HOW REVEALING THAT President Obama, in his first post-election interview, chose the powerhouse Arab world network al-Arabiya to deliver America's new message to Muslims. He did not enlist America's own Arab-language TV station, Alhurra, which was created precisely to compete with al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera, the other Gulf mega-station, by bringing a distinctly American voice to balance the cacophony of anti-Americanism emitting from hundreds of local TV and radio sources. The president's choice was not surprising. On Alhurra his message likely would have gone into a yawning vacuum, despite the president's popularity, so low is Alhurra's appeal. Obama's choice should alert the new administration that fixing Alhurra must be a high priority.
In 2003, Congress created Alhurra TV, which along with Radio Sawa forms the backbone of the U.S. government-funded Middle East Broadcast Network. These stations are intended to be America's premier instruments for advancing U.S. interests and ideas in the competitive media environment of the Arab world. AlHurra TV in particular is a large investment, by some estimates costing taxpayers approximately half a billion dollars since it went on the air in February 2004. It was an imaginative and audacious attempt to level the media playing field and to seek an American advantage in the Arab Middle East.
To date Alhurra has failed. Almost from the beginning the station has been submerged in controversy over the quality of its programs, the political leanings of staff, poor management, unprofessional journalism, low ratings, internal corruption, failure to promote America's values and positions effectively, and a blurry mission generally. A recent evaluation of Alhurra's programming conducted for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Alhurra's oversight body, by the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy piles on with a sobering critique of Alhurra's problems.
The USC study evaluates Alhurra as it might any other professional media organization. It concludes that Alhurra is failing to develop a distinctive niche, that it simply mirrors the local channels but does not distinguish itself from them. "Alhurra is not the 'go-to' channel on any particular topic," and it is no match for al-Jezeera and al-Arabiya. Alhurra has failed to connect with the "Arab street." Its journalists inject their personal view into news coverage, and they fail to present opposing views more than 60 percent of the time. News reporting often contains unsubstantiated information, usually non-critical reports of the United States and its policies. At the same it fails to criticize undemocratic Arab governments--retreating into "neutrality" when discussing political opposition groups. Islam is central to the inhabitants of the Arab world, yet Alhurra's coverage of Islamic issues is "sparse."
But Alhurra is not just another professional media outlet, intended to compete head-to-head with all the others while purveying essentially the same fare. By its very nature, it should be a niche station, offering a distinctly American take that underlines American culture, values and objectives. An ongoing project at Hudson Institute seeking to understand competitive dynamics in the Islamic world reveals clearly that Alhurra does not occupy this niche. Instead, Alhurra presents a bland package of news and programming with no added value to that offered in the Arab mainstream channels. The Arab viewer simply has no compelling reason to switch the dial to Alhurra, for example to find a forum for innovative hard-hitting opinions and discussions on history, culture, politics, economics, women, labor, religion, science, or the arts. Few listeners rate Alhurra high on professionalism. It is often described as short on qualified correspondents.