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Making Alhurra watchable.

11:00 PM, Feb 5, 2009 • By S. ENDERS WIMBUSH
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Most striking, viewers complain that the U.S. view is not well presented on Alhurra and that it is relegated to statements and appearances of American officials. Alhurra tries to act as referee among competing positions. This is ironic, as there is no illusion anywhere in the Middle East that the U.S.-funded Alhurra is neutral. The net result of its efforts to be a neutral referee, against a backdrop of virulent anti-U.S. attacks on other media, is to promote the impression that the U.S. cannot defend its positions and must therefore concede that the anti-U.S. position is at best of equal weight. Such "neutrality" abounds in bad consequences. For example, Hudson's informal surveyors in the Middle East point out that Alhurra's neutrality has led it to be more charitable towards Iran and Hezbollah than any other television station. Even when Hezbollah forces sacked the Lebanese capital, Alhurra adhered to its neutrality, both in scope and in the selection of its guests.


It should surprise no one that grumblings on the Hill and elsewhere about Alhurra's apparent inability to find either its professional footing or mission are intensifying, and some influential policy makers are edging toward shutting the station down and writing it off as a costly error. President Obama's bypassing of Alhurra for its often anti-American competitor can only hasten this sentiment.


But scrapping Alhurra would be a mistake. The Hudson team found great resonance for the idea of an American TV presence throughout the Arab world, along with recommendations for making it powerful. Arabs with quiet sympathies for American values and culture described repeatedly how Alhurra could and should become a hard-hitting niche station, not in direct competition with al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera, but as an alternative that intelligently targets critical elites and opinion shapers. Such an Alhurra would quickly become a potent transformative instrument. Moreover the desire in the region for Alhurra to attach a distinctive American voice to provocative programming is real and pervasive.


The upside is this: Alhurra can be fixed, and it can be fixed quickly. None of the problems described in the evaluations of Alhurra as a professional station is insurmountable; getting its mission right is more fundamental and requires new thinking. The station's incremental approach of reacting to persistent problems masks the need for a fundamental reassessment of the station and its operations and is no longer acceptable.


New American leadership at Alhurra with deep connections into the Arab world would jump start a renewal and is a necessary first step. The next time President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton address the Arab world, a powerful Alhurra should be their obvious choice for broadcasting America's message.

S. Enders Wimbush is senior vice president for International Programs and Policy at Hudson Institute. He served as director of Radio Liberty from 1987-93.