Vying for Eyes, Ears of Iraq

Times Staff Writers

As the 5 p.m. deadline approached in a small, crowded newsroom, reporters and editors raced to finish stories for their nightly broadcast. Perched on a wall above them, a battery of television screens flashed dramatically different images of the U.S. military role in postwar Iraq.

On one monitor, the Hezbollah-funded Al Manar TV channel beamed grisly pictures of bombing damage in Baghdad. On a similar note, a second screen, tuned to the satellite channel Al Jazeera, showed Americans grappling with angry Iraqis.

But a third TV set, airing a new U.S.-funded broadcast aimed at Iraq, showed American military personnel trying to stop widespread looting and working to restore badly needed electrical power.


News director Mouafac Harb, who was selecting images for the U.S. broadcast, rattled off instructions to deputies as he hunched over a laptop and tapped out the story lineup for a recent edition of “Iraq and the World.” Sinking into a chair at an editing bay, he voiced cautious optimism about the fledgling six-hour program that blends local Iraqi news and round table discussions with American network news shows translated into Arabic.

“This is how we can reach Iraqis through television -- by giving them straight information, telling them both sides of a story, and trying to show them that Americans have good motives,” Harb said. “I know we can succeed. But it will take time.”

“Iraq and the World,” which took to the air in the last days of the war, is one of several U.S.-sponsored efforts to beam news with an American perspective -- along with shows such as “60 Minutes,” Hollywood movies and children’s programming -- into a region highly skeptical of U.S. policies. Backers concede that the campaign to gain a media foothold in Iraq and other nations could face formidable, perhaps even insurmountable, obstacles. But it is a battle the U.S. must take seriously, they say.

“Right now, bringing television news into Arabic countries is the whole ballgame for us,” said Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. government-funded agency that oversees the Voice of America and is coordinating the Iraqi project.

Noting the estimated 51 million homes in the Middle East that have either cable or satellite TV -- nearly 33% of all households with television reception in the region -- he added, “The spread of this technology is not just a significant cultural transformation in the area; it represents an enormous political challenge for us.”

Only days before Saddam Hussein’s regime fell April 9, the White House called the broadcasting board to ask how quickly a short-term American TV presence in Iraq could be launched. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget scrambled to find the funds -- about $165,000 a week -- and board member Norm Pattiz, creator of the Los Angeles-based Westwood One radio network, asked the heads of U.S. network news divisions to provide free programming.

Sponsors say ground transmitters will soon be constructed, but until then the broadcast is being beamed down from Commander Solo, a fleet of C-130 cargo planes filled with electronic gear that flies over Iraq. An estimated 10% of the nation’s 24 million people have television sets. Although satellite dishes were banned by Hussein, sales have been growing since the regime fell. The result will be new TV viewing opportunities for Iraqis -- and stiff competition for the U.S.-backed media venture.

On a typical night, “Iraq and the World” features news about the country, cobbled together from a handful of regional correspondents, and a blend of worldwide TV news footage from the Middle East. Two Arabic-speaking anchors intersperse these regional stories with replays of U.S. evening news broadcasts.

As the postwar struggle to rebuild Iraq unfolds, Washington is exploring even more ambitious ways to crack the vast regional market. Tomlinson’s agency, for example, is planning to start the Middle Eastern Television Network, a U.S. government-funded venture that would compete directly with Al Jazeera, which has an estimated 35 million adult viewers in the region. Backers expect METN to be on the air by fall if Congress approves a $30-million appropriation. Plans call for the network to eventually broadcast live from studios in Washington and the Middle East.

Others say a focus on culture and entertainment is the way to win Arab loyalties. A group of foreign-policy heavyweights -- many of whom worked in the administrations of President Reagan and the first President Bush -- is raising funds for a nonprofit company that will commission and offer to networks such as Al Jazeera a block of original, Arabic-language TV programming produced in Hollywood. The idea is to acquaint Arab viewers with America, build bridges and strengthen cultural ties.

Critics, however, say such attempts to sell U.S. values to Arab audiences are likely to fail, in part because of decades of mistrust over American policies. Until the United States helps spur changes that win widespread Arab support -- such as a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the new media efforts may be a waste of time, they say.

“Simply saying that you are going to create such news does not mean you will win an audience,” said Azar Nafisi, professor of culture and politics at Johns Hopkins University. “The people who watch Al Jazeera are very loyal, as they are with many other Arab broadcasts. You have to win them over and provide something different, very different, from what they see.”

Some observers see irony in the timing. Viewers in the Arab world have been turning away in droves from government-controlled news broadcasts to watch Al Jazeera, which is backed by the government of Qatar but widely perceived as editorially independent, according to Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A new U.S.-backed venture like METN could be greeted with equal skepticism, he suggested, because it is likely to be viewed as yet another governmental mouthpiece.

“There is the not insignificant possibility of it rebounding to our detriment,” Satloff said. “It is extraordinarily ill-conceived [and could be] an enormous drain on our public diplomacy effort.”

Plans to start “Iraq and the World” and METN had their roots in the broadcasting board’s successful launch of Radio Sawa, a 24-hour network that beams carefully selected Western and Arab pop music, along with news, into the Middle East.

