GAO bushwhacks Bush programs

Corrections were made to this article on Sept. 6, 2006.

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration’s broadcast policy in the Middle East came under fire Tuesday from the Government Accountability Office.

Audience estimates and program credibility of U.S. governmental broadcasts to Mideast countries are unreliable, the GAO said in its report.

Also, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, the office responsible for the broadcasts, “lacks a long-term, strategic plan,” the GAO said.

MEBN, which falls under the purview of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, comprises Radio Sawa and the Alhurra satellite television net, together aimed at 19 countries throughout the region. Report said that $78 million in taxpayer money annually funds MEBN.

Broadcasts are intended to counter anti-American perceptions with news, public affairs and cultural information about the U.S. that otherwise don’t reach the Middle East.

While noting that the BBG had developed means to estimate audience sizes and program credibility for MEBN broadcasts, report cited “weaknesses in survey methodology and documentation” and faulted BBG for not taking steps to improve the reliability of estimates.

An overarching strategic plan is vital, the report said, because “challenges include the fact that Alhurra television is currently competing in a market with over 140 other stations and also faces operational and programmatic competitive disparities, such as having fewer overseas bureaus than its primary competitors. In addition, Radio Sawa lacks FM radio coverage in certain markets.”

While BBG chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson accepted the GAO’s recommendations, he felt the report “overlooked” many of MEBN’s “tremendous accomplishments over its short history, as well as the soundness of its operations,” according to his written response.

A governmental investigation recently alleged that Tomlinson has misused his office (Daily Variety, Aug. 30). Tomlinson, ousted last year from his position as chairman of CPB amid allegations of political interference with pubcasting, has denied the charges, saying they are politically motivated.

“Surveys we do are not like getting overnights from Chicago,” BBG spokesman Larry Hart said. “GAO did not take into account the lack of census data in some countries as well as security problems and costs. In some cases, to get that data would put people’s lives in jeopardy. Overall, we are standing by AC Nielsen, our primary contractor for the Middle East.”

Nielsen’s most recent survey showed a collective, unduplicated aud for Radio Sawa and Alhurra of 35.7 million.

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