America's Arabic TV Gamble

Al Hurra, the United States-funded Arabic TV network, has come under fire for airing controversial material that some consider anti-Semitic. Initially envisioned as a counterweight in the Middle East to the popular-yet-polarizing Al Jazeera network, Al Hurra's programming choices have led one naysayer to write "Our taxpayer-financed Arabic network was set up to counter Al-Jazeera, not echo it." The board that oversees the network's programming has formed a panel of academics and Middle Eastern journalists to investigate the concerns.

What prompted all this? According to the AP:

A broadcast in December included a lengthy speech by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. The network later said the speech had not been screened for anti-Israeli content before it was broadcast because no supervisor spoke Arabic.

In another broadcast, Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister and a leader of the hard-line Hamas faction, appeared to support the assertion that the Holocaust was a myth. Also, the network's coverage of a Holocaust deniers' conference in Iran has been criticized as insufficiently skeptical.

"Insufficiently skeptical" is a tough characterization to pin down, and one that rational people can disagree on. Airing a speech by the leader of Hezbollah, however -- without paying attention to what he is saying -- is irresponsible oversight. How can a media outlet that is trying to promote free and responsible debate – and yes, less objectionable content than that offered by Al Jazeera — not have someone (who speaks the language) paying closer attention?

It's important to note, by the way, that the network has wavered between overly America-friendly and overly America-hostile over the years. Last year, for instance, it overlooked elections in Bahrain and focused instead on President Bush's Thanksgiving address to the American troops.

The crux of the Al Hurra issue is that an Arabic TV network -- heck, any TV network -- isn't going to win much of an audience if its content does not reflect the sensibilities and culture of its target audience. (If a heart and mind gets won in a forest with no one around … ?) There might be content on the channel that would be uninteresting – or even slightly discomfiting – to an American viewer, but that's alright so long as the network is able to find an appropriate balance.

Al Hurra needs to be rethought. It doesn't necessarily always have to be friendly to America; it merely needs to avoid being hostile. It needs to have a consistent and attractive identity to draw in and retain viewers. Here's what I would do if I were running the panel:

  • Most importantly, require that all supervisors of on-air content speak Arabic.
  • Weigh the complaints for accuracy and merit.
  • Identify Al Hurra's role. Al Jazeera does not operate in a vacuum; it runs neck and neck with its rival, the considerably more centrist, Al Arabiya in most Middle Eastern countries. Is Al Hurra necessary?

    Al Hurra should take these recent complaints – and the accompanying PR hit – seriously. The network should make adjustments and refine its operations before it becomes, as one critic called it, "a failed attempt at public democracy."