Reinventing an American International Broadcasting Network to the Arab World
June 6, 2018
Ambassador Alberto M. Fernandez is President of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. (MBN). Sponsored by the U.S. government, MBN provides news and information in Arabic to the Middle East and North Africa.
As President of MBN, Amb. Fernandez oversees and manages two television networks (Alhurra and Alhurra-Iraq); Radio Sawa; and all of MBN’s digital and social media properties including, Alhurra.com, RadioSawa.com, Irfaasawtak.com, and MaghrebVoices.com.
According to international research firms such as Gallup, Alhurra and Radio Sawa have an unduplicated weekly reach of more than 25 million people in the Middle East.
MBN’s mission is to broadcast accurate, timely and relevant news and information about the region, the world and the United States to a broad, Arabic-speaking audience.
Prior to joining MBN, Amb. Fernandez was Vice-President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and is a member of the board of directors at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security (CCHS) at George Washington University. He is also a non-resident Fellow in Middle East Politics and Media at the TRENDS research and advisory center in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
He was a Foreign Service Officer from 1983 to 2015 and served as the State Department’s Coordinator for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications from 2012 to 2015. He also served as U.S. Ambassador to Equatorial Guinea and U.S. Charge d’Affaires to Sudan. He held senior public diplomacy positions at the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, Guatemala, Kuwait, and in the Department’s Near East Affairs (NEA) Bureau.
Amb. Fernandez was a career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor, he was a recipient of a 2008 Presidential Meritorious Service Award, the 2006 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Public Diplomacy, a 2003 Superior Honor Award for his work in Afghanistan, among many other awards.
A graduate of the University of Arizona (B.A. and M.A.) and the Defense Language Institute, he served in the U.S. Army and came to the United States as a refugee from Cuba in 1959.
He has published in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, the AFPC World Almanac of Islamism, Defense Dossier, Journal of International Security Affairs, Providence, WINEP Policy Brief, the Foreign Service Journal, “Cipher Brief,” MEMRI, Brookings “Markaz,” Georgetown Cornerstone, ReVista: the Harvard Review of Latin America, Middle East Quarterly, the Journal of the Assyrian Academic Society (JAAS), and lectured and debated on U.S. foreign policy in numerous international and academic venues. He speaks fluent Spanish and Arabic in addition to English.
For more on broadcasting to the Arab world, see Joseph Braude’s Westminster talk, Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism.
Robert R. Reilly:
Ambassador Alberto Fernandez is a veteran of speaking at Westminster Institute and an old friend of long-standing. Alberto’s State Department career, or I should say before that the United States Information Agency career, was in public diplomacy. He also served at the ambassadorial level.
But for anybody who viewed Arabic media in 2003 and well afterwards, the voice of the State Department under the Bush administration on Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera was Ambassador Fernandez. He was the one explaining U.S. policy. He was the one engaging in debates, which he did so capably in representing our country.
I forget how long I’ve known you but I know we were in Kuwait together in 2003. But I’ve admired Alberto for many years. And after retiring from the State Department Alberto became the Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute or MEMRI where his writings on problems in the Islamic world were brilliant.
As I mentioned once here before, occasionally the United States government makes a mistake and puts the right person in the right job and I have never seen that to be more true than [in] the case of Ambassador Fernandez being appointed the President of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, MBN, which are United States government-supported voices to to the Arab Middle East. That includes Al Hurra, Al Hurra Iraq, and Radio Sawa as well as the social media: some 25 million unduplicated weekly viewers or listeners.
This is a facility of the United States government with which I was familiar since Sawa came out of the VOA Arabic service back in 2003… VOA veterans here [will] remember that. And for many years it was a squandered opportunity so it’s extremely satisfying to see someone with Alberto’s qualifications, intelligence, and understanding running the U.S. government network.
Now I haven’t read any of the bio but you can detect my enthusiasm for our speaker tonight. He came from Cuba as a refugee [in] 1959. He served in the U.S. Army and has had his distinguished State Department career as well as this second career. So without further ado leave it to Alberto to discuss “Reinventing an American International Broadcasting Network to the Arab world.”
Thank you, Bob. It’s always a real pleasure to be back at the- at the Westminster Institute. I’ve enjoyed it in the past and like the past I think the most valuable thing here is always the exchange, free exchange of ideas and criticism and opinion and I especially look forward to that. I’m gonna try to go quickly through my remarks so there’s plenty- ample time for Q’s and A’s and complaints and whenever- whatever people want to bring up.
When Bob asked me to speak here, he asked me to do that some months ago and I said, “I can’t do it. It’s too early.” I think you told- ask me six months ago or something or seven months ago. I said, “It’s too early.” It’s still too early. We are in a deep — in MBN — in a process of transformation, which is beginning. I’ve been at the head of the network for almost 11 months but i feel that a lot of what we’ve done are baby steps. We can go into why and all of that and… but I really feel that we’re beginning of a process of transformation. We’re not anywhere near as much as we’re going to be in it.
You know after I retired after 32 years in the State Department in 2015, one of the vows I made was to never have anything to do with the U.S. government ever again. And MEMRI was great. MEMRI has a special place in my heart. I could write what I want. Yigal was very generous in allowing me to write [and] say what I want and – which I really appreciated – all those years of writing for the U.S. government where nobody saw what you wrote.
But you actually had to write things which people actually could read. And so I was very happy there and then out of the blue I was asked to take over MBN last year and it presented me with a very interesting dilemma because I had a long history with MBN, not working for MBN of course, but I was one of the people that had been consulted. Many people were- had been consulted early on in 2002, 2001, 2002 when the Bush administration set up Sawa and then- and then Al Hurra.
