Alhurra TV: Uncle Sam's Boondoggle

I've been sifting through several studies of Alhurra Television that dropped like a "cascade of candor," to paraphrase David Frost's hoped for outcome with Nixon, in my inbox last night. One emerged as Mighty Mouse, completed by my colleagues in the Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, University of Southern California.

This mouse lead to temporary blindness for the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees Alhurra TV. The BBG chose to sit on the USC report, finished July 31, 2008 and long before the November presidential election, as they attempted to work out some appropriate public relations campaign that would minimize the damage.

Just what is Alhurra? Well nearly five years ago I wrote a short piece about the obscure TV network sponsored by the American taxpayers. I called it "Al Hurra-Al Who?: Haven't heard? We're Free, They're Not!" to illustrate my sense of alarm that taxpayers would be underfunding an operation that would be deemed discredited and cast off as so much American propaganda.

Alhurra, which means "The Free One," was enough of a problem. The station's name violated the similarity principle in creating liking and influencing individuals. The principle is simple. The more similar a source and its audience, the more the audience will move in concert with a source's objectives. The more dissimilar the source and its audience, the more the audience will move away from the source's goal of positive attitude change. (This is why we see far more "average looking" people in TV commercial testimonials. They look more like the viewers watching.)

If the U.S. were deemed the "Free One," that automatically assumed that our audience was unfree, and by definition, inferior. President George Bush said in 2004 that Alhurra would help in the war on terror and combat "the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world," as well as "tell people the truth about the values and policies of the United States."

"The Free One" has been a Washington boondoggle. If anyone bothers reading this column, I'm sure to get some finger-wagging over that statement. The following is a lengthy but important executive summary of USC's 72-page study for the BBG:

Our study found that Alhurraʼs programming was perceived as being similar to traditional, state-funded broadcasting in the region. Not only has Alhurra done little to distinguish itself from second-tier Middle Eastern broadcasters in terms of its news agenda, but it has also failed to develop the distinctive style, format, and breadth of coverage that might attract a substantial audience. Even Alhurraʼs reporting of U.S. policies and American life is seen by Arab viewers as undistinguished. This opinion ran through the discussion group
sessions and was supported by the content analysis. In short, Alhurra has failed to become competitive.

Weak Journalism: The quality of Alhurraʼs journalism is substandard on several levels. Its technical presentation is not as proficient as that of the best Arab
channels. The studyʼs content analysis found that Alhurraʼs news stories lack appropriate balance and sourcing. Discussion group respondents noted journalistsʼ apparent lack of experience and flawed presentation of news, including the poor use of graphics and a lack of standardized Arabic language. The content analysis found that Alhurra relied on unsubstantiated information too often, allowed the on-air expression of personal judgments too frequently, and failed to present opposing views in over 60 percent of its news stories.

Perceived bias: Given Alhurraʼs association with the U.S. government and polices, there exists a natural skepticism among Arab audiences regarding the
broadcasterʼs ability to report objectively about issues in the region. Our content
analysis found several factors that could further such impressions of bias,

1. Alhurraʼs news was likely to promote Western perspectives at the expense of Arab perspectives. When Alhurra was critical of a particular view of issues, it was six times more likely to be critical of the Arab/other perspective than the Western viewpoint. Moreover, it was twice as likely to praise the Western outlook rather than the Arab/other perspective.

2. When personal judgments were expressed, they were likely to be pro-West or anti-Arab. Rarely were opinions expressed that were critical of a Western perspective or supportive of an Arab position, particularly on such sensitive topics as the Israeli-Arab conflict and Arab human rights issues.

3. The use of unsubstantiated information was often associated with a bias in favor of Western perspectives and U.S. policy. Reporting that was grounded in unsubstantiated information (which includes over 12 percent of Alhurraʼs news content) was twice as likely to favor the Western viewpoint over the Arab/other perspective, and almost three times less
likely to be critical of U.S. policy.

4. Alhurra was much more critical of Arab governments and political opposition groups than it was of U.S. policy in the region. Reporting was twice as critical of Arab political positions and policies as it was of U.S. policies.

5. Seen as Propaganda: Discussion group participants felt that Alhurraʼs reporting, when stacked against its competitors in the region, represented a false or tilted perspective of events, especially with regard to its coverage of Iraq and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Discussion group members also felt that Alhurraʼs news was overly critical of Arab political and opinion leaders. It is important to note that, while the U.S. policy and viewpoints were often clearly identified, participants thought that they were unpersuasive or included too little explanation. While some identified Alhurraʼs coverage as being more positive with regard to the possibilities of peace and stability in the region, these attributes were more often seen as evidence of an agenda rather than coverage that provoked a different point of view.

6. A Lack of Connection to the "Arab street": Discussion group participants felt
that Alhurra too often relied on official sources about issues important to the general Arab public. Rarely were sources entirely independent, and the voice of the average Arab was either non-existent or subordinated to official pronouncements. Moreover, coverage of highly divisive issues - Israeli-Arab conflict and Iraq in particular -- was often seen as overly optimistic with regard to the possibilities of stability and reconciliation. Further, the paucity of coverage of Islam and Islamic-related issues indicates insensitivity to one of the fundamental
elements of most Arabsʼ lives.

My own conclusions: Alhurra has never produced a large audience share and has not built up a credible broadcast profile in the target publics of the Middle East. There is no evidence that Alhurra's existence has kept the American public any safer or served a substantive public information service function in the Middle East. The public's trust that government avoid waste, fraud and abuse in taxpayer-funded programs has been violated. It shouldn't take hundreds of thousands in government-sponsored studies to come to those conclusions. I wrote this column for free!

Having said that, my criticism of Alhurra is given with the full knowledge that Alhurra may very well continue under the Obama-Biden administration. Washington is all about power-brokering, and unless Alhurra gets immersed in some major scandal, it is likely to continue operation, though I hope with some much-needed reforms. The University of Missouri report, prominently highlighted in a BBG press release, said that "Despite recent criticism in the American media and politically biased criticism in the Middle East, Alhurra Television does most things right most of the time. This is born out by critical review of Alhurra news stories and newscasts."

Finally, a shout out to Dafna Linzer of ProPublica in New York City, for keeping the BBG on its toes. Read Dafna's Alhurra reports and support ProPublica's investigative journalism projects.