Mideast TV in cross fire

Provocative panel covers foreign b'casting challenges

LAS VEGAS — Can a U.S. government-backed broadcast service change the hearts and minds of the increasingly anti-American Arab street? Not easily or quickly — and probably not without some change in American policy toward the Mideast.

That was the gist of a provocative panel Tuesday morning at NATPE featuring the man appointed by the government to lead the charge in the Mideast, Norm Pattiz, and a longtime media analyst and consultant from the region, Hisham Melhem. They were probed and cross-examined by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart and producer Peter Guber, who co-host “Sunday Morning Shoot Out” on cabler AMC.

Like the opening panel Sunday hosted by CNBC commentator Chris Matthews, which focused on domestic politics and TV coverage, this chat session was designed to inform NATPE-goers about a key foreign political and broadcasting challenge.

If Pattiz conveyed clear-eyed conviction that the challenge in the Mideast could be met, Melhem kept reminding the audience of stubborn obstacles that will be tough to overcome.

As chairman of the Mideast initiative on behalf of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Pattiz is responsible for launching a round-the-clock Arab-lingo satcaster called Al Hurra (The Free One) in a couple of weeks in the Mideast. Idea is that the TV service will “report news of the region to the region,” offering perspectives and viewpoints not available from Arab sources. Some $60 million has already been earmarked for the undertaking.

“We can’t change American policy, but we can talk about democracy,” said Pattiz, who is also chairman of Westwood One. Originally appointed by President Clinton and re-upped by President Bush, Pattiz told Daily Variety that the service would consist mostly of newscasts produced internally, of roundtables and cross fires featuring American and local Arab commentators and of programming from compatible source such as PBS, A&E and Discovery.

Bart and Guber both expressed some skepticism that a government-backed service would be easily embraced by local Arabs, whose own governments, they pointed out, are not even particularly liked.

Pattiz insisted that Al Hurra would try to be even-handed — and not be soft on American policies or officials.

“We’re going to put on stuff that will give U.S. officials heartburn,” he told the 200-odd attendees. “To gain credibility we have to be credible.”

He pointed to the U.S. government’s radio initiative in the region called Radio Saiwa, which he claimed was attracting sizable, younger listeners and that their views of the U.S. had become more positive than those of non-listeners.

Melhem, a Lebanese with long experience in both the Mideast and the U.S., took up some of Bart and Guber’s points, harping on factors that will make Al Hurra’s row tough to hoe.

While Arabs had a favorable view of America up until about 1950, that attitude shifted after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and worsened as American support for oppressive Arab regimes in the region strengthened.

“In many places anti-Americanism is almost a religion,” Melhem said. “It’s venomous.” He also pointed out that it’s not just the so-called Arab street that is ignorant of America, but a whole strata of Arab intelligentsia which purports to know how the West works and what goes on in America, but is really either ill-informed or ill-intentioned. It’s those people who dominate broadcasters like Al-Jazeera, and which have disseminated the claim, for example, that 4,000 Jews stayed home from work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Melhem criticized the Al Hurra project for relying on too narrow a swath of managers and staffers, mostly Lebanese Christians, he said. Pattiz countered that assertion, saying that the service would be local and would try to represent all relevant viewpoints, not just American ones.

Bart wondered why Al Hurra doesn’t take a more “softball approach” at first, emphasizing U.S. pop culture rather than pounding away at news. Pattiz responded that a diet of just movies and entertainment is already available in the region from other sources, and that it simply wouldn’t be fulfilling the mission of the initiative if news weren’t dominant.

Despite the hard questioning of the moderators and the cautious pessimism of Melhem, Pattiz insisted that the initiative simply had to be undertaken. The American government, he lamented, had done a poor job over the years with public diplomacy — its whole budget at the moment being just $500 million.

“That may seem like a lot but it’s just a quarter of the cost of one B-1 bomber.

“It would be absolutely ludicrous not to engage,” he added. “To sit on the sidelines would be a crime.”

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