America has been struggling with its image in the Middle East for decades but, after Iraq, Arab opinion plummeted. The Bush administration felt it had to act fast to explain America to the Arab world. So it began spending about $100 million a year on a U.S. government news channel in Arabic. It's called "Al Hurra," meaning "The Free One."
As correspondent Scott Pelley reports, Al Hurra's symbol is a herd of unbridled horses, and for American taxpayers it's been a wild ride.
60 Minutes has been looking into Al Hurra in a project with ProPublica, a new, non-profit news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. With so much at stake at Al Hurra, we were surprised to find what it's putting on the air. Some of it has supported terrorism and denied the Holocaust; insiders say Al Hurra has been undermined by loose financial and editorial controls, while its executives try to manage 24-hour news in a language most of them don't understand.
In 2004, as the president prepared to make his State of the Union Address, any Arabs who were watching were probably tuned in to popular Arabic news channels like Al Jazeera, which tend to devote airtime time to America's enemies. But on this night President Bush announced that the U.S. government was getting into the Arab news business.
Maybe it was an odd idea that news of the Middle East would be edited and broadcast from Springfield, Va. Al Hurra, the U.S. government news channel broadcast throughout the Middle East in Arabic, is headquartered there.
"We need an alternative voice in the Middle East. Whether Al Jazeera existed or not," says Jim Glassman, who until last week was the chairman of the government's Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice Of America, Radio Free Europe, and now Al Hurra television.
"Our idea with Al Hurra was to create a network to provide high quality, professional journalism with American standards. I think we've done that," Glassman says.
But people in the Middle East, including U.S. diplomats who speak Arabic, have been complaining about Al Hurra's "quality" and "professionalism."
The channel got off to a bad start in 2004. After Israel assassinated the founder of the militant group Hamas, Al Hurra stuck with a cooking show.
"They were doing a program on how to make salmon sandwiches for weddings. Well, how can you be credible if you don't cover one of the biggest stories of the day, in the Middle East?" asks Larry Register, a former CNN executive with 20 years of experience, who was brought in a-year-and-half ago to rescue the channel.
But Register says he found his staff of Arabs, imported from the region, divided along religious, ethnic and political lines. Asked what state the channel was in when he first walked in the Al Hurra newsroom, Register tells Pelley, "Dysfunctional, extremely dysfunctional."
"Words like militias were thrown around," he explains. "There was this militia that was in charge of this, and this militia in charge of that."
"It felt like you were living in the Middle East. It felt like somebody had picked up the Middle East and brought it to Springfield, Virginia, of all places," Register remembers.
When Register wanted to put on breaking news his first week, he says he found his staff was out to lunch, literally. "There was nobody there. The whole newsroom was empty," he remembers. "Everybody'd gone to lunch. So I'm asking, 'Well, what is this?' 'Well, they take three hour lunches in between programs.'"
Al Hurra's staff was mostly Lebanese Christian, which undermined its credibility in the broader, Islamic, Middle East.
Even worse, Register says he found Al Hurra was paying its vendors far more for services than well-run networks. "It infuriated me as a U.S. citizen to walk in there and seein' the money just flowin' out the door. A true waste of taxpayer money," he says.
Register cleaned house, firing people, renegotiating contracts, and trying to fulfill every news director's mandate. "Needed to get more viewers. Wanted higher viewer-ship across the pan-Arab world. We wanted to get a bigger audience," he explains.
How do you do that?
"I think you do that by becoming more credible. Covering more news aggressively," Register says.
Asked what being "more credible" means, Register tells Pelley, "Not just picking and choosing what you might want to cover because it's favorable for your side versus their side. Cover all of it. Tell the whole story. Part of the idea is Al Hurra is the free one. The name is 'The Free One.'"