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Vying for Eyes, Ears of Iraq

Amid Arab skepticism, the U.S. sponsors efforts to beam news with an American perspective into and around the country.

May 10, 2003|Josh Getlin and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As the 5 p.m. deadline approached in a small, crowded newsroom, reporters and editors raced to finish stories for their nightly broadcast. Perched on a wall above them, a battery of television screens flashed dramatically different images of the U.S. military role in postwar Iraq.

On one monitor, the Hezbollah-funded Al Manar TV channel beamed grisly pictures of bombing damage in Baghdad. On a similar note, a second screen, tuned to the satellite channel Al Jazeera, showed Americans grappling with angry Iraqis.

But a third TV set, airing a new U.S.-funded broadcast aimed at Iraq, showed American military personnel trying to stop widespread looting and working to restore badly needed electrical power.

News director Mouafac Harb, who was selecting images for the U.S. broadcast, rattled off instructions to deputies as he hunched over a laptop and tapped out the story lineup for a recent edition of "Iraq and the World." Sinking into a chair at an editing bay, he voiced cautious optimism about the fledgling six-hour program that blends local Iraqi news and round table discussions with American network news shows translated into Arabic.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraq media -- In an article in Section A on Saturday, Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, was described as guiding Layalina Productions in its efforts to develop Hollywood entertainment for the Arab market. Although Telhami has been very active in providing advice for projects on public diplomacy generally, including to Layalina, he was not formally involved in Layalina's decision making.

"This is how we can reach Iraqis through television -- by giving them straight information, telling them both sides of a story, and trying to show them that Americans have good motives," Harb said. "I know we can succeed. But it will take time."

"Iraq and the World," which took to the air in the last days of the war, is one of several U.S.-sponsored efforts to beam news with an American perspective -- along with shows such as "60 Minutes," Hollywood movies and children's programming -- into a region highly skeptical of U.S. policies. Backers concede that the campaign to gain a media foothold in Iraq and other nations could face formidable, perhaps even insurmountable, obstacles. But it is a battle the U.S. must take seriously, they say.

"Right now, bringing television news into Arabic countries is the whole ballgame for us," said Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. government-funded agency that oversees the Voice of America and is coordinating the Iraqi project.

Noting the estimated 51 million homes in the Middle East that have either cable or satellite TV -- nearly 33% of all households with television reception in the region -- he added, "The spread of this technology is not just a significant cultural transformation in the area; it represents an enormous political challenge for us."

Only days before Saddam Hussein's regime fell April 9, the White House called the broadcasting board to ask how quickly a short-term American TV presence in Iraq could be launched. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget scrambled to find the funds -- about $165,000 a week -- and board member Norm Pattiz, creator of the Los Angeles-based Westwood One radio network, asked the heads of U.S. network news divisions to provide free programming.

Sponsors say ground transmitters will soon be constructed, but until then the broadcast is being beamed down from Commander Solo, a fleet of C-130 cargo planes filled with electronic gear that flies over Iraq. An estimated 10% of the nation's 24 million people have television sets. Although satellite dishes were banned by Hussein, sales have been growing since the regime fell. The result will be new TV viewing opportunities for Iraqis -- and stiff competition for the U.S.-backed media venture.

On a typical night, "Iraq and the World" features news about the country, cobbled together from a handful of regional correspondents, and a blend of worldwide TV news footage from the Middle East. Two Arabic-speaking anchors intersperse these regional stories with replays of U.S. evening news broadcasts.

As the postwar struggle to rebuild Iraq unfolds, Washington is exploring even more ambitious ways to crack the vast regional market. Tomlinson's agency, for example, is planning to start the Middle Eastern Television Network, a U.S. government-funded venture that would compete directly with Al Jazeera, which has an estimated 35 million adult viewers in the region. Backers expect METN to be on the air by fall if Congress approves a $30-million appropriation. Plans call for the network to eventually broadcast live from studios in Washington and the Middle East.

Others say a focus on culture and entertainment is the way to win Arab loyalties. A group of foreign-policy heavyweights -- many of whom worked in the administrations of President Reagan and the first President Bush -- is raising funds for a nonprofit company that will commission and offer to networks such as Al Jazeera a block of original, Arabic-language TV programming produced in Hollywood. The idea is to acquaint Arab viewers with America, build bridges and strengthen cultural ties.

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