“60 Minutes” and ProPublica Investigation Finds the Government’s $100 Million a Year Broadcasts to the Arab World are Woefully Mismanaged and Poorly Supervised Despite Complaints From Congress

In Their First Joint Investigation, They Uncover Internal Documents from Diplomats Complaining about the Poor Quality of Al Hurra’s Broadcast and Its Lack of Transparency and Professionalism.

CBS News' Scott Pelley interviews Larry Register, former news director of Al Hurra. <i>Credit: CBS News</i>

American taxpayers are paying for a Middle Eastern television network that broadcast an anti-Israeli diatribe as recently as last month, a joint investigation by 60 Minutes and ProPublica reveals. This, despite the fact that Al Hurra management promised Congress nearly two years ago that they would take measures to prevent such mistakes, which had occurred repeatedly before. The joint investigation will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, June 22 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network and be detailed on ProPublica’s web site at propublica.org simultaneously .

Al Hurra is headquartered in Springfield, Va., and was created four years ago by the Bush Administration to counter what was seen as an anti-American bias at Arab satellite news channels like the Qatar-based Al Jazeera. Nearly half a billion dollars has been spent since its inception and its top executive, Brian Conniff, assures Scott Pelley things have improved editorially. “We now have a fully functioning assignment desk that views all packages and scripts…I have an independent monitoring system…”

But 60 Minutes and ProPublica monitored the broadcast last month and found a Palestinian guest named Hani El-Masri on its flagship show “Free Hour,” calling Israel a “racist” state that is conducting its own “holocaust” against Palestinians. His exact quote, unchallenged by the host or balanced by another panel member, was “[Israel] is the occupying and racist state that imposes the stifling and deadly blockade and perpetrates a holocaust against 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.”

Conniff, who speaks no Arabic, says he was unaware of this and after looking into the matter, said, “Any implication that Al Hurra is anti-Israeli is absolutely wrong.” Pressed by Pelley that critics say this latest example is part of a pattern, Conniff replies, “No. There’s absolutely no pattern.” He points out that the previous examples were last discovered a year and a half ago. At that time, members of Congress threatened to hold up funding because Al Hurra broadcast a live hour-long speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah – a group considered by the U.S. to be a terrorist organization. A few weeks later, an Al Hurra reporter named Ahmed Amin delivered a biased report from the Holocaust Denier’s Conference in Tehran. He said that while some participants were sure that millions of Jews died in Germany, “the group did not reinforce their statements with scientific evidence, but instead they were content to tell stories passed on to them by their ancestors.”

Soon afterward, irate members of Congress were assured that Ahmed Amin would be fired. ProPublica and 60 Minutes have learned that, 18 months later he was still on the U.S. government payroll. He was only fired after 60 Minutes and ProPublica began inquiring.

The news director of Al Hurra who made the decisions to cover both the conference and Hezbollah speech was forced to resign. In his first interview since this controversy, Larry Register defends his decisions, telling Pelley he was trying to make Al Hurra more credible and relevant to people in the Middle East, where, according to an public opinion pollster, it gets just two percent of the audience.

“I think you [increase your audience] by becoming more credible, covering more news more aggressively. Not just picking and choosing what you might want to cover because it’s favorable for your side versus their side,” he tells Pelley. Register points out that Al Hurra means “the Free One” in Arabic. He says the Nasrallah speech was big news and he points out every other Arab channel carried it live. “I considered it newsworthy,” he says.

But the chairman, up until last week, of the U.S. government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Al Hurra, considered it “a violation of our guidelines.” Jim Glassman tells Pelley, “We are not allowed to provide a platform for terrorists….We are required to provide balance and objectivity.” Glassman explains: “Our idea with Al Hurra was to create a network to provide high quality, professional journalism with American standards. I think we’ve done that.”

But there are many critics of Al Hurra, including U.S. diplomats, who complain in internal documents, about the poor quality and lack of professionalism of the Al Hurra broadcast. And former news director, Larry Register, says governments and journalism don’t mix. “You can’t make independent decisions if you have a government over you telling you what you can and can’t do. It’s a no win situation as I painfully found out,” Register tells Pelley.

ProPublica is an new independent, non-profit investigative journalism newsroom. It is led by Paul Steiger, former magaing editor of the Wall Street Journal.

This is the first joint investigation in a continuing partnership between ProPublica and 60 Minutes.