's own research has demonstrated no real correlation between television and political attitudes.

"In my own research over the past four years, I have found no statistically significant relationship between what people watch on television and their attitudes at least toward the United States, toward core issues," he says. "The most important thing that we found is exchanges—student exchanges, business exchanges, cultural exchanges. All data show that those people who have interactions with America have a significantly better view of the United States than the people who didn't and vice versa."

But Professor Telhami acknowledges that it is not just TV news that has changed in the Arab world over the past two decades. Major changes have also occurred in the region's entertainment industry, with Arab movie, music, and lifestyle channels all proving popular. Radio and the Internet are also ubiquitous, but it is the television industry that he says is poised to scale even greater heights in the years ahead.

"When I go to the Middle East now and watch television there or watch it here on satellite, and I contrast it with the media 20 years ago, there is no question in my mind that this is far better, far more diverse, far more open, far more informative, far more responsible at some level.

"When you have an open market, of course you are going to have a lot of irresponsibility. But the marketplace has a way of actually punishing those who tend not to be credible over time. And I would be far more prepared to rely on the marketplace than any dictator determining what should be on the air."

"24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media" is a Stanley Foundation production in association with KQED Public Radio. The documentary is produced by Simon Marks, Keith Porter, and Kristin McHugh. The full program includes segments on Arab broadcast media, the regional perspectives on the rise of Arab media, Washington perspectives on the shifting Arab media landscape, and an essay by David Brancaccio on the influence of satellite television on Arab society. Exclusive interviews with Al Jazeera senior anchor Jamil Azar, US Central Command's Media Engagement Team, senior CNN correspondent Jane Arraf, and Professor Ramez Maluf of the Lebanese American University are also available.