Dec. 30: This post has been corrected.
Update: (6:19 PM EST) The BBG has just posted the USC report along with a statement about its findings. You can find it here. The BBG posted a second study by Kent S. Collins, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, who was awarded contracts totaling $26,600 to help train Alhurra reporters. In addition, Tish King, the spokeswoman for the BBG, said in an email that USC has now been paid for its study.
A study commissioned by the U.S. government concludes that America’s Arab-language broadcasts to the Middle East fail to meet basic journalistic standards and are seen by few.
The study by researchers for the University of Southern California was based on a review of a full month’s broadcasts by Alhurra, the 24-hour news network created by President Bush to boost America’s image abroad.
"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.
A copy of the 70-page report was obtained by ProPublica.
The Bush Administration’s public diplomacy efforts have long drawn criticism from Democrats. President-elect Obama is contemplating major changes in this 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 Tuesday.
Alhurra is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors which is in charge of all government broadcasting oversees, including the Voice of America. After several journalistic missteps, the BBG commissioned the USC study to assure Congress that Alhurra was adhering to a mission of journalistic objectivity. One television report that had particularly upset lawmakers was from an Iranian reporter who told viewers that there was no proof that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II.
BBG and Alhurra executives had told Congress the Iranian report was an aberration and that an independent study would review the network’s content. That study, by USC, was begun in September, 2007 and completed in July. But the BBG had refused to make it public.
On Oct. 21, the BBG rejected a ProPublica request, made through the Freedom of Information Act, to view the report. Last week, Martha Diaz-Ortiz, a lawyer in the general counsel’s office of the BBG, said the report may never be released to the public. Separately, the BBG also prevented USC from releasing the study, asserting that a contract signed between the two gave USC no legal authority to do so, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
USC and the BBG have been locked in a dispute over the report’s content, the methodology of the researchers and payment for the last several months. USC is still awaiting $182,000 from the BBG for the study.
In a surprising twist, the Dean of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, Ernest J. Wilson III, was named by Obama to lead the transition team for the BBG and other U.S. public diplomacy efforts inside the State Department. Wilson was briefed on the contents of the Alhurra report before departing for Washington last week, according to two people connected to the study, and brought several copies of the report with him to distribute to transition team members.
Four days after Wilson’s arrival in Washington, BBG Executive Director Jeffrey Trimble delivered copies of the report today to Congressional investigators with the House Foreign Affairs Committee who had sought the report for several months. Trimble has appeared three times before House committee staff this year to answer questions on Alhurra since a joint investigation of the network in June by ProPublica and CBS’ 60 Minutes.
The investigation and a series of ProPublica articles revealed serious staff problems, financial mismanagement and long-standing concerns inside the U.S. government and Congress regarding Alhurra's content.
Those stories led to Congressional inquiries in the House and Senate. The State Department’s Inspector-General has also begun an investigation into the financial dealings of Alhurra’s parent company; the government owned Middle East Broadcasting Network, known as MBN.
In a five-page executive summary, USC researchers said that Alhurra suffers from weak journalism, poor programming and perceived bias.
The researchers, who interviewed viewers in the Middle East, were equally tough on the overall quality of the television production, noting that it had hurt Alhurra’s chances at building an audience.
"Not only has Alhurra done little to distinguish itself from second-tier Middle East broadcasters in terms of its news agenda, but it has also failed to develop the distinctive style, format and breadth of coverage that might attract a substantial audience."
"In short," the study authors wrote, "Alhurra has failed to become competitive."
The BBG set tight parameters for the USC study, telling investigators to focus only on content aired on Alhurra’s pan-Arab station and not to compare it with broadcasts by competitors. Researchers were not allowed to interview Alhurra staff or to select the period of coverage to examine.
USC researchers reviewed content that aired during the month of November, 2007, a period that was dominated by the network’s coverage of a Middle East summit in Annapolis, Md. Researchers found that the coverage strongly favored U.S. and Israeli government positions. Throughout November, they concluded, the network also strongly supported the Iraqi government, which is currently dominated by Shiite politicians closely tied to Iran.
Such coverage, researchers concluded, has tainted Alhurra in the eyes of potential viewers as American propaganda. "Discussion group participants felt that Alhurra’s reporting, when stacked against its competitors in the region, represented false or tilted perspectives on events, especially with regard to coverage in Iraq and the Israeli-Arab conflict."
Alhurra was unveiled as a bold foreign policy innovation in 2004. In his State of the Union address, just three weeks before the network went on air, Bush announced that the United States was launching a television station for the Middle East and expanded radio broadcasts in Arabic and Farsi.
The broadcasts, Bush said, would "cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda," that his administration had come to blame for the United States’ loss of global support.
Unlike Al Jazeera, Bush said, this new, U.S.-funded network "will begin providing reliable news and information across the region."
Bush’s proposal amounted to what would become the largest and most expensive effort in America’s long history of public diplomacy
So far, U.S. taxpayers have spent $500 million on the endeavor and the costs are rising. At the same time, viewership polls, including one conducted last year by the University of Maryland, found that Alhurra is one of the least popular stations in the Middle East, with an audience share of just 2 percent. Al Jazeera commands 53 percent of the audience share.
But for Alhurra to fulfill its dual mission of providing objective journalism while promoting U.S. policies, it would need a "significant budget expansion," USC researchers concluded. The study also urged improved reporting, "and more professional management."
"It will also require grappling with political issues involving journalistic independence and the realities of establishing the credibility needed to gain and keep an Arab audience."
Read ProPublica's investigation into Alhurra
Correction, Dec. 11, 2008: This post included an update originally stating that the University of Missouri recently won a $500,000 contract to train Alhurra reporters. In fact, Alhurra's overall budget for journalism training in 2009 is $500,000. University of Missouri associate professor Kent S. Collins said he was paid a total of $26,600 to train Alhurra reporters. While the Broadcasting Board of Governors has referred to Collin’s report on Alhurra as a University of Missouri study, Collins said his work was done on a private basis and is not connected to the university or its journalism program.