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Does Obama Snub of Alhurra Signal a Shift?

Left: Alhurra anchors on air Dec. 23, 2008, before the conflict in Gaza. Right: Anchors wore black after the fighting broke out on Dec. 27, 2008.President Obama chose a Saudi-funded television network today for his first interview aimed at an Arab audience, passing over the U.S. government’s own heavily-funded Alhurra station.

Obama’s predecessor pumped more than $500 million into Alhurra, which has been plagued by serious staff problems, financial mismanagement and long-standing concerns inside the U.S. government and Congress regarding its content.

The president’s decision to go with Al Arabiya led several media watchers to wonder whether Alhurra would continue to receive the same kind of cash flow from the Obama administration as it enjoyed under former president Bush.

"I am curious whether the choice of Al Arabiya signals the administration's abandonment of the U.S.-funded Alhurra satellite channel," wrote Michael Rubin, in National Review Online.

Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, wrote on Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site that "Obama's choice to give his ground-breaking interview to the Saudi Al Arabiya and not to the American Alhurra is as clear a statement as it is possible to make of Alhurra's failure. It's time to face the facts and clean house to recoup some of that investment," he wrote.

The Bush Administration’s public diplomacy efforts have long drawn criticism from Democrats, and Obama signaled shortly after his election that he was contemplating major changes in that arena. "I think we’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular,’’ Obama told reporters in early December.

Alhurra, and its sister radio station, Radio Sawa, were meant to showcase U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and compete with Al Jazeera and other networks such as Al Arabiya, which interviewed Obama Tuesday.

But Alhurra has come under Congressional scrutiny and has been unable to win a desired audience share.

Last month, news anchors at Alhurra swapped out brightly-colored outfits for black suits as a demonstration of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza who were under Israeli fire during weeks of fighting there. Alhurra broadcasts to the Middle East, but its Web site carried streaming video of the anchors, wearing black suits on air at their news desk and during reports on the fighting.

Two people with direct knowledge of the incident said Alhurra managers had instructed anchors to halt the practice at the beginning of the new year and were conducting an informal review of the incident.

Deirdre Kline, a spokeswoman for Alhurra, did not return phone messages or e-mails seeking comment. She also did not respond to requests for comment regarding a nascent inquiry by the State Department’s inspector general’s office regarding several complaints of financial mismanagement at Radio Sawa. Two people involved in the inquiry said it began after concerns were raised that money was missing from the station’s Baghdad bureau.

Alhurra has cost U.S. taxpayers more than half a billion dollars in five years and has been the subject of an ongoing ProPublica investigation that began in partnership with CBS News’ 60 Minutes last June. It sparked several Congressional inquiries and a State Department investigation of Alhurra’s parent company, The Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

Since then, a study commissioned by the U.S. government concluded that Alhurra has failed to meet basic journalistic standards.

The study by researchers connected to the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California was based on a review of a full month’s broadcasts by Alhurra, the 24-hour news network.

"The quality of Alhurra’s journalism is substandard on several levels," the researchers wrote. Its broadcasts "lack appropriate balance and sourcing," and "relied on unsubstantiated information too often, allowed on-air expressions of personal judgments too frequently and failed to present opposing views in over 60 percent of its news stories."

"Our diagnosis is that Alhurra is not performing at the level that it needs to reach to be successful," the authors said.

After the study was completed, Obama chose the Dean of the Annenberg School, Ernest J. Wilson III, to review Alhurra and other U.S. government broadcasting efforts for the new administration.

Al-Jazeera, which the Bush administration publicly blamed for inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, remains the most popular news network in the Arab world. Al Arabiya is No. 2 for audience share. Viewership polls, including one conducted last year by the University of Maryland found that Alhurra’s pan-Arab broadcast is one of the least viewed in the Middle East, with an audience share of just 2 percent across the region.

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