And in fact, as public affairs officer in Amman, Jordan, we were the first post in the Arab world to get Radio Sawa on the air in 2002. The first agreement that was signed to broadcast Radio Sawa was in Jordan and was done during my tenure in Jordan and after that when I was head of public diplomacy for Iraq and head of public diplomacy for the NEA Bureau in State, I had my experiences with Al Hurra and MBN, many of them bad, many of them negative.
I remember, and I’m being blunt here, I remember being in my office and having it on in- in- in my office in my- in 2006 or 2007 and I see Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the terrorist group Hezbollah, speaking on Al Hurra and I say, “oh he’s gonna speak for a few minutes.” And he speaks, and he speaks, and he speaks, and he speaks. It had him on for an hour and I’m emailing my boss at NEA, “What is going on?” This is actually a notorious incident that you can read about and that people were fired and things- unpleasant things happened.
And so I’ve had a long history of criticizing the work of MBN, criticizing Al Hurra, you know, mocking it in a certain way and this is not very good, this is not very impressive. And so I was presented in 2017 with an interesting intellectual and moral challenge, which is I, who have been a critic about this operation… I dismissed this operation with contempt.
Well, can I put my mouth where my- you know, where my you know whatever… money… my mouth is? How can I respond? How can… What do I do? Do I remain a critic? Do i remain a person that is dismissive or do I roll up my sleeves and try to fix it?
I told the people at the Broadcasting Board of Governors that if they chose me, I intended to change things, that I was not coming in to run things the way they were, that [I] was coming in to be actually a force for change and there needed to be a lot of change at MBN.
So I didn’t come in with any kind of guarantee that I was going to maintain every- anything and I know there are [a] few people here that actually worked for me and or- or have a connection with Al Hurra and they can tell you that with- MBN that I think I was pretty clear [at] my first town hall meeting about the same thing.
I told them. I said, you know, some very harsh things. I mean I tried to be nice but, you know, I said some difficult things that sometimes have to be said like this is not a government job. You are not guaranteed a job. You don’t have tenure here. You know, we need to focus on results. We need a better product. We have been, in a way, a marginal force in the region in many ways. Even our successes haven’t been the successes that we really need for, you know, for the- for the sake of the taxpayer and so I took this on in 2017. And- and, you know, with a kind of a change agenda, which I’m implementing now.
I’m going to describe it in some detail to you or not but I’m going to start with a kind of admission of guilt or admission of humility which is what I’m doing is something which i think is- makes sense and is logical it can be logically defended. I think it has it has a roots in the kind of I think nuanced view of the region and the challenges of the region. However, I- My experience in the region- I have no idea whatsoever, no guarantee in my mind whether at the end of the day all the changes that we’re making… the change in focus, the kind of change in content, the change in kind of an ideological worldview we’re making whether at the end of the day it’s going to appeal to a mass Arab audiences or our leaders or not. What I would love to say to you is the changes were making is going to make us a competitor to Al Jazeera, competitor to Al Arabiya. That’s my goal. I have no idea where they were gonna be in that- in that horse race or whether we were gonna be also rans.
But I do know this if it was- if I’d been offered this position in earlier years, I probably would have said no but 2017 is a really interesting period in I think Arab broadcast media and kind of media operations in the region because of what’s been going on in the region. You have certain things, which have happened. We’re kind of living in 2017 and now a kind of a unique period in pan-Arab broadcast media. You had the phenomenon, which is known as the Arab Spring, this great flowering of god knows what. People didn’t know exactly what it was going to be and you know great hope and also great dashed hopes of kind of a democratic flowering in the region. There was a kind of reaction to it. You see a kind of Thermidorian reaction to the- to the- to the revolution of the Arab Spring, which has resulted in a kind of Indian summer of regimes. So you have kind of regimes are back. The regimes are back. The red lines are back. The- the- the Arab media space today in the region is more- instead of being more free is less free because of the Arab Spring. There are more red lines rather than less red lines. There is more of attempt at control often failing because of basically the way technology and medias change. But the desire for control is very high and so as a result of that what you see is a kind of loss of prestige and loss of credibility of some of these outlets that have existed for a long time. On top of that you have for example the phenomenon, which of course we just had the first anniversary of it, of the Qatar/anti-Qatar coalition fighting it out in Arab media/non-Arab media, which is also deeply degraded the credibility and the- actually, the- the appeal of traditional pan-Arab media.
Today it’s fascinating. If you look at the- the big dogs Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, [and] Sky News. Those are one, two, three. You have this bizarre reality that is occurring, which is an obsession with the other where they all they talk about is how bad… You know if you watch Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera focuses on anything bad that they can find about their enemies. So number one it’s about talking smack about the Saudis and the Emiratis. Number one, that’s it. Number two: talking smack about the friends of the Saudis and their ever Emirati so the Egyptians and the Bahrainis and whatever you know and kind of highlighting their friends. So for example Al Jazeera will go crazy about any journalist that is arrested by Saudis, Emiratis, [and] Egyptians and be completely [silent] about any journalists arrested, by example, Turkey because they are like this with the Erdogan regime. So what you have an- and the others in reverse… So what you have is this kind of extreme polarization which has led interestingly enough to a lack of credibility, a kind of tiresome, one note proper programming by the leaders in the Arab media space that has led to the creation of a vacuum. There is an opportunity for something new, something different in the pan-Arab media space.
