An Arab View of TV News

Based in LA, Arab American Television provides an alternative to Dan, Peter, and Tom

WHEN Nabil Baida wants news from the Persian Gulf war, he tunes into local Channel 18 (KSCI-TV) for a perspective not shown on major American networks: An Arab journalist in rubble-strewn Baghdad reporting 172 homes wiped out in a single raid north of the city; bodies of dead Iraqi children pulled from collapsed houses; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak addressing his Parliament; local Arab-Americans describing their interrogations by the FBI.

``Why haven't we been seeing these pictures on CNN, ABC, CBS?'' asks the Lebanese-American.

Such images are available weekly on Arab American Television in Los Angeles and daily, nationwide on the International Channel. Weekly AATV began 10 years ago in the home of founder, Wahid G. Boctor, an Egyptian-American 'emigr'e. Now generated by a full-time staff of five from four small offices in Hollywood, AATV has a yearly budget of $600,000 supplied by local advertising.

``American media only tell you whatever is happening as it relates to the American mind,'' says Mr. Boctor. ``If it [news] does not effect the country directly, or Americans as a whole, it doesn't exist.'' One glaring omission, especially in the early days of the war, he says, was the lack of reportage about devastation to Iraqi military and civilians.

``Even your own American media critics acknowledged that the focus was, `How many were killed in Israel, or Saudi Arabia?' - never mind Baghdad,'' he says.

A one-hour weekly show reaches 4 million homes locally (about 350,000 of Arab descent) and a daily, one-hour show reaches another 4 million homes nationwide - 700,000 by cable, 3.2 million by satellite. (There are about 2.5 million Arab-Americans in the US.)

Boctor's shoestring budget pays the subscription costs to syndicated, satellite news services which obtain footage from Arab state television agencies as well as private sources.

``All the other networks have access to this same footage, but the point is they don't use it,'' says Joseph Haiek, publisher of News Circle Magazine, a local Arab publication. He notes that CNN used parts of the Baghdad report days after AATV, but did not include the shots of children. ``Somebody made a decision that these details either were not important or that the audience could not stomach them,'' says Mr. Haiek.

Besides syndicated footage, Boctor scours Middle Eastern newspapers and magazines, monitors shortwave radio broadcasts, and calls Arab country-based academics, journalists, and embassies. News accounts are read aloud in Arabic, and his shows include interviews with experts - both in person and by phone - panel discussions, and call-in participation.

Only about 10 percent of the programming uses English, but Boctor has plans for English subtitling when his budget allows.

``Boctor focuses on whatever is not focused on in the America media,'' says Casey Kasem, a Hollywood producer and Lebanese-American active in the Arab community. ``For recent 'emigr'es, he provides a perspective from back home that helps Arabs balance the picture they get from here.''

The Persian Gulf war has underlined the need for such perspective. Boctor says he tries to construct a newscast that is more balanced than Arabs get even in their own countries.

``There is Iraqi TV ... or Egyptian TV, [but they] only talk the point of view of the Iraqi president or Egyptian president,'' he says. ``They are all government sponsored, 24-hours a day - and people are exposed to this brainwashing machinery day in, day out.'' Boctor sees his show not as advocacy but as a forum.

BOCTOR says, ``Americans should not be so naive as to think there is a neat us-them [American-Arab] dichotomy on these issues. The Arabs have as many points of view as there are Arabs.''

``He doesn't identify with any one group or cause,'' says John Zogby, founding board member of the Arab-America Institute. ``AATV does an excellent job of representing the broad spectrum of Arab thought and culture.''

Of particular concern to Arab audiences in recent days has been the treatment of Arab-Americans by their communities. In a recent show two Arab-Americans told about their questioning by the FBI. Boctor compared their experiences with those of two Japanese-American guests who were detained during World War II. He also gave advice that Arab-Americans are not obligated to answer questions without a lawyer present.

Though the advent of the International Channel brings the promise of more viewers, some say AATV will have to struggle to get more hours of programming per week.

``It will be hard to grow beyond its present scope,'' says Haiek, ``unless AATV can attract corporate sponsors with more money than Arab entrepreneurs.''

Perhaps because of AATV's small reach, many say its importance is all the greater.

``Today it is Arabs [in danger of persecution], 40 years ago it was Japanese,'' says Sami Wassef, a Palestinian-American activist. ``Who is it going to be tomorrow?''

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