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U.S. Network Falters in Mideast Mission

Al-Hurra, an Arabic-language television network financed by the U.S. government, attracts a far smaller audience than its chief competitors, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. Video by washingtonpost.comEditor's Note: An earlier version of this video included incorrect footage.

Arab journalists and viewers say al-Hurra has a basic problem: It is boring. Investigative pieces are rare, and critics say the channel generally doesn't make waves.

Salameh Nematt, a Jordanian journalist based in Washington, said that al-Hurra, like many of its competitors, has ignored controversial issues such as financial corruption involving Arab leaders and the use of torture by security forces.

"Al-Hurra would have been the number one station in the Arab world had they done one-quarter of what they should have covered," Nematt said. "People say if it's an American station, nobody will watch it. That's crap. If it's an American station that does a good job, everybody will watch it."

A String of Missteps

Al-Hurra's founding father was Norman J. Pattiz, a Democrat on the Broadcasting Board of Governors who helped persuade Congress to fund the station. The chairman of Westwood One, a leading distributor of radio programming, Pattiz assembled the team to build al-Hurra.

He recruited Bert Kleinman, a former Westwood One official whose radio career included producing "American Top 40 With Casey Kasem" and "The History of Rock and Roll." He also hired Farrell Meisel, a television executive with experience in Asian and European broadcasting.

"We had a very short timetable, almost unheard-of," Meisel recalled. "And we had to compete in the most challenging television footprint in the world."

None of the team members spoke Arabic. For that, they relied on Mouafac Harb, a Lebanese journalist hired as al-Hurra's first news director.

According to former al-Hurra staffers, Harb filled the newsroom with Lebanese employees, many of whom had thin journalistic credentials. Anchors spoke in heavy Lebanese dialects, turning off viewers from other countries. On-air reporting errors were common.

"He hired his friends -- this was the problem -- and they didn't have any experience," said Magdi Khalil, a former producer who clashed with Harb. "I told him, 'We need to improve the quality.' He said, 'No, no -- we need to fill the air.' He had no idea what being a news station means."

In a telephone interview from Beirut, Harb said it wasn't easy to persuade leading Arab journalists to come to Washington to work for a station funded by the U.S. government. He denied that his anchors and news-show hosts spoke in dialects but acknowledged that the staff was top-heavy with Lebanese.

Harb resigned in 2006. He said he left, in part, because Pattiz had stepped down, but also because he sensed the Broadcasting Board of Governors wanted al-Hurra to promote U.S. foreign policy instead of just reporting the news. He said the station has since become more cautious. "There is a tendency to please Washington and not the audience," he said. "It looks like C-SPAN in Arabic -- who cares?"

Other former al-Hurra staffers said Harb was encouraged to leave. His replacement as news director, Larry Register, a veteran producer and Middle East correspondent for CNN, said the board of governors gave him a clear mission: to overhaul editorial operations and impose basic standards.

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