So it’s a perfect time actually to try to reinvent U.S. broadcasting in Arabic given this kind of mutually assured destruction that is happening between the forces of the pro-Qatar and anti-Qatar forces in that space. It’s almost as if they are broadcasting instead of, you know, broadcasting… It’s actually as if the big three are narrowcasting, as if Al-Jazeera is broadcasting to the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. You know, you Prince so-and-so are no good, you’re blah blah blah blah blah blah and the other way around. Instead of talking in the language of the masses, instead of kind of having a language which is broadly appealing, it’s actually become much more narrowly focused and something which I’ve criticized Al Jazeera [for] many times. It’s become more boring than it ever was before. I’ll zero as many things but it was often not boring. It’s become a lot duller than it used to be because of this obsession. And again both sides have a much more red lines, much more taboo issues, much less flexibility than they had a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, ten years ago. So there’s a real opportunity for us.
And there’s also, in addition to that, there are real demographic and viewing changes that are occurring in the region. Dissatisfied masses have find that the usual discourse in pan-Arab media, which is heavily skewed towards politics, towards Arab politics, and Western politics, you know, the evil West is yeah, while satisfying at a certain level, there’s a huge demand, a huge thirst in the region for questions and content that focus about the real concerns that [people] really have… If you look at Arab media surveys that have been done or youth surveys that have been done, the Arab masses, especially youth audiences, are… yes, sorry. Do they have positions on Palestine? Do they have positions about the United States and all of that? Yes, absolutely. Their biggest concerns are things about employment and their economic future, their social background, [and] corruption. You know, am I gonna have housing? Am I gonna have a decent job? Those types of things are actually by far more important to Arab masses, especially youth audience than a lot of the stuff that they usually hear about, which is the bloody shirt, the قميص عثمان that we say in Arabic of whatever the latest political… you know, tempest in a teapot that is happening, that the- that the pan-Arabs are highlighting.
So [it’s a] tremendous opportunity. When I took over and beyond for me. I thought, “Well what is the problem? The problem is multi- has multiple, you know, is Hydra-headed- but the first problem, the basic problem for me, is that this is a network especially I know who- television you know, yeah, and nobody knows MBN in the Arab world. People know I’ll hold a television or Radio Sawa. That corporate name is not known. We call it Middle East Broadcasting Networks but nobody knows that in the region. The basic problem for me is this is a network that had no clear identity or it had a clear identity. It was one reduce to a kind of a cliche view that this is a mouthpiece of the U.S. government, that if you ask people that’s what they would say MBN’s products are. But it’s more than that. They would say this is a boring mouthpiece of the U.S. government. This is a vanilla mouthpiece of the US government. This is an uninteresting and outdated and not pleasant to look at mouthpiece of the U.S. government. This is a mouthpiece of the U.S. government whose visual impact looks like 1980s local television in the United States. You know, kind of flat SD standard definition, dated sStudios, old people talking about things that were news 12 hours ago or 24 hours ago rather than the latest thing happening.
So we have an identity problem. We also have obviously a brand- a marketing problem as well. But for me that I said the way I saw it is you need to fix the content before you can market. You can’t market garbage, right? You have to kind of have something which is better than what you’re producing to market. For- for me it kind of seemed that what we produce fell between two stools. It was not enough news for a news channel to compete with the other news channels like the Al Jazeers and the Al Arabiyas, and not good enough in the non-news to compete with the non-news channels. So in other words not like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and not Nat Geo or Discovery, which by the way you can get in Arabic in the region. So you basically have a kind of, you know, kind of muddled middle. That’s a problem.
The technical quality as I said was poor so we’ve had to work on both tracks: the track of broadcast quality and the track of content and focus. On broadcast quality the challenge I set for the staff, which we’re still working on, is we need to – and this is maybe- this’ll be shocking to you – we need to have the broadcast- broadcast quality of RT Arabic. We don’t have the broadcast quality today of RT Arabic. RT Arabic has much better broadcast quality than we have, which just tells you something, that the Russians with all of their financial problems and whatever… I mean you know obviously RT is an important operation for them… that aesthetically, visually, it has a better picture than we do… it has a kind of a better look than we do. [This] is something that we have to fix. So on broadcast quality we’re trying to matter and we’re changing everything.
I mean you know we’re trying to make the height- high-definition experience be one that is consistent through us so that everything that you will see will be high-definition. New sets, new studios, new graphics. We need to be ubiquitous in our presence. There are large swathes for example in the Middle East when we’re not seen. I’ll give you an example. I was shocked. Right before I started I was in Beirut. I was in a hotel and in my hotel I turned on the television set. They didn’t have a lot of television. No big deal, right? It’s just my hotel. So I was idly talking to a gentleman at this conference that I was- He didn’t know I was coming to take over here at MBN. And I said, “Yeah, I was watching. I noticed that they don’t have Al-Hurra on you know on this hotel- the hotel boost and that I was staying.” [He] said, “Oh well you can’t get Al-Hurra in Lebanon.” I said, “What?” He said, “Well because in Lebanon most people get television on cable TV and Al Hurra is not on cable.” So in addition to having a better aesthetic, a better look, we need to actually be where- You know, it’s the- it’s the Willie Sutton school of broadcast journalism, right? Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber, when he was asked, “why do you rob banks, Mr. Sutton?” He said, “Because that’s where the money is.” Right? Well you need to go where the audience is. If the audience in Lebanon is on cable TV, you need to be on cable to be a Lebanon or- or- or Palestine or Israel or Dubai or whatever it is you need to be… also on platforms for less traditional platforms where you know you have young people that are actually watching television not in front of a television set but they’re watching on your phone. So you have to have material which is for people to watch on their phone.
