Al Hurra joins battle for news, hearts, and minds

Samar Haddad watches her reflection in a TV monitor as she remolds her black hair into a pert flip. Beside her, Talal al-Sada whispers into his mike to check the decibel level.

The two sit ready to deliver the evening news in a state-of-the-art studio just across the Potomac from Washington. But the banks of black-framed lights, cameras, and speakers don't belong to yet another American cable news channel. This is Al Hurra, a US-government-sponsored satellite channel that's now broadcasting to 22 countries in the Arab world.

Its purpose is to offer a more balanced, alternative view to what is currently presented in the region - news that has deepened distrust of US policies.

"We have a huge leap forward in people responding negatively about American foreign policy as a result of the things that are shown on TV and in the way they are reported and visually enhanced," says Andrew Hess, a Middle East expert at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass. "Now that Al Jazeera and other channels have come online, surveys indicate there is a massive dislike of American foreign policies, especially in these Middle East hot spots."

No one thinks most Arabs' visceral dislike of US foreign policy is purely a result of watching television. But it is, experts say, a combination of policies themselves, the somewhat sensationalist way they are presented, and the emphasis on the two thorniest problems in the Middle East - Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That's where Al Hurra - which means "the free one" - comes in. It is building on the success of its sister program, Radio Sawa. Set up two years ago to target Arab youth - the most disaffected and largest proportion of the population - Radio Sawa now attracts as many listeners as mainstream Arab stations.

"Al Hurra will have the look of a CNN, a FOX, or an MSNBC," says Norman Pattiz, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees this start-up. "It will also have the look of Arabic satellite TV stations. But in terms of production value, it will raise the bar."

This week, Al Hurra ramps up to 19 hours per day, and will go to 24/7 around March 1. It's the latest brainchild of the BBG, which was set up by the US Congress to deliver - depending on your view - balanced news coverage or the US party line. Unlike the Pentagon-sponsored broadcasts and the State Department's effort to win hearts and minds through an advertising campaign, Al Hurra was set up outside government to stay as independent as possible. Though federally funded with $62 million from Congress, eight of its nine board members come from outside government - four Democrats and four Republicans who oversee US broadcast activities, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. The secretary of State serves ex officio, with a vote.

Al Hurra's newsroom bustles with some 75 staffers, most of them handpicked by Pattiz and his news director, Mouafac Harb. Most are experienced anchors, writers, and producers from Middle Eastern television stations. Ms. Haddad, for example, is from Lebanon; Mr. Sada is from Qatar; and Mr. Harb, also from Lebanon, has worked in both print (the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper) and television (ABC News). Imad Mousa, a senior producer, is an American of Palestinian origin and came to Al Hurra from Al Jazeera.

These staffers say they want to bring a more moderate approach to covering world news for the Middle East. They say Arabs are deepy humiliated by the repression of Muslims in Iraq and the Palestinian terroritories, and the television emphasis on those issues only exacerbates the problem.

Harb and others say they cover all the news, including the negative and dismal. But they also want to offer a platform for moderate and alternative views, including more in-depth historical perspectives. Most of all, they say, they want to build a relationship with their audience and cultivate a mutual respect.

"When you tell the truth, it's a signal of great respect.... Friendly relationships should be based on respect," Harb says. "We're aiming to get their respect, then you can go on toward changing attitudes."

Besides the straightforward newscasts, they say, they are running "connectors." In these 15-, 20-, and 30-second spots, anchors explain how they came to Al Hurra - an attempt to build connections.

They have an array of programs ready - including top-of-the-hour news broadcasts and talk-show formats. Free Hour is patterned after Nightline and Larry King Live: Last week, for example, one program examined the US-Libyan relationship and what caused Col. Mohammar Qaddafi to dismantle his weapons program; another looked into whether Al Qaeda has spread into Iraq. Weekend talk shows run on Fridays (the Arab equivalent of American Sundays) and are patterned after NBC's Meet the Press and CBS's Face the Nation.

So far, reactions from Middle Eastern viewers - mainly journalists - are fair to critical. But even the negative publicity is helpful, Pattiz says. "It gets people looking at us for themselves."

Al Hurra won't shy away from any important news, he continues, and he believes viewers will recognize that. "There will be times when some governments [in the Middle East] get their noses out of joint with us," he says. " And there will be times when some members of Congress or members of the administration might get a bit of heartburn from what we do. But that's the price of credibility and a free press."

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