Editor’s note: As part of our year-end coverage, we’re checking in on the latest on each of our in-depth stories.
Alhurra means "The Free One" in Arabic, but since it first began broadcasting from Springfield, Va., to the Middle East, it has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $500 million. That's why ProPublica teamed up with CBS' "60 Minutes" this summer to take a deeper look at the U.S. government's satellite network. Set up in 2004, Alhurra was supposed to showcase a positive image of U.S. policies to the Arab world.
What did we find? Serious staff problems, financial mismanagement and long-standing concerns inside the U.S. government and Congress regarding Alhurra's content. Moreover, in five years of broadcasting despite a rapidly expanding budget, Alhurra has failed to win an audience. According to the University of Maryland's 2008 opinion poll (PDF) in the Middle East, Alhurra has no more than a 2 percent audience share.
Relying on insider accounts, State Department e-mail and government reports, we uncovered a string of broadcasting missteps. Contrary to the assurances network executives gave Congress, Alhurra's parent company did not fire a reporter who told viewers on air there was no proof that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis.
Alhurra also used taxpayer funds to pay former Bush and Clinton administration officials, lobbyists and high-profile Washington journalists to appear on the network as commentators.
Several reporters who took money from Alhurra later said they would stop the practice and their employers said staff would be expressly forbidden from accepting government funds.
While we were at work on the series, a number of Alhurra employees in the Baghdad bureau resigned, including the bureau chief who claimed serious financial irregularities inside the Iraqi operation. Senior Alhurra managers never visited or audited the bureau.
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. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has called for new oversight hearings on Alhurra. The office of Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) has said he too is interested in new hearings.
This month, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, under pressure from Congress, finally made public a 70-page report on Alhurra. Commissioned by the government and written by the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy, the report calls Alhurra a failure and concludes it suffers from weak journalism and poor programming.
The Bush Administration's public diplomacy efforts have long drawn criticism from Democrats. President-elect Obama is contemplating major changes. "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 said earlier this month.
Obama chose the dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, Ernest J. Wilson III, to lead the transition team for the BBG and other U.S. public diplomacy efforts inside the State Department.