Al Hurra Missteps Echo Other U.S.-Backed Media

Recent missteps by Al Hurra, the U.S.-sponsored Arabic-language television network, recalls the mixed history of other U.S. radio and television networks created for foreign audiences. Broadcasts by Radio Marti and others have also been controversial.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

An Arab language television network funded by the U.S. government is receiving a lot of U.S. media attention this week.

(Soundbite of Al Hurra news broadcast)

Unidentified Man: (Arab spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Arab spoken)

NORRIS: Al Hurra is based in Springfield, Virginia. Its programs carry names like "Equality," that's a show about the rights of women in the Middle East, and "Free Hour," a news talk program. They're supposed to bring American standards to news coverage for the Arab world and compete with the likes of Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya.

But Al Hurra has caused American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and its content as well as its audience numbers are hotly debated. Critics say Al Hurra is not having its intended effect. News analyst Daniel Schorr says this all sounds kind of familiar to him.

DANIEL SCHORR: More or less simultaneously, the Washington Post and CBS's "60 Minutes," in cooperation with the ProPublica investigative organization, blew the whistle on the latest American misadventure on the international airwaves.

For the past four years, Al Hurra - the free one in Arabic - has been beaming programs to the Middle East. You might wonder whose side the station was on when a guest condemned Israel as a racist state, featured a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, and gave live coverage to a conference of Holocaust deniers in Tehran.

American efforts to win hearts and minds by radio and television has had a mixed history. Probably, the most effective in the days of the Cold War was the Voice of America. VOA featured American jazz programs that wowed them in Novosibirsk. Radio Free Europe, sometimes operating with help from the CIA, had an impact that it came to regret. It encouraged Hungarians in 1956 to rise up against the communist government, and when they did, the Eisenhower administration didn't lift a finger to save them.

Then, there's Radio/TV Marti, the darling of the Cuban American community in Miami which beams a strident anti-Castro message into the communist-ruled island. When I visited Cuba in 2001, I could not find anyone who watched or listened. Since Castro's announced illness, the Bush administration has sunk an extra $10 million into beaming a signal from a plane to avoid jamming.

At Al Hurra, there had been shakeups and firings, but the station transmitted an anti-Israel diatribe as recently as last month. Meanwhile, the un-flashy Voice of America broadcasts American music and culture in 45 languages from Albanian to Vietnamese. But Al-Hurra is more than a purveyor of American culture to the Islamic world; it's trying to sell a propaganda line in competition with established Arab satellite networks. At that, it's way out of its league.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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