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.
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.