- DevelopmentOther Issues
- December 29, 2009
- 5 minutes read
A $100m Bad Idea Then, a $650m Bad Idea Now
With the US government’s popularity ratings at all-time lows across the region, it should have been clear that a government propaganda arm would have trouble being respected as a legitimate news source. Al Hurra remains a ‘bad idea’ that failed, but it will be around for at least another year, notes James J Zogby.
The US government-funded TV network Al Hurra was intended to be an important component of American efforts to win hearts and minds in the Arab world. It was a bad idea when it was launched in 2004. It has failed, and yet it won’t die.
This month the US Congress approved another $112 million to fund al Hurra in 2010, making the “bad idea’s” cost to date for American taxpayers more than $650 million.
A year before the network was launched, its founder came to see me to convince me of the value of his idea. I listened, but was not convinced.
While it was clear that the gentleman knew US media, it was equally clear that he did not know the Arab scene. The Arab world was not behind an “Iron Curtain” that denied people access to information from the outside world. While one could always point to the shortcomings of the hundreds of competing land-based and satellite networks and the subscription packages available to Arab viewers, what could not be denied was the wide diversity of programming they provided and their openness to a wide range of American news, sports and entertainment.
I had worked with three different Arab networks (MBC, ART, and now Abu Dhabi). All of them bought rights to programmes produced by US networks, and all frequently sought partnerships with US networks. Given this diversity and openness, setting up a competing US government effort was, I believed, an unnecessary expense to the American taxpayer.
I had two other concerns. The first was that there was no US version of the BBC, a respected international brand with a seasoned staff of professionals. The BBC would have an easier time launching an Arabic channel and having it accepted as a serious news operation: that is what it is known for and what it does well. The US, on the other hand, has no such organisation and would therefore be creating one “out of whole cloth”. And it would no doubt be seen as a propaganda effort – since that, quite simply, was what it was intended to be.
And then there was the problem of the brand. With the US government’s popularity ratings at all-time lows across the region, it should have been clear that a government propaganda arm would have trouble being respected as a legitimate news source. At the same time, with polling showing that “American television” and “the American people” were being viewed very favourably across the Arab world (as much as five times higher than “the US government”), it made no sense to establish a government-run network to compete with some of America’s own best products.
At one point I was called by staffers from the Senate committee that was holding hearings on launching and funding this “bad idea”. I said I would be delighted to give my views. A few days later I was contacted again to provide a preview of my take on this venture. I stated my case (the same arguments I have presented here) and suggested that instead of wasting $100 million a year, it might be better to create a fund to encourage public/private co-production arrangements between Arab and US networks and other opportunities for Arab network journalists to work with American counterparts; this would cost less and be of greater benefit. But the committee had already made up its mind to go forward with Al Hurra, and I was not asked to give evidence.
Six years later, the “bad idea” has been a failure and is widely recognised as such. And yet, because of the inertia that is so characteristic of government, it continues to be funded, with ever increasing appropriations each year and a staff that has grown from an initial 167 to more than 650.
While Al Hurra advocates claim that its viewership is as high as 9 per cent, polling shows it more likely to be a 2 per cent across the region. Its reputation has not improved, largely because the quality of its programming is not on a par with either US or Arab networks and Al Hurra has made poor personnel decisions: the head its of news operations is the former leader of a partisan right-wing Lebanese group and one of its featured weekly shows is hosted by a leading official in a pro-Israel think tank.
Bottom line: al Hurra remains a “bad idea” that failed, but it will be around for at least another year.
Dr James J Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute in Washington.