So that’s what we’re doing in the technical sense. In the content sense we’re again trying to change the kind of muddled middle or the lack of definition or the lack of focus and highlight a kind of a much more specific and distinctive process. In my view and I think the view of people that I’ve consulted in I mean the future of media and you I think many of us see that it will. What do we watch [and] what do we look at online is people don’t sit and consume media the way they used to. People look for things which are distinctive. People look for things that are unique. People look at things- for things that have a bite and have a voice the idea of- kind of, you know, Walter Cronkite and kind of Middle America that is all gone. Some of you may not know who Walter Cronkite was. You know, it’s more going to be people that are doing opinion journalism, people that are doing short form or long form journalism that is quirky or edgy or outrageous or extremely right, extremely left, whatever it is. It’s going be something that’s going to be interesting. It’s going to appeal to you. So we have to search. We have to kind of find our identity within first of all embracing the American dimension but not the American dimension of the cliched Arab audience’s view of us which is known as a mouthpiece of the U.S. government but know that our American identity is we represent this amazing country, this which is diverse and dynamic and open and freer that than anything that anyone in the Arab world could dream of. And we need to communicate that dynamism and that freedom and that diversity of American society, culture, government, etc. in a way which is compelling.
So we have to embrace the American identity, okay? We can’t run from it. We have to embrace it. And secondly, I believe in- I have believed in, as Bob mentioned [to] you, as a public diplomacy officer I’ve always believed, and not just because I was a public diplomacy officer, I believe in the war of ideas. I believe in standing for something and having a specific worldview and so I believe that what we have to have is our identity is number one. Obviously, a very enhanced American identity, but also an identity which unabashedly an aggressively demonstrates support for classic liberal and universal values.
I began early on with the easiest thing and I began in August 2017 to launch our first op-ed page because we had- I- For the things we didn’t have there are no opinions that we had- It was again ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’. You know? ‘On one hand, Mr. Saddam Hussein, what do you think? On the other hand, Mr. Zawahri, what do you think?’ No, no we have to stand for something. And so I began that. Our online- The op-ed page called Minzawi Ohra (من زاوية آخر), From Another Corner, From Another Perspective, with getting columnists and I got columnists. Some of them were people I knew or people that I liked and it’s grown to a very lively- I think emblematic of what I want the whole thing to be. We have about 25 columnists, 30 columnists and- but they tend to overwhelmingly be- I mean there’s a wide diversity of views but they do tend to be liberal, reformist, free-thinkers with a high level of autonomy and freedom. And we see them discussing all kinds of edgy and forbidden topics in these columns from politics to religion to social issues with greater freedom that exists in other large digital spaces in the region. They basically criticize everything and they have. I mean you know you can find criticism of our- of our president. You can find criticism of our allies in the region. Now that’s not only what we criticize. Obviously, we’re not anti-U.S. government but you can find all kinds of other things. When- when- I’ll give you a couple examples. We had one columnist [who] wrote a piece and he wrote a piece which was- His premise was: ‘is alcohol really forbidden in Islam? Is it really forbidden?’ Another one wrote a piece when the decision was made to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, asking ‘is Jerusalem really Islamic? You know, is that really, you know? So asking these types of questions- a lot of them have been people criticized, political Islam criticized, jihadism, but done it in a smart way, in an intelligent way. And some of the people are writing- There are people, actually, some that you’ve had here or that are well-known in reformist circles that- that write- I think from account as I said a classically liberal perspective. We began that because that’s easier, right? It’s easier to do print media and- and we began there. But we’ve wanted to continue doing that in other platforms, to do it in the online space doing it in a storytelling way, doing it on television, talking about living figures and talking about secularists, reformers, and liberals in the region in terms of public service announcements and opinion and news coverage.
We’re going to show a clip for example of what I mean. This is before we show it. It’s a series we did highlighting free thinkers in Arab history.[Al Hurra clip]
So these are- We did a whole series [of] these. I just picked- we just picked a couple of them. Sheikh Abdul Razak is often called the father of Islamic secularism. It’s the first one you saw. There’s a cleric that promoted secularism and in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century and of course Farag Foda is a martyr for a kind of liberal interpretation of Islam, killed by jihadists in Egypt. So when your height- When these are your heroes, you’re sending a message. These are the people we like. We like these people, you know, we identify with these people. And you do that obviously by you know the choice of what you choose to cover. I mean I’ll give you an example that that we did with the news team. There’s a hero of mine is a great Sudanese activist named- murdered, killed activist named Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. And I- You know I’ve had from my time in Sudan I have connections with there. And a friend of mine who knows that I’m- and I wrote from memory. I wrote a piece on my Mahmoud Mohammed Taha and when it was the anniversary of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha’s execution by the Sudanese government, by the Numeri government. He was a liberal Islamic scholar and activist and activists in Sudan, including his family did a- were gonna do a a- a session on the philosophy and thought of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha in Khartoum University. I directed our news team in Sudan. ‘I want you to go cover that’ and they went and actually the government shut it down and it was moved to the Taha family’s home. And so the session took place there and Al Hurra news team went and covered this session in the home. Again to identify ourselves with the cause of reform, with the cause of liberalism, that this is our cause. This is something that we care about.
You know everybody has an identity. If you look at Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera is in many ways has excellent journalists. Sometimes it has awful journalists and sometimes it covers things well. Sometimes it covers things badly but if you watch Al Jazeera or Al Jazeera Arabic for any period of time, Al Jazeera has a subtext. Its subtext is Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood, Ikhwanji. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s less obvious. Sometimes it’s right in your face and sometimes it’s more subtle. What I want is for us to be the station of these guys, the station of Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, the station of Farag Foda and not [just] dead people but living people as well, living reformers, living scholars.
So when we do interviews for example with living scholars and- and activists and intellectuals people like Dr. Turki Hamid of Saudi Arabia or Sayyid Al-Qemany or Muhammad Shahrur, which we’ve done in the last few months, that’s us identifying with a specific worldview. So Al Hurra is the station of those people. That doesn’t mean that- You know the news is gonna be the news and the news we’re gonna cover broadly and we’re gonna cover fairly. But we are just like when you pick up the Wall Street Journal or you pick up The Washington Post or The New York Times, you know that there’s a worldview behind it. We have a worldview as well, that is the idea we will continue to hone that in everything that we do.
