Issues in the Middle East concerning American foreign policy have received prominence in the news in the last decade. Starting with the events of September 11, 2001, until today, 10 years later, the U.S. government has been working to win the “hearts and minds” of Middle Eastern publics in an attempt to better understand their cultures while projecting American values of freedom and democracy. One of the many tools used to promote these values has been international broadcasting.
In her book, The Early Days of Al Hurra: International Broadcasting in a Changing Middle East, Radwa Mobarak provides an in-depth analysis of the very beginnings of Al Hurra, America’s first television station to broadcast to Arab publics in the Middle East. Mobarak begins the book with a condensed history of broadcasting projects by mainly Western states in the Middle East. She then transitions into a case study focused on the first month of broadcasts by Al Hurra. She concludes that to make these endeavors successful in creating positive relationships, continued evaluation is necessary.
Starting with a history of international broadcasting in the Middle East, Mobarak gives the reader a solid background on how the U.S. and other governments began their broadcasts and how they determined what stories were worth telling. Mobarak details the reasoning of several European governments in initiating broadcasts to the Middle East before and during World War II. She states that broadcasts were a popular means of creating ties with the region for economic purposes and/or gaining support for their position in the war. Once the war was over, the world transitioned into a stand-off between the newly created superpowers – the U.S. and the USSR – during the Cold War. With the Middle East in a strategic military and economic position for the U.S. largely due to its vast quantity of petroleum, it was crucial to keep a competitive edge through public diplomacy. Though interest and investment in public diplomacy waned at the end of the Cold War, September 11th reminded officials of the need to restart efforts.
After presenting a condensed history of international broadcasting, Mobarak expands upon the substance of the book by introducing the reader to her case study focusing on the first month of broadcasts by Al Hurra. Mobarak positions her analysis of Al Hurra through the lens of “agenda setting” – the effects of repeating certain news stories and pieces to direct attention and form opinions based on repeated facts rather than the whole picture. In doing so, she was able to clearly analyze the intentions of broadcasts on the channel and evaluate audience perceptions.
Considering that the station was analyzed in its first month of inception, February to March 2004, Mobarak speculates that it might be biased toward U.S. policy. She instead finds that, though a majority of the content was focused on Iraq, it was surprisingly unbiased. Unfortunately, none of this mattered to the viewing public. Her research shows that the programs were rarely opinionated, but the general public perceived information from the channel as suspicious and as “American propaganda.” Nearly 70 percent of experts and 65 percent of the general public disagreed that Al Hurra would create positive images of America. Experts that Mobarak interviewed also denounced the channel as being a blatant scheme by the American government to force-feed American viewpoints, but they still watched to gain a “fresh perspective” and for “breaking news” due to the regularity with which headlines were aired every few hours. One of the most interesting points that Mobarak finds is that those who knew Al Hurra was funded by the U.S. government viewed it as a mouthpiece for American policy, whereas those who did not know, found the channel to be objective and balanced. The general public also found the programming to be more extensive and thorough than experts that viewed the channel.
Al Hurra clearly has far more critics than supporters in the Arab world due to the station launching directly as a result of 9/11 in the midst of the Iraq War, and receiving funding from the U.S. government. Yet, Mobarak indicates that this is only more reason for the U.S. to make concerted efforts to continue this project. America needs a space to not only explain itself but to also gain trust within the region and listen to local opinions. The statistics from 2004 may not seem promising, but possibilities to increase the credibility of Al Hurra clearly exist as indicated by figures showing that publics that do not know the station’s source of funding speak well of it.
It is critical to continue evaluating programs on Al Hurra to make sure that they can eventually be tailored to become more recognized in the region for their objectivity rather than for whether or not they are pro-Israel or pushing an American agenda. It would be interesting to learn whether, after seven years, the public views Al Hurra with more or less trust, or how the channel is perceived as an agenda-setter by experts in the region, especially after American intervention in the recent revolutions and announcements of pulling out of Afghanistan. It seems productive that scholars, such as Mobarak, continue evaluating American public diplomacy efforts like Al Hurra to make future projects more credible, to mend the old ones and to build stronger bridges between communities.