- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 27, 2004

When Arab-language TV station Al Jazeera broadcast anti-U.S. messages in the past, there was little the coalition could do to reach the average Iraqi with an alternative view.

Satellite dishes were sprouting by the thousands on rooftops. Yet, the Pentagon-financed news channel lacked serious programming and access to a satellite to carry its signal.

Today, Iraqi Media Network (IMN) barely resembles the one-studio terrestrial station of six months ago. IMN’s TV channel, Al Iraqiya, garnered a satellite hookup two weeks ago, is about to open a third studio within a $96 million operating budget, has a staff of Iraqi broadcasters and reporters, and goes live each day at 6:30 a.m. for 18 hours of programming.

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based, pan-Arab channel that airs the war-mongering speeches of Osama bin Laden and other Muslim radicals, still is infuriating American officials.

“I can definitely say that what Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week, after the station repeatedly asserted that Marines had killed hundreds of civilians in Fallujah. “You know what our forces do. They don’t go around killing hundreds of civilians. That’s just outrageous nonsense. It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.”

But this time, Al Iraqiya was on the air with a different perspective. Its reporters filed reports from the scene, quoting the Marines.

Al Iraqiya provides complete coverage of the regular Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) briefings that feature Dan Senor and Brig Gen. Mark Kimmitt. It also shows press conferences by Gen. John Abizaid, the overall U.S. commander, and a weekly interview with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator.

The mix of C-SPAN-style public affairs and cable TV news appears to be catching on. The State Department did a survey last month, asking Iraqis which source they go to first for news. Al Iraqiya beat its two chief competitors. It garnered 40 percent of respondents, compared with 29 percent for Al Arabiya TV in the United Arab Emirates and 11 percent for Al Jazeera.

“The poll indicates Al Iraqiya is more relevant, more accurate and more important than our competition,” said J. Dorrance Smith, a former ABC sports and news executive who worked in the first Bush administration as a communications adviser and helped the president in the 2000 Florida recount.

“If you watch the two side by side, Al Jazeera’s approach to this story is markedly different than the approach on Al Iraqiya,” Mr. Smith said of the Fallujah coverage. “Al Jazeera is extremely antagonistic toward the coalition and all of its elements as a foundation of their coverage.”

The White House originally tapped the 52-year-old Mr. Smith to go to Iraq and create a network so officials in Baghdad could communicate with officials and the press in Washington. Once that was done, he was moved over in January to the struggling IMN.

“I can’t minimize the problems that existed,” he said.

Mr. Smith, who is senior media adviser to Mr. Bremer, radically changed the program from canned productions to a mix of news, public affairs and commercial programs.

Officials hope the IMN is fast becoming the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) of Iraq. The BBC is Great Britain’s government-financed, but independent network that mixes Masterpiece Theater with live reports from the war front.

Following the BBC model, Mr. Bremer has signed an order taking IMN away from the CPA and turning it over to an Iraqi board of governors.

This could defuse charges from some news executives who label Al Iraqiya as CPA’s propaganda arm.

But pro-IMN officials argue that the United States needs a conduit for information because of the false rumors that flood the Arab street, such as: The British conducted the five bombings in Basra recently, and there is no such group as bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

Al Iraqiya made sure during Thursday’s evening news that it quoted Iraqi officials in Basra as suggesting that al Qaeda carried out the attacks that killed, among others, 20 schoolchildren.

There are no Nielsen ratings in Iraq or an official count of TV sets, but the populace has bought so many satellite dishes the price has dropped in a year from $400 to $40 each.

“You fly over the country, and every other house has a dish,” Mr. Smith said.

Al Iraqiya is the most conspicuous information tool used by the Americans. IMN also operates an FM radio station and a newspaper. Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., runs the overall operation through a $96 million Pentagon contract.

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