We’re also trying to do that in new programs that we’re launching. I found a lot of the programs that we existed to be kind of rather dull and so we’ve tried to kind of come up with new programs and we have two of them, two of the first ones have launched. We have more coming. We’re going to show a short clip of the first two shows that launched in March. And show the clip and then I’ll explain what you’re seeing.[Sam and Ammar excerpt]
These are my shows and I know this sounds very vain but these are shows that I ordered. The Sam and Ammar show was a concept that I had. Some of you that watched television a lot or are old like me you may get these references. What I wanted was you remember Siskel and Ebert the movie show what I said is I want it. And there’s a show on ESPN – if there are any sports fans here – called “Pardon My Interruption.” And so what I said is I want Siskel and Ebert / Pardon My Interruption but about politics in the Arab world and I knew of both Sam Tadros and Amar Abdul Hamid and I picked them. They’re interesting. They’re both kind of classically liberal intellectuals based in the Washington area. They both have interesting backgrounds. Sam was kind of as a young man a traditional kind of Arab, nationalist, leftist. He was the type a guy that would go to Palestine rallies or anti-American Iraq rallies. Today he is a classical liberal. Amar Abdul Hamid from, originally from Syria, was an Islamist when he was a young man and he’s a secularist and a liberal as well. So the show is not about again ‘On the one hand is that Jihadism great? On the other hand are dictators wonderful?’ No they’re bad. Dictators are bad. Jihadists are bad. Dictatorial regimes in the region are bad. This is a show which is completely biased. What I mean is- has- has an edge. It’s supposed to have an agenda. The other one of course is Ibrahim al-Eissa is a very well-known figure in the Egyptian media, a kind of perennial political gadfly; guy who’s been fired and hired and arrested and unarrested and jailed for speaking his mind, for saying outrageous things and so he’s a guy that comes with a built-in audience. And his show is particularly about political Islam and his criticism of political Islam and he does that on a weekly basis. These are the first two shows that we launched. We have shows three and four coming up. We have a show- number three is a show from Beirut with the Lebanese intellectual journalists and activists Joumana Haddad – Some of you may be aware – and feminist Joumana Haddad talking about the forbidden in the Arab world, forbidden thoughts, forbidden books, forbidden media, forbidden pictures, all of that to again to seek to break down the barriers that exist of red lines in the region. We should be a station where there are no red lines. The only red line should be those of good taste and accuracy and all of that. And number four, the fourth show that’s coming, is another show basically on- on political, religious themes and it’s the young dynamic Egyptian intellectual Islam Buhairi will have a show on Al Hurra coming up in a little bit as well. He’s a person- He’s a guy that criticized Al Azhar, was sent to prison in Egypt for a year because of his criticisms of Al Azhar until he was pardoned by President Sisi. So with that that’s the kind of the- the texture or the type of programming that we want to have.
Fourth, what we’re doing of course is as I said we have this problem of you’re not CNN news and you’re not Nat Geo [so] what are you? We are radically changing the mix we’re gonna be going basically from about four hours of news a day to about ten hours of news a day, including for the first time doing news from the region. One of the complaints that I heard from many- for many years from people in the region is you guys always seem late. Why? Because the news was done in Springfield, Virginia. I remember when I was- when I started and I had the- you know I was acting Vice President for news as was president when I started. And I would- we would hold the editorial meeting at 8 o’clock in the morning Springfield time. Well that is 2 o’clock in the afternoon or 3 o’clock in the afternoon in the region. You’re deciding what you’re going to cover at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. This is a problem. You have to be on Middle East time. You know one of two ways: you can wake up and work at 3 o’clock in the morning and two o’clock in the morning. Have everyone be night owls, sleep during the day and work at night or you can produce news in the region. We’re gonna produce news in the region and we’re going to beef up our news operations from- from Washington, including news about the United States. We’re gonna have a newscast that’s gonna be rich and heavily focused on American news in the evening here, which means it will be in the middle of the night there… like who’s watching in the middle of the night? No one but what it means is we will work the time change in our- in our favor. The way it works now is, right, we are behind the region… for the region. But actually if we’re covering the United States, we’re ahead of the region. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t get the American story, the stories originating from the United States, better and more accurate and more specific than our- than our competition does because we’re working in this time. That’s what we need to do and that’s what we’re going to do.
As I said you know a lot of what we’re gonna do is expand content in the United States. We have already added [a] correspondent in California for the first time. We’re trying to cover underreported positive and negative news about the United States. So it’s not just, again we’re not a propaganda network. We cover reality so for example we devoted an entire entire hour of programming in the fall to the opioid crisis in the United States and people telling stories of addiction and suffering and of lost children. When President Trump called for tariffs for example a while back, not the latest one but a previous one, we dispatched a team for example to a dying steel mill in small-town Pennsylvania to give a kind of very graphic example. Why do we care about this? Why is this important to us? So it’s not just like ‘yay, America is wonderful’, you know, it’s actually being realistic about what we’re covering.
In the digital space I think the challenge is to be continually- continually honing a voice that is distinctive. Again there’s a lot that it’s done in the social media space that’s just filler, which is done to get cheap views, you know, ‘man marries crocodile’ or something like that which actually was- I mean actually that was a story that appeared in the Daily Mail and when I- that Al Hurra took and put online and translated and as I told the staff I said the man was neither American nor Middle-Eastern. There’s no reason some guy in Oaxaca, Mexico… You know? So there was no reason, no kind of connection to either the United States or the region. It was just weird story that the Daily Mail would cover and we’re gonna put that on because a lot of people are gonna click on it. And what I told the staff is we’re not gonna do that anymore before you wanna find ‘man marries crocodile’ it better be an Egyptian crocodile marrying an American man. You know? Otherwise we don’t want to see it.
