An Answer to Al-Jazeera?

In an earlier entry, I asked: “Could the United States ever create its own alternative to Al-Jazeera? I somehow doubt it.” A couple of weekends ago, on a trip to California, I spent an hour with a man who put my skepticism to the test.

That man is Norman Pattiz, founder and chairman of Westwood One. It’s the country’s largest radio network, and it owns or distributes CBS Radio News, Fox News Radio, CNN Radio News, and the NBC Radio Network. Pattiz also serves on the Broadcasting Board of Governors that supervises the Voice of America. He was the moving spirit behind Radio Sawa, the youth-oriented radio network that plies Arab twenty-somethings with a mixture of pop music and news in an American format. To judge from the numbers (always to be taken with a grain of salt in the Middle East), Radio Sawa has been an overnight success. For example, a survey conducted last month in Amman, Jordan, asked listeners: “What station do you listen to most for news?” Forty-one percent answered Radio Sawa. That compares with 21 percent for the Jordanian Government’s Amman FM, and a mere 10 percent for BBC-FM.

Now Pattiz seeks to escalate the media war. He wants the United States to launch an Arabic-language satellite television station to rival Al-Jazeera, and he’s lobbying Congress to fund it. I visited Pattiz in his offices at Westwood One in Culver City, and he gave me a lite version of the sales pitch he makes in Washington.

His main prop is a short video, prepared in response to doubters in Washington who told him: “We know you can do radio, but what about television?” It’s a great piece of salesmanship. The segment opens with images of angry mobs of enraged Muslims burning American flags. “These are the images that bombard over 300 million Arabs on a daily basis,” says the voiceover (I’m paraphrasing here). “And these are the images sent out by America in response.” What you see, of course, is a completely blank screen. The video goes on to stress the urgency of filling that screen, and fast, with something Pattiz calls MTN, the Middle East Television Network. And to listen to Pattiz tell it, this is a piece of cake. The formula is tried and true, it works in America, and it will work in Araby too. Because when it comes to television, says Pattiz, there’s no rival to good old Yankee ingenuity. Just the “production values” (the slick formatting we take for granted in American television) will keep the Arab viewer riveted to MTN.

What about content? Original programming is an expensive proposition, and even if Congress coughs up $60 million a year, it won’t be enough to fill all those hours. Pattiz would take a lot of content right off the shelf. The American networks, he expects, would provide much of the entertainment for free, or at “patriotic rates.” And game shows could provide cheap and attractive filler. The original part will be news and public affairs.

It’s here, of course, that things begin to get vague. The news format is fairly straightforward, but the commentary is another matter. Pattiz believes he knows what doesn’t work: stressing the good life lived by Arabs in America. This is the staple of public diplomacy, State Department-style. But the millions of Arab television viewers aren’t going to immigrate to this country, says Pattiz, and they really don’t care how great it is to be an Arab-American. What they want to know is how they themselves might benefit from the American model, and how American policy works to their advantage. That’s a harder sell, and it’s not easy to find Arabic-speakers who are prepared to make it. The solution, Pattiz thinks, is to mix commentary and news the way it’s done on Fox, by chatty and opinionated anchors. Lip gloss doesn’t hurt either; after all, it works quite well on Al-Jazeera.

I won’t say more about the tricky question of where to locate such a station. Someone is out scouting sites, and Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar are all in the race, as are off-shore locations such as Cyprus and Rhodes. (Definitely out of play: London.) Pattiz can run down the pros and cons of every alternative, and in so doing, shows himself to have already mastered the intricacies of inter-Arab politics. But at the end of the day, he doesn’t seem to think that it matters. In a digital world, you prepare content wherever it’s convenient, and you can bounce it off a satellite from anywhere. Making sure that the headquarters are cheap and safe is the main consideration. As for politics—well, no host would dare to interfere in America’s message.

So am I persuaded? Pattiz is a persuasive guy—he reminds you that he’s a salesman—and if Congress is ever to put millions into such a project, someone will have to sell it, and hard. The old VOA and State Department types wince at Pattiz’s approach, because it’s not particularly focused on persuading elites. But these critics are the same people who are always warning us about the dangers of the Arab street. It really makes no sense to invest massive efforts to parry Arab “intellectuals” in a PBS-type format. Most of them are incorrigible anyway. It makes a lot more sense just to go over and around them, and there is no medium more suited to that purpose than television. Sure, there are lots of issues to be hammered out here. But if there is one thing that the United States does even better than wage war, it’s television.

So I’ve suspended my skepticism. Let’s bet a nickel on the Pattiz formula. It might do some real good, and I can’t see how it can do any harm. If the Arabs can’t bring themselves to admire our political values, then let’s get them started by admiring our production values. Let the rest follow.

ADDENDUM: There is also a private initiative to provide American-slanted content for MTN (or any other buyer). It’s called Al-Haqiqa Television Inc. Two former ambassadors, Richard Fairbanks and Mark Ginsberg, are chairman and president respectively.