The U.S. Arabic-language satellite network Al Hurra has had an uphill struggle for viewership. Lately, it’s been trying to diversify its range of perspectives. But when it featured “terrorists,” congressional funders cried foul. Political scientist Marc Lynch discusses the latest salvo in the war for hearts & minds.
The Day You Come
BOB GARFIELD: It isn’t easy to be Al Hurra, the U.S.-produced Arabic language satellite channel. For one thing, there’s lots of competition, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya being right at the top of the list. Then there’s the sponsor problem. Why would anyone tune into something that’s explicitly U.S. propaganda, which gets to the biggest problem. Nobody to speak of is tuning in.
So in recent months, under new editorial management, Al Hurra has tried to be a more relevant source of information for the Arab- speaking audience. And the result? The Congress, which picks up the 60-million-dollar-a year tab, is not happy with the kind of journalism the station is airing.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science at George Washington University, and the blogger behind abuaardvark.com. He joins us once again. Marc, welcome back. MARC LYNCH: Thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: So new editorial management – a guy named Larry Register, formerly of CNN – how long’s he been there? What has he done differently? MARC LYNCH: They tried to maybe diversify some of the guest lists and tried to cover issues more relevant to Arab audiences, and to try to be more competitive. One of their really good ideas was to pretty dramatically increase the amount of coverage of American politics, for instance. That’s the one place where they have a real competitive advantage. They can actually get access to American politics in much more depth than, say, Al Jazeera can. BOB GARFIELD: But in the quest for relevance, they also committed a couple of blunders. A lot of people in Congress are very upset about these. Tell me about them. MARC LYNCH: One was coverage of the Holocaust Conference in Iran. Another was the airing of a speech by Hassan Nasrallah, who’s the leader of Hezbollah, and a couple of other incidents, and I think that these have then been used to cast aspersions upon the entire programming of the station, which I think is a bit unfair.
One of the biggest problems with Al Hurra has always been that there’s no real ability for anyone to effectively monitor what’s going on on the station. The feed doesn’t broadcast in the United States, you can’t access to it over the Internet, they don’t publish transcripts in English or in Arabic. And what this means is that nobody is really in a position to assess it, including the top executives there.
Register himself, of course, doesn’t speak Arabic, and so what this means is that when The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page decides to take an example like Nasrallah’s speech and use it to tarnish Al Hurra, it’s very difficult for anybody to know whether or not that’s really representative of what the station is doing. BOB GARFIELD: I must say that, you know, when I read these Wall Street Journal op-eds, I was kind of stunned by some of the language that the Al Hurra reporters were using at, for example, the Holocaust Denial Conference, which seemed, at least implicitly, to accept that there’s some sort of historical controversy here. You have to think that if Larry Register spoke Arabic that that language would not have been permitted on the air. MARC LYNCH: Yeah, the Holocaust Denial Conference coverage appears to have been a mistake, and as I understand it, some people have been fired over it.
The airing of Hassan Nasrallah’s speech, I think, is less of a mistake in that Nasrallah’s the head of a major political movement in Lebanon and every other television station in the region was covering that speech.
Right when Al Hurra was launched, there was a huge controversy over the fact that it failed to cover the assassination of a senior Hammas leader, and this was taken immediately as evidence that it was not a credible news organization, because people in the region, who are switching channels constantly – if they go from Al Jazeera showing Nasrallah to Al Arabiya showing Nasrallah to Al Hurra showing Inside the Actor’s Studio, it sends a pretty powerful message. BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to the transparency issue, the fact that nobody has access to transcripts in Arabic or in English, much less the broadcasts themselves.
Now, 60 million dollars is a pretty good chunk of change. Is it money that is keeping the Congress and the State Department and others from having access to what’s actually aired [LAUGHS] on the station they’re paying for? MARC LYNCH: The reason that’s usually given is that there’s actually a law, the Smith-Mundt Act, against the domestic dissemination of foreign propaganda. Since Al Hurra is technically foreign propaganda, it would be against the law to disseminate it in the United States.
What’s funny is that Radio Sawa, which is the Arabic-language radio station that we fund for the same purpose, Republic diplomacy, has a live web feed that you can listen to Radio Sawa online anytime you want. So there’s a bit of a double standard there.
I always had the impression, based on my own experiences, that there was more of a control issue, that Al Hurra’s management, especially under the former regime, was extremely concerned about protecting its own image in Washington. BOB GARFIELD: The law, I guess, is grounded in the idea that foreign propaganda could be, you know, dishonest, and that if it were to blow back to the States, then the U.S. government would actually be telling official lies to its own people. But is Smith-Mundt in a digital world now, you know, not kind of obsolete? MARC LYNCH: I think it’s pretty irrelevant in today’s day and age. I mean, just to give you an example, one of the very rare scoops that Al Hurra has gotten was, they were interviewing a member of the Iraqi parliament when the parliament building was bombed, so they happened to have live footage.
Almost immediately, there was a clip of that up on YouTube. The clip was picked up and rebroadcast by a whole range of other news organizations, and the fact that it was on Al Hurra didn’t even slow it down, in terms of being disseminated back into the United States. BOB GARFIELD: Marc, as always, thanks so much. MARC LYNCH: Well, thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Marc Lynch is packing his bags at Williams College for a new position at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He blogs at abuaardvark.com. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a photojournalist accepts the Pulitzer he was awarded 27 years ago, and the perils of living online. BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.