So- so the challenge for social media I think is to be distinctive to be- This is a particular challenge to be really in sync with the youth audience in the region and we’re not. We’re far from where we need to be in that we- We’re barely on Instagram. We are we are not on snapchat. We’re going to be on snapchat. We need to be on that. That’s a huge platform for the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, for Saudi Arabia. What’s app for example is an app which is hugely important. The reason we have to find ways to work there as well. So- so that’s what we’re doing in the digital space right now. And I’m there some and then we can go to questions is we’re in a full-court press to change everything we are.When I took over one person who was at BBG advised me that what I could do is I could shut everything down and start from scratch if I wanted to do that. I decided not to do that. I decided to kind of rebuild the plane while flying the plane. And of course it is a hair-raising experience to do that but we’re not on the full-court press. We are doing everything. We’re destroying sets, rebuilding sets, we’re getting rid of people, we’re bringing on people, we’re launching new shows, we’re getting rid of old shows, we’re expanding the news, we’re moving the news, we’re doing special things all of it doing at the same time. So it’s you know that- like that line from Ghostbusters you know, “dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.” Obviously we have Ghostbuster fans here but- but- So that’s where we are. This is a stressful time at MBN but I think it’s also a very hopeful sign, a hopeful sign that in the end we will produce something which is distinctive, aggressive, and lively. I don’t know whether the Arab masses will respond with what we’ll produce. What will emerge later this year full born and you know September, October, November of this year but at the very least I think we’ll be producing what is very different and distinctive from what we’ve had in the past. Thank you very much I look forward to your questions.
It’s so exciting. It’s so exciting to hear all of this. So my question to you is this. I was with the French police today, talking about the French versus American approaches to terrorism prevention.
You know we worked through the topics and then they in the end came to the topic of counter-narrative.
They said are you doing anything in the counter-narrative space and I said, “Ah, alas, we’re not.” And then I said, “Oh no, we are. We’ve got Al Hurra.” So I hope now they’ll look at it but it brings to mind the question about what can we be doing in the domestic space and I probably don’t think about that too much. But it’s such an interesting approach you’ve taken. Do you think there are lessons here for what we could be doing domestically? And by that I don’t mean for the general American audience but I mean particularly in the counter-radicalization space.
Well we of course have nothing to do with the domestic space because our focus is- by statute our focus is foreign audiences, [Smith-]Mundt Act and all of that stuff. Our target audience are not Americans. We don’t- we don’t broadcast to America. People can see our stuff online but that’s not our focus. But I think there are broader- broader lessons you can learn. Number one is for example that you need to push back against these barriers or these kinds of artificial barriers that people come up [with]. There are people who talk about religion on Al Hurra. I’m not talking about religion. Ibrahim al Eissa is talking about religion. Islam Buhairi is talking about religion. You know Turki al-Hamid… So we’re giving space to free thinkers, to liberals, to reformers, to people that have, you know, kind of heterodox and open views. There’s this kind of problem of kind of political correctness that exists both domestically and internationally, right, that you know to- to reach audiences you have to be a scary guy with a beard like this guy. No. You know what I mean, is- is people are unique. People are different.
And we all too often think and I remember this when I was in the State Department and I worked on this is people often thought I remember actually being in this is during the Obama administration, the Obama White House, and some silly person standing up and saying can’t we get some key influencer at Al Azhar to speak to say how ISIS is evil and something? When I said you know regimes are by definition non-credible and the clerics of regimes are not credible. You know you have to kind of mix it up. Yeah maybe you do need- maybe you do need a kind of young, dynamic cleric from the slums of Cairo or Algiers who’s going to say stuff that is edgy and maybe they don’t like the United States that much but they’re going to say stuff which is useful for you and your counterterrorism fight.
So I guess what I mean is you have to be kind of- break these preconceived notions that we often have that you know holding an Iftar shows we respect Islam. Well, yes, but I wrote a piece for MEMRI. I said you know all too often we treat Muslims – I’m talking about governments right – as if they’re children, as if, you know, ‘Here’s a cookie, you know, there. Be, you know.” Well, it’s that or pets or children. We have to engage with people seriously. We have to talk to them seriously and government especially has a real problem in that you know straitjacket of you how to engage with people and how do I talk to people and what do I say and, you know, ‘Islam is peace, no, Islam is evil’. All this kind of… We kind of tied ourselves in knots so I think that we have to respect our audience and we have to embrace the true diversity that exists in the Muslim world that often is not allowed to speak, that is often suppressed, whether it be in the domestic space or the international space. There are people saying some really good things in the region and often they’ve been silenced often they’ve been cowed into silence often they’ve been put straitjackets and we need to kind of mix things up. There are really good NGOs in the United States and organizations. I’m meeting with one. There’s a great young Iraqi American guy Faisal Al Mutar, who has a great organization called Ideas Beyond Borders that is doing fascinating work, translating works about kind of human rights and secularism and free inquiry from English into Arabic and is doing stuff in social media. That’s the type of stuff that we need to see more of in the region. That’s my space, not the domestic space, but it would be my answer.
What is your experience of dealing with BBG? In my experience they are- the BBG, especially the BBG leadership, is a joke at best. And that’s the culture they drag you down at BBG. Well I’ll give you one example. [unintelligible] in 2011 three years later we got a [unintelligible] to 24.3 million. After that BBG, the leadership, came to destroy us and the service now is almost is gone. So what experience and how do you deal with this stuff?