The slick, upbeat station, based in Washington with correspondents in the Middle East, made its debut in the spring of 2002. It now reaches 40% of its target audience of 18-to-30-year-old listeners, according to the venture’s own market research, and “we’ve done it by blending both cultures,” said Bert Kleinman, a veteran of U.S. radio marketing and a force behind Radio Sawa (Arabic for “together”).

Radio Sawa mixes contemporary American hits from the likes of Shakira, Ryan Adams and Shania Twain with Arab pop music. The station also offers twice-hourly newscasts with a U.S. perspective, along with “Sawa Chat,” an on-the-street interview segment that poses questions such as: “Would you marry a woman who is more intelligent than you?” “Would you marry a man who is shorter than you?” And “What are your thoughts about the death penalty?”

Beefing up its American message, Radio Sawa also features question-and-answer segments that go to the core of Arab distrust and skepticism. One recent edition of “Ask the World Now” posed the question: “Does the average American hate Islam?”

“Not at all,” an announcer said. “Like any society, America has its share of intolerant individuals. But those who express religious intolerance meet with swift public disapproval.”

Backers hope a similar combination of entertainment and news with an American spin will draw Radio Sawa listeners -- and many others -- to the new U.S. television venture. But in the early days of “Iraq and the World,” the goal is more modest: Producers simply want to keep their embryonic project on the air and reach the relatively small number of people in Iraq who get TV reception.

“We’re crazy, we’re really crazy,” Harb said, racing through the “Iraq and the World” newsroom in downtown Washington. The 35-year-old journalist, who has worked with U.S. and Arabic news organizations, recruited staff from Radio Sawa and hired Arab journalists, including anchors Katia Wakeem and Nasser Hassaini, to launch the broadcast.

On a typical day, staffers create their own two-hour news package with the uncensored, commercial-free programming from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel and PBS.

“We’re basically trying to do a local news broadcast for Iraq,” Harb said, watching the three TV monitors for comparison purposes and pulling together the evening’s story lineup. “I’m always trying to imagine what an average Iraqi needs to know, what he cares about at a time like this, and to make our broadcast reflect this kind of reality.”

On a recent Monday night, Harb led with some of the same stories found on American networks, such as retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner’s work to rebuild Iraq, the search for Hussein’s henchmen, the eruption of religious fervor in Shiite strongholds and diplomatic friction between the U.S. and Syria.

But there were also important differences.

“We talk about where you can get fresh water in Iraq, we try to give people news about electricity coming back on,” Harb said. “If you’re an average Iraqi, these are the main things in your life. You want to know when the American troops are going to be leaving, and you want to be convinced, once and for all, that Saddam is really gone.”

Long after “Iraq and the World” shuts down -- when a new government develops its own programming -- METN, the projected Middle Eastern network, will be fighting for viewers in a hugely competitive market, Harb predicted.

Modeled after a commercial American TV news broadcast, METN is being designed with a handsome set, trendy anchors who speak Arabic, a nightly sampling of news, round tables and briefings -- and a healthy dose of movies and television dramas produced for an Arabic-speaking audience.

“This is nothing revolutionary,” said Pattiz, the founder of Westwood One and creative force behind Radio Sawa. “In my business, it’s basic blocking and tackling. We’re taking proven broadcasting techniques and applying them in a way that will successfully attract an audience.”

Pattiz’s Hollywood connections are also useful. He has reached out to movie and TV producers, asking them to sell programming -- captioned in Arabic -- to METN at what he has called “a patriotic rate, if not better.” Already, he noted, Steven Spielberg has offered a copy of “Schindler’s List.”

“We’re not in the propaganda game,” Pattiz said, suggesting he and his team simply want to showcase American democracy and values by demonstrating a free flow of information.

Critics, however, are dubious.

“Most Arabs don’t need another ‘reliable’ television market, because they have so many of them to choose from right now,” said Mohammed el-Nawawy, a communications professor and co-author of “Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East.”

“You don’t have to sell Arabs about American values and life in the United States, because there are long lines at embassies throughout the Middle East of Arabs who want visas to see America,” he said. “But you do have to convince them that you’re truly serious about a news dialogue.”

The bottom line, El-Nawawy suggested, is that TV news for the Middle East can’t simply be information with an American spin. “It’s a good thing the U.S. wants to enter this market,” he said, “but you can never underestimate Arab suspicions.”

A separate U.S. media venture, betting that culture and entertainment will be more persuasive than news broadcasts, is also entering the fray. The group, Layalina Productions, includes former secretaries of State George Shultz, Henry A. Kissinger, James A. Baker III and several Democrats, including Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, who was President Clinton’s national security advisor.

Guided by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, the group says it has reached out to Hollywood producers and writers to develop dramas that would be licensed to existing Arabic cable networks, as well as to produce Arabic-language versions of shows such as “60 Minutes,” “Crossfire” and children’s programming.

The effort has raised about $3 million, and officials say with an additional $7 million, they could be offering shows this year.

“People don’t want to see a sales job, they want to see the good and the bad, the complexity of America as it is,” Telhami said.

“If a station is providing good movies, they’ll watch them. Our mission has to be to educate people about American culture and history, not policy.”