TV Preview

In the Mideast War of Ideas, The View From The Arab Side

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

PBS's excellent and comprehensive "News War" series wraps up tonight with a report on the rise of pan-Arabic television. Unfortunately, the finale -- which raises intriguing questions but answers almost none of them -- is by far the weakest and least focused of the four-part series, which until now concentrated on the issues and travails of the American media.

Reporter-narrator Greg Barker hotfoots it from Washington to the Mideast and back to lay out the program's theme: that the U.S. government is engaged in a "War of Ideas" (the installment's title) with a host of Arabic TV channels. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that the Arab media see things quite differently than does the Bush administration and its official info-agents.

If we learn anything from Barker's report, it's that the Arab media are by no means monolithic. Al-Jazeera, the region's best-known and most popular satellite channel, looks at its restive corner of the world from a different perch than al-Manar, the house organ of Lebanon's Hezbollah. Which plays things a lot differently than the "moderate" Saudi Arabian channel, al-Arabiya, does.

But what exactly "moderate" or "radical" is in the Arabic media is a pretty slippery thing. Beyond a few perfunctory adjectives, "Frontline" doesn't sort out who's who and why. Mostly it tells rather than shows. Al-Jazeera -- they're the ones with the Osama bin Laden tapes, right? Or are they the Holocaust denial channel? Or both? Not so clear.

Barker gets more of a fix on al-Hurra ("The Free One"), the U.S. government's satellite TV megaphone in the Mideast. We don't see much of al-Hurra's programming, but we do grasp what it's trying to accomplish: to get the American side of the story out in a region that's mostly hostile to it. "Because Arabs are upset about the presence of foreign forces in an Arab country, there are no good images of an American soldier," Duncan MacInnis, a member of the State Department's "Rapid Response" information team, tells Barker. "An American soldier building a hospital in Iraq is still an American soldier in Iraq."

Barker also chats up al-Jazeera's director-general and scores an interview with a journalist at al-Manar. Everyone seems perfectly reasonable, mainly because "Frontline" shies away from showing some of the uglier things that pass for "news" in the Arab media (that ugliness explains why the United States spends tens of millions of dollars annually on al-Hurra in the first place). One small example shown in "War of Ideas" does hint at the larger info-scape of the Middle East: A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command is invited to speak on an Arab news channel in the wake of insurgent violence that kills 200 people in the Baghdad's Sadr City -- and is asked whether American forces "orchestrated" the violence.

In a misguided attempt at fairness, "Frontline" lets some intriguing statements go unchallenged and unfollowed. The director of al-Jazeera's English-language channel, for example, asserts that Western coverage of last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon "wasn't balanced." It wasn't?

Another "analyst" makes the astounding assertion that 60 percent of al-Jazeera's journalists are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni movement that advocates the establishment of fundamentalist caliphate stretching across the Mideast and beyond. How does he know such a thing? Or does he? We're simply told that others "dispute" this claim.

It's probably hard to make really snazzy TV out of something as abstract as a "war of ideas," and "Frontline" will win no awards for compelling imagery here. Indeed, many of its talking-head interviews seem rushed and impatient, as if Barker's subjects had better things to do.

"Frontline" is on to a juicy subject, but at barely 40 minutes -- less than half the time devoted to the preceding installment of "News War" -- this take feels incomplete.

Frontline: "News War: War of Ideas" (40 minutes) debuts tonight at 9 on Channels 22 and 26.

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