Well look I’m new at this game. All I can say is that I’ve been very forthright, crystal clear with BBG about what I want to do from day one. Everything that I described to you here I told BBG. I told- I didn’t ask them for permission. I told them ‘this is what I am going to do’ and they haven’t stood in my way. They’ve been supportive and they you know haven’t gotten in my business, which people who know me in the government know that I, you know, don’t like so so far I think it’s been great. I have no complaints about BBG.
Give them time.
Yeah. So I think we had one back there. Go ahead, yeah.
I see that you have a clear view to what’s going- what you’re going to do on TV.
But as we know that millennials, young people, are consuming almost 100% of their media on their phones on social media.
…and big TV networks like from CNN to Al Jazeera understood that and they also understood they are late to start and they start working with social media influencers. CNN working with Casey Neistat, some guy on YouTube. Al Jazeera is working with an Egyptian guy. What are you doing to reach millennials? They are not going to watch TV even if you’re going to go from four hours… the news to ten hours. They’re watching social media.
Well I think- I think what you need to do there – I think you’re right – is your content has to be scalable. It has to be content. It cannot be for example- Yes, if you have 10 hours of news, nobody’s gonna watch 10 hours of news, but what you have to have is content that is suitable for news or for the phone and that is interesting enough that people will want to watch it in social media as well and that’s compelling enough and unique enough that goes into the question of influencers.
The- the- the future of media in my view as- I’m not a journalist but I’m a person who’s been around media my entire adult life and worked in it in terms of being a public diplomacy officer in State. The way I see it and we all see the fragmented nature of media in the United States, right, is it’s- it’s evolved into something which is indigestible, swallowable pieces. So you have to have these- these- these chunks, these elements, these- these pieces that you can use. And yes you need to be distinctive. You have to be premium that word goes into- into- into personalities. If you’re just a boring guy regurgitating talking points, that’s not gonna work. People want distinctiveness. People want authenticity. In my work, which my research and my work on ISIS for example, one of the big successes, one of the big reasons that ISIS was successful in its video… People think it was because they’re like lopping off heads and spilling blood. No. What it was is that they projected deep, sincere authenticity. You had some young guy saying I used to be- I used to live in Montreal. I had a really good salary. I was was a bum, you know, I was lost. I gave it all up. I saw the light. Let me tell you guys this place is terrific. The Islamic state is wonderful. You need to come here right now. You know the kind of first-person testimony, you know the authenticity of that person to go back to your question was not that they had a degree or they had a long- that they were an old guy with a long beard. It was a young person talking on social media in their own voice and their own distinctiveness that is attractive to people so that’s what you need. I mean you need chunks that are acceptable. You need stuff that you can have there. But again it has to be driven with elements that make it unique and special, premium content, stuff that you got that nobody else has. Stuff that is quirky, stuff that is different, stuff that has its own voice and its own flavor. To me that is the way you reach those types of audiences.
But you create shows with those social media influencers like everybody else is doing but- You created the show Sam and Ammar?
…but they came from TV. You could create the same shows-
But actually- actually that’s not true with- with Sam and Ammar we have a very strong social media element. It was the first show that we did. I think the first show that we ever did where we built in from the beginning strong social media element and it’s the first one. I think we can do better. Sam and Ammar was like the pioneer of this type of thing that we want to do. I’m agreeing with you. I’m just saying that that we’re working on that. So… yes, oh okay, go. You have the microphone. Okay, he that has the microphone asks the question. Yes.
Hu Shen Zhen:
My name is Hu Shen Zhen. I work for VOA national service and one of the [unintelligible] in connection with [unintelligible] last year. I was watching the BBG board meeting this afternoon and I was watching you and I congratulate you on the fine job you have been doing reporting elections in the Middle East countries and I congratulate you on the fine job you have been doing at MBN. I’m not flattering you. I do feel it. My question is on June the 4th the White House announced the nomination of Michael Pack in the next CEO in BBG. And talking about the BBG meeting this afternoon I was hoping to hear John Lansing to announce his intent to resign as the CEO of the BBG. So my question to you now is when or how soon do you expect that to happen? How soon will the nomination of Mr. Michael Pack to go through and how soon Amanda Bennett will follow suit? What’s the normal practice?
Look none of those questions are questions for me. Those are questions either for BBG or for the U.S. Senate. They have nothing to do with me. So…
Mr. Ambassador you also played a really important role in the State Department in strategic counter messaging. What’s your greatest challenge there? Was it different from what you’re facing now? And what was your greatest success that you can point to?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know what success I had. Look the greatest challenge was this was an operation that was set up with a kind of an ambitious agenda, which was kind of strangled at birth by the bureaucratic process. You- you basically had an organization, CSCC, that had a White House Executive Order creating it but we couldn’t force anyone to do anything. We couldn’t force other parts of government that produce stuff, that- that produced media, that- that had content. We couldn’t say look guys ‘don’t say this, say that’ or ‘let’s do this event’, that we didn’t have the power in government. When you’re in government, you know the greatest power you can have is the power to convoke, you know the power to order and CSEC had the power to… I forget what it was… ‘Orient and inform’. Orient! You know appoint someone east, right? Whereas I want to, I am telling you to do this. Fine, yes. Then they would ignore what we said and they would do whatever they wanted.
