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Why doesn't The Free One do what we tell it to do?

July 8, 2008 |  1:24 pm

The non-profit news startup ProPublica (in whose service we wish former colleagues well) updates its joint "60 Minutes" report on al-Hurra ("The Free One"), the Arabic television network funded by about half a billion taxpayer dollars.

Before getting to the details of ProPublica's case against the network, I want to note that my colleagues and I at another gem of the non-profit news business long ago made the case against al-Hurra as well as other Arabic journalism efforts by the U.S. government. Briefly, al-Hurra and its U.S.-citizen-funded ilk stood (and stand) accused of misreading the local market, failing to win audiences, being stapled to an obsolete Cold War model of propaganda, not pencilling out in even the most modest financials, delivering a product that people already get in better and more accessible forms and committing the mortal journalistic sin of being boring. (A spokesperson for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees several of these entities, replied with vigor. And more recently, when Karen Hughes departed her public diplomacy post, the L.A. Times editorial board, whose humor is more sanguine and less bilious, tried to find a silver lining in the story.)

To this list ProPublica's Dafna Linzer adds another charge: propaganda against U.S. national interests. I'm going to disagree, however, and say that this is the one area where al-Hurra is actually performing up to expectations.

Briefly: Al-Hurra gives air time to Shia extremists like the member of parliament Mishan Jabouri; tilts heavily toward Iran; urges Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents to kill Americans rather than one another; mismanages staff and finances while displeasing U.S. government officials; and according to an email sent to Hughes, the network maintains a bureau stocked "with radical Shiite Islamists who favored their political brethren and discriminated against and intimidated members of other parties (including the secular alliance headed by former PM Allawi), especially during the Iraqi electoral season of December 2004 to December 2005."

The thing that really struck me as a crime against humanity was this detail about producer Salem Mashkour:

Mashkour demoted employees who drink alcohol outside of work.

But let's dial it back to 2004: Then BBG chief Norman Pattiz ginned up support for what was expected to be, and was sold as, a response to al-Jazeera's dominance of Arabic television news. At more than $100 million per year (with costs rising rapidly) spent on broadcasting the Arab world, the BBG is still at it, and it's getting something for that money: Shiite propaganda.

Pardon me for asking, but isn't that what you want if you're looking to counter the influence of al-Jazeera's Sunnite propaganda? (For argument's sake, I'm counting al-Jazeera as propaganda, although it's really just heavily slanted journalism.)

I mean, we've asserted ourselves into the Shia-Sunni struggle for dominance of the Levant, and we've done so by knocking off the frontline champion of Sunnism. Should we then be surprised that the Shiites have found it easy to use our resources for their own purposes?

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