This week, HonestReporting.com published its Dishonest Reporter Award 2007. In the category of Worst News Director, the award went to…(drum roll)…Larry Register of Al-Hurra TV.
Al-Hurra, or “The Free One”, is the U.S. government funded Arabic satellite news station meant to present Arabs with a moderate vision of Islam and a positive vision of the West. There are also stations specifically designed for Iraq and European Arabs. The concept is a good one, as we know all too well the impact the media has in shaping public opinion, both in the Arab world and in the West. However, because of anti-Israel executives and journalists, the station turned into another example of Jihadi Muslims and their supporters using the West’s media against itself- in this case, using a U.S. government funded project to air the very views that the government is trying to combat.
A fundamental problem with the network is that none of the executives speak Arabic. As Justin Rood reported on ABCNews’ The Blotter:
Facing tough questions before a congressional panel last week, Broadcasting Board of Governors member Joaquin Blaya admitted none of the senior news managers at the network spoke Arabic when the terrorist messages made it onto the air courtesy of U.S. taxpayer funds. Nor did Blaya himself or any of the other officials at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the network...Blaya conceded that the top officials in the network’s chain of command could not understand what was being said on al Hurra broadcasts.
Also, the network’s news division also had no assignment desk, he said. That left decisions over al Hurra’s content in the hands of its reporters and producers, who are, according to Blaya, hastily-hired Arabic-speaking journalists with insufficient understanding of Western journalistic practices or the network’s pro-Western mission.
What terrorist messages is Blaya referring to? There was Nasrallah’s more than hour-long call to Jihad against Israelis broadcast in December 2006. Al-Hurra gave uncritical coverage to Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial conference. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh had a live speech broadcast as well.
There is a larger problem at Al-Hurra- Larry Register. Joel Mowbray has written in The Wall Street Journal about the new direction Al-Hurra has taken since Mr. Register took the helm:
Within weeks of becoming news director, Mr. Register put his own stamp on the network. Producers and on-air talent quickly understood that change was underway. Investigations into Arab government wrongdoing or oppression were no longer in vogue, and the ban on turning the airwaves over to terrorists was lifted. For those who had chafed under Mr. Register’s predecessor–who curbed the desire of many on staff to make Al-Hurra more like al-Jazeera–the new era was welcomed warmly.
“Everybody feels emboldened. Register changed the atmosphere around here,” notes one staffer. “Register is trying to pander to Arab sympathies,” says another.
The cultural shift inside the newsroom is evident in the on-air product. In the past several months, Al-Hurra has aired live speeches from Mr. Nasrallah and Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, and it broadcast an interview with an alleged al Qaeda operative who expressed joy that 9/11 rubbed “America’s nose in the dust.”
While a handful of unfortunate decisions could be isolated, these actions appear to be part of Mr. Register’s news vision. Former news director Mouafac Harb, a Lebanese-born American citizen, was not shy about his disdain for terrorists and had a firm policy against giving them a platform. But Mr. Register didn’t wait long to allow Hamas officials on the air to discuss Palestinian politics.
At a staff meeting announcing the reversal of the ban on terrorists as guests, Mr. Register “bragged” about his personal relationship with Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar, a top Hamas official, according to someone who was present. Contacted on his cell phone for comment, Mr. Register declined, indicating that he couldn’t spare even two minutes anytime in the coming days.
Perhaps it is because Mr. Register is so casual in his attitude to terrorists that interviewers now toss softball questions to fiery anti-Western guests, while also taking digs at one of America’s closest Middle Eastern allies, Israel.
The new Al-Hurra was on full display Feb. 9, when riots broke out following Israel’s implementation of security measures that limited access to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
In roughly two hours of breathless live “breaking news” coverage–which outdistanced al-Jazeera by 30 minutes–Al-Hurra’s Muslim guests vilified Israel, and one spun conspiracy theories about the Jewish state’s “plans” to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque. No doubt the Islamic talking heads were egged on by the Al-Hurra anchors asking questions such as, “Do you think that the timing of these actions is as innocent as Israel pretends?” (Translations were provided by a fluent Arabic-speaking U.S. government official.)
This powder keg of a panel included Ikrima Sabri, imam of the Al Aqsa Mosque, who is best known for his tenure as Yasser Arafat’s hand-picked mufti of Jerusalem. During the broadcast, Mr. Sabri accused Israel of firing guns and throwing bombs into the mosque, then refusing to allow medical care for the wounded.
Mr. Sabri’s propaganda should not have come as a surprise. Just weeks before 9/11, Mr. Sabri delivered a passionate Friday sermon, broadcast nationally on official Palestinian Authority radio. He prayed for the destruction of Israel, Britain and the United States.
If anyone should be savvy about people like Mr. Sabri, it ought to be Mr. Register. With two decades of experience at CNN, including three years running the Jerusalem bureau, he should know that live TV is the wrong venue for firebrands or guests prone to outrageous commentary.
Complicating matters is that once someone is on Al-Hurra live, Mr. Register lacks the basic requirement to stay on top of unfolding coverage; he doesn’t speak Arabic. Had Mr. Register been able to understand Mr. Nasrallah’s Dec. 7 speech, perhaps he would have rushed to cut away early on. Before the five-minute mark, Mr. Nasrallah told the audience to stop their celebratory gun-firing, explaining, “the only place where bullets should be is the chest of the enemies of Lebanon: the Israeli enemy.”
Mowbray further documents Register’s overt biases in his June 7, 2007, Wall Street Journal article:
While he was CNN’s vice-president of special projects, a producer suggested that CNN “may not be balanced in terms of the kind of coverage we’re providing” by failing to do human interest stories on the suffering of Israelis. Mr. Register responded, in an email on May 1, 2001, that “balance is difficult in this story because it is a completely out of balance story.” In his five-paragraph note, Mr. Register wrote that “99% of the Palestinians want to live in peace with Israel as their neighbor.” This claim is startling; repeated polling throughout early 2001 found strong majority support by Palestinians for suicide bombings.
Echoing a longtime Palestinian Liberation Organization argument that attacks against Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza aren’t actually terrorism, Mr. Register also wrote that “[Settlers] do live under daily threat . . . but this is the life they choose . . . not the one they have to live.”
Mr. Register added, “In Israel proper it would not be responsible to do a story of Israelis living under daily threats of violence.” This was “because it is not the daily reality.”
That would have been news to Israelis, who at the time of Mr. Register’s email had already been subject to a dozen recent terrorist attacks dotting the landscape in “Israel proper” from northern Israel to the Tel-Aviv area to Jerusalem. In all, 19 had been killed in those attacks, and over 300 injured.
Finally, on June 10, 2007, Register was forced to resign, complaining that he still did not understand why he was attacked.
But the episode should serve as a reminder to us how differently reporters from Arab countries view the role of journalism, and how a media executive with an agenda can turn even a government network into a mouthpiece for terrorists.