So- so that was my greatest frustration. The entity that was supposed to coordinate the U.S. government’s counterterrorism messaging response well you actually couldn’t because you know you didn’t have that power yes you could try to use suasion, right? Try to convince, try to cajole, to encourage and we did that and sometimes we succeeded. But I once described CSEC, my old office; I said it was part Ferrari and part donkey cart. What I meant is the things that we could do by ourselves we could do rapidly. The things that we had to do with another part of the government, say NSC or a bureau in the State Department or an embassy or DoD or CIA, depending on the willingness of that entity to work with us… Sometimes their willingness was there and sometimes the willingness was not. The Ferrari part was, for example, the work that I did there. We became notorious for our videos, which was only a small part of what we did. The reason we became notorious about that was that was something we could do. We didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission and even that backfired because we finally produced a video in English which got millions of views and it was in English and it really upset some people you know and was mocked on The Daily Show or something like that and that was really bad. So even a success became well we had a viral video… That was a bad thing. So it was, you know, I’m just glad that phase of my life is over and that others are running that shop now and it has different- different responsibilities now so.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I may, Alberto, some years ago I was speaking with one of the most senior distinguished journalists from Jordan and I said what do you think of Radio Sawa? And he said it’s fun but it’s irrelevant. Most of your remarks this evening have been on Al-Hurra. Can you tell us about what’s been going on with Sawa?
Well, that’s a complicated question. I- I won’t describe much. I won’t describe much about… It’s complicated because it’s tied up with funding and the decision-making process in OMB and in the government. But I can tell you the problem with Sawa because the problem with Sawa is very obvious. Sawa was in its day pioneering. It was revolutionary when it launched. It had a mixture of Arabic and American music and a little bit of news and that was like a breath of fresh air in 2002 and they never changed the format. They never evolved so they created- It’s like empty calories. You had a product which- which had an audience but it was irrelevant because it was it was based on a mistake. The mistake was thinking we’re gonna be having factual news because Al-Jazeera for example are liars, right? The Al-Jazeera is putting out fake news or false information but actually Al-Jazeera’s not putting out fake news or false information. They’re putting out their take of real information so for us to have like headlines, right? You have a lot of music and then 15 and 45 on the hour you have headlights. You know, everybody has that in the Arab world. So you- you- you develop a success. Sawa was a success which was in a way irrelevant because it lacked the kind of context of what does it, you know, these headlines what does that mean? You need to put that in some kind of context. You need to talk about, you know, kind of the- the- the context of the worldview around it. And it never evolved from 2002. They rested on their laurels and they had good numbers and they still have good numbers but as I said it’s kind of like empty calories. You have an audience that listens but it has I think the impact was not the impact that it could have had. I still- I still think that Sawa can be reinvented and can be made more relevant. I don’t know whether I’ll have that chance or not but we’ll see.
Yeah, Ambassador Fernandez, I congratulate on the improvement in Al Hurra. As an Iraqi I am speaking specifically the video clips, high quality videos that you are producing [unintelligible] points against Iran, spreading like fire in Iraq. And talking about social media – this is the best social media tool.
Also some out of the norm articles, the one about Jerusalem, Al Quds, is it Islamic? There’s a huge appetite in the Arab world now for out of the norm ideas like Sayyid Al-Qemany and others that you mentioned but one of the most important aspects of Al Hurra when it was inserted – I was here in Washington working with our friend, Bob – was Al Hurra Iraq. And I didn’t hear from you much about Al Hurra Iraq, which I think is a very important pillar and then you have a success, specifically Iraq is the only country that has an Iranian hegemony and ISIS and you have to work yourself in between these two. That’s my first question.
My second question is an idea and a question. Have you thought of having an hour in Kurdish for example? And an hour for Christians, minorities in the Middle East like up in [unintelligible] for example?
On Al Hurra Iraq, yes we have plans to make a lot of changes there. Al Hurra Iraq is a success story. Al Hurra Iraq is one of the top foreign stations in Iraq. It is the- Iraq is the place where we’re not irrelevant in Iraq. To this day Al Hurra, Al Hurra Iraq has a large audience in Iraq for a variety of historical reasons. But kind of like the Sawa thing, we’ve kind of rested on our laurels. We had kind of haven’t really invested. We have a very good program share through the years and we’ve kind of allowed it to slowly deteriorate. We still have very good numbers in Iraq but you have to be constantly doing all the things that we talked about, you know, being more edgy, more aggressive, more visually appealing, all of those things that we have to do. So Al Hurra Iraq is a success but it’s a success which needs TLC. It hasn’t gotten the TLC I think that it deserves. We’re going to give it that TLC. On- on Kurdish and Aramaic I would- I would love to have you know the Assyrian hour or something like that but our focus is Arabic. What we do try to do is kind of be connected with that is I do think that covering the voices just what as I covered as I mentioned the voices of liberals, freethinkers, secularists in the- in the Muslim world. We need to also cover voices of communities which are often underrepresented whether it be women, or whether it be religious minorities, whether it be all kinds of things. So, you know, and actually that’s part of the BBG mandate that we should be — in addition to presenting the voice of the United States, the United States government, and America, American society and culture as a whole — we’re also called to actually give voice to the voiceless in the region. And to me voice to the voiceless in the region means minorities, it means the oppressed, it means the marginalized, [it] means youth voices, it means people that are not marching with, you know, Al-Hat al-Sultawi you know the the line of the state and of the authority. We need to be aggressive in doing that. Doesn’t mean we’re anti… We’re not anti-Egypt government, we’re not anti-Jordan government, we’re not anti… well we are anti-government, some governments, we’re anti-Iran, we’re anti-Hezbollah, we’re anti-Hamas. We’re anti-Ikhwan. We’re anti-jihadism. We’re anti all those but the states which the United States has relations with, we’re not anti-them. But if- if somebody is- who is marginalized is thrown in prison in some country in the region, we should speak up for them. We should be bold about it. We should be aggressive about it. We should give those voices an opportunity to speak. We should give voices of who are you know native speakers of Kurdish or native speakers of Assyrian, also the voices to speak, and I think we’re doing that pretty well, actually. Thank you all very much.