Findings in a new U.S. Senate report that questions the effectiveness and costs of continuing Alhurra are leading to renewed calls for congressional hearings on the government-run satellite channel and the broadcasting agency that oversees its work.
Alhurra, an Arab language station that broadcasts out of a studio in Springfield, Va., has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $700 million since it was set up by the former Bush administration in 2004 to promote American foreign policy in the region. It has been the target of a string of negative reports and assessments and was the subject of a joint investigation by ProPublica and CBS News’ "60 Minutes".
One of the central findings in the Senate report released last week describes Alhurra as little-watched and expensive, with an annual budget that surpasses the combined funding for all government broadcasting into Asia, Cuba and Iran.
"Given the crowded media environment of the Middle East, either greater resources must be devoted to marketing and promotion or additional programming changes must be enacted in pursuit of increasing (Alhurra’s) market share," the report says. "Should these efforts fail to improve the overall viewership levels, policy makers will have to decide if continuing Alhurra’s operation is worth the costs."
Still, the report cautions lawmakers about pumping additional funds into what has become the most expensive foreign broadcasting effort undertaken by the U.S. government. Noting that Alhurra’s annual budget of some $90 million is comparable to that of the enormously popular Al Jazeera network, the report’s author notes that "many critics of Alhurra say that continued funding will be wasted."
The report was released by Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime chairman of the powerful oversight body.
Aside from Alhurra, the report examines broadcasting efforts elsewhere and the overall management of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an institution which oversees Alhurra, the Voice of America, and sister broadcasts around the world. Of particular concern to Lugar is the lack of confirmed board members to run the BBG.
The board has not had a chairman since 2008, and half its members are serving in expired terms.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has placed a hold on nominees, including Walter Isaacson, the former CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine who was named in November as the board’s chairman. But senate staff said Coburn and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., are negotiating an end to Coburn’s holds and a hearing on all government broadcasting to the Middle East.
Authored by Senate investigator Paul Foldi, the report has been hailed by public diplomacy experts as the most comprehensive study of international broadcasting ever assembled.
Phillip Seib, the Director of the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, and the author of a 2008 government-sponsored study of Alhurra’s content, called the report "an honest appraisal," and "welcome relief after so many government efforts to paint a ridiculously optimistic picture of U.S. public diplomacy achievements."
"Alhurra, the U.S. government's Arabic-language television news channel, was created as if there were audiences eager to hear from America because they had no reliable home-grown news sources. That, however, is no longer true," Seib wrote in response to the report.
"With Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and many other broadcast news providers in the Middle East, people there no longer need to rely on outsiders' views of the region's events. Although hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on Alhurra, it does not have a significant audience and needs to be torn down and rebuilt."
Matt Armstrong, a public diplomacy expert and author of the influential mountain runner blog, called Lugar’s report objective, nonpartisan and "the best, if not the only, substantial review of its kind."
The report’s findings on Alhurra challenged claims by the network and the BBG that its ratings in the Middle East are competitive, noting that "with the exception of Iraq, Alhurra is little watched elsewhere in this vital region." It also highlighted the deeply disproportionate funding Alhurra has drawn from the government’s overall broadcasting budget.
"While Radio Free Asia is tasked with reaching a population of over 1 billion people, its marketing budget for fiscal year 2009 was less than $2,000," according to the report. Alhurra and its radio station, Sawa, received more than $1 million in 2009 and have been unable to capture more than a 2 percent audience share, according to studies by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, the polling and research firm.
Among other critical observations, the authors noted that, "President Obama’s decision to give his first interview on an Arabic station not to Alhurra, but to one of its rivals, Al Arabiya, was brutally symbolic."