Logo

NO DEFENSE FOR IRAQ MEDIA EFFORT

Oct 6, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The Iraqi Media Network, which includes a national TV station set up by coalition forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein and that is funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Defense, has been drawing almost universally negative reviews. It has been called “disorganized” by a high-level American broadcasting executive involved in the region, “amateurish” by a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition that oversees it; and deemed to lack credibility among its target audience in a study done for the BBC.
Yet despite its shaky start, the military-backed venture, which also supports an Arabic-language radio station and newspaper, all based in Baghdad, is in line to get some $97 million in American financial support next year.
The extent of the media-related problem in the Middle East was put in focus last week when Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged to Congress that the United States has done a poor job communicating with the Iraqi people since taking over the country. He was testifying in advance of a new report by a bipartisan task force, appointed by Congress about four months ago, that states “Hostility toward America has reached shocking levels.”
The report singles out American media efforts in the region for criticism, including Radio Sawa, a pan-Arabic radio service that offers a mix of news, music and entertainment. The task force said Radio Sawa needs a clearer objective than merely attracting a large audience.
That is where Norman Pattiz draws the line. While he agrees that IMN is “not doing a great job,” and that the American image in the region is in crisis, he insists Radio Sawa is a model for what can be done. He cites a Sept. 25 study released by A.C. Nielsen, which said the station scored as a reliable source of news and was popular with all social classes, especially young Arabs.
media done wrong
Mr. Pattiz tries to be diplomatic but can’t hide his contempt for what the Defense Department has done in terms of media. He would know. Mr. Pattiz is chairman of Westwood One, the hugely successful radio syndicator he founded in 1976. In May 2000 he was appointed by then-President Clinton to the quasi-official United States Broadcasting Board of Governors, and was re-appointed in September 2002 by President Bush.
Since its creation in 1999, the board has had oversight of all nonmilitary U.S. broadcasting overseas, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Mr. Pattiz is chairman of the BBG’s Middle East Committee, which gave him a window on all the rapid changes in the region this past year.
The board’s latest project, and Mr. Pattiz’s candidate to help turn the American image around, is a new pan-Arabic TV network due to launch in December, tentatively called the Middle East Television Network. Funded with more than $60 million from the U.S., it will reach 22 countries with around-the-clock news, sports, music and cultural programming. “We are very sensitive to the cultures that we seek to reach, because if you are not, you will wind up getting the same response that the Defense Department is currently getting with [IMN],” Mr. Pattiz said.
“Our mission is a journalistic mission,” he added. “We do not do propaganda. … We want to be an example of a free press in the American tradition, because without credibility, we will deliver no audience. [IMN] does not have credibility. Their operation, which was set up to do all the right things, unfortunately has had lots of problems that have affected program quality and production values while creating the perceived notion that they speak [for the coalition].”
The Defense Department doesn’t directly run IMN. Nor does the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is supposed to have oversight but often is at odds with IMN. The stations and newspaper are actually run by SAIC, a multibillion-dollar Washington-area private consult with contracts in Iraq to do everything from building infrastructure to running businesses. Although the United States has one of the most sophisticated media industries anywhere, the U.S. government turned to a defense contractor to operate IMN. The results haven’t been pretty.
“The running of IMN by SAIC has not been judged a success,” the BBC reported earlier this year, adding that Iraqis they spoke to were aware of IMN but “were not impressed.”
difficult circumstances
Charles Heatley, a Brit who is the chief CPA spokesman, confirmed by phone from Baghdad there has been management turnover at IMN. He said that he is aware of criticism, but that most people don’t understand the difficulties.
“There has been a fair amount of infighting by some of the Iraqis hired initially to run the channel. It’s a young channel,” Mr. Heatley said. “They are finding their feet and finding their groove. I would never claim that it’s the most professional product or that the programming doesn’t face significant challenges sometimes in terms of quality and diversity.
“I think a lot of the criticism is fair, to a point,” he added, “but you’ve got to put it into context.” Broadcast facilities had been destroyed by bombs, he said, and existing TV staff were considered unsuitable because of past connections to the old regime.
Things aren’t static, Mr. Heatley added. More Iraqis, he insists, are turning to IMN for information. And a second channel is planned, which will be more of a general-interest service. The contract currently held by SAIC is being put up for bid in January, with SAIC allowed to be one of the bidders again.
Oddly, amid the mess in Iraq, sales of TV sets are booming, thanks to lower prices and an end to import restrictions. Sales of satellite dishes are also going through the roof, allowing the viewing of channels from all over the region, even from Iran.
“Satellite dishes were banned before in Iraq,” Mr. Heatley said. “Now even fairly poor people have been buying them, and IMN has to compete with channels like Al-Jazeera, Arabia Television, Abu Dhabi and others. Most are very professional, if not always offering an entirely balanced news product.”
The satellite also makes available American shows with much more open social attitudes than is typical in Islam. “That is one reason American culture on the Arab streets is distorted, because they get impressions from commercial satellite networks,” said Mr. Pattiz.
“Obviously, we are not going to be broadcasting `Baywatch,”’ Mr. Pattiz added. “We are going to broadcast programming we think is an accurate and reliable view not only of American policies, but of its people and culture. We want to let people know what a free and pluralistic society is all about. Until now media in the region was presented in an environment of hate and violence, with government censorship and journalistic self-censorship. [The Arabs] have gotten an inaccurate and distorted view of the U.S. We need to have a horse in this race.”
So far, the Americans and allies have spent millions in the Arab world on media and gotten nothing more than a symbolic black eye.