Joel Mowbray reports: Congress hits Al Hurra where it hurts

Joel Mowbray (jdmowbra@erols.com) follows up his series of reports on the government funded Al Hurra network with an update on yesterday’s congressional hearing. Joel previewed the hearing in Monday’s Wall Street Journal column “Register’s last hurrah?”. Today Joel reports:

Dealing a sharp blow to embattled Al Hurra news director Larry Register, a powerful Congressional panel yesterday expressed its dissatisfaction with the “new” Al Hurra in the strongest possible terms: It withheld millions in funding.
Al Hurra had asked for — with the strong support of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes — an additional $11.1 million in funding over fiscal year 2007 levels for new programming. The network didn’t get one dime of it.
By the time the appropriations process winds its way through Congress, the requested funding could be restored — but that most likely could happen only if Register is fired.
And if the stars align, Register could be gone within a week.
As recently as late last week, officials at Al Hurra and at the network’s oversight panel, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), were expressing confidence internally that they were going to receive a double-digit percentage increase in funding over the current fiscal year. Word around the BBG and Al-Hurra was that Foreign Operations Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) was in their camp.
Turns out she wasn’t.
Though it didn’t mention him by name, the Lowey-led subcommittee explained that Register’s determination to turn Al Hurra into a platform for Islamic terrorists and Holocaust deniers was the reason the network’s funding was being frozen:

“The Committee is deeply troubled by several programming decisions at Alhurra television during the period [of] Novemeber 2006 through March 2007. On more than one occasion, the network aired live, and without opposing comment, statements by Hezbollah and Hamas leaders that were hateful, anti-American, and anti-Israel. The Network’s coverage of the Holocaust Denial Conference also evidenced a lack of journalistic judgment and sensitivity. While just a portion of the overall broadcast program, these incidents call into question the management and overall journalistic philosophy of the Network’s leadership.”

And there was even more good news. Rep. Lowey’s subcommittee also “requested” substantive actions to fix Al Hurra and restore public confidence through dramatically increased transparency.
Spelling out very specific guidelines for the process, the subcommittee called for the State Department’s Inspector General’s office to conduct an “immediate” investigation into, among other things, “the editorial policy in place in 2006 and 2007 regarding broadcasts involving terrorists or those who support them.”
BBG members and the State Department had hoped to stave off an investigation with the announcement that Al Hurra would soon undergo a “review process.” But this “review process” is not even a pale imitation of an actual investigation.
What State and BBG have initiated is something that is done already for most U.S. taxpayer-funded international broadcasters on a regular basis, and it consists of a few professors spending a couple months reviewing DVDs provided them by the BBG or Al Hurra. Not only could this “review process” easily miss broadcasts such as the live coverage of Hamas’s 19th anniversary celebration, but it would not even begin to inspect the internal memos and e-mails that establish Register’s direct responsibility for most of the broadcasts that State and the BBG have labeled “mistakes.”
Perhaps the most important thing in the bill for the long-term health of the network is funding specifically designated for providing much-needed transparency. $4.3 million has been set aside to pay for live Internet streaming of Al Hurra, 60 days’ worth of online digital archives, and English transcripts of 20 hours worth randomly-selected original programming per week.
While not perfect — why only 60 days in the archive, and why just 20 hours of transcripts per week? — these transparency provisions make possible at least a fair degree of public oversight. Until now, almost no one inside the U.S. could watch Al Hurra, and taxpayers had no realistic way of knowing how their money was being spent. Had it not been for courageous whistleblowers inside Al Hurra, in fact, none of what we now know about Register’s actions might ever have come to the attention of Congress or taxpayers.
The brave actions of the whistleblowers might have been for nought, though, if not for the dogged determination of Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). With admirable tenacity, Rep. Rothman personally made the case to his colleagues on Foreign Operations that not only must Register be fired, but that a real investigation is needed and transparency must be implemented.
While Rep. Rothman may not yet have achieved his goal of firing Register, the signal sent by zeroing out the funds requested for new programming could force that result. If Register is fired quickly before too much time in the appropriations process has elapsed, Rep. Lowey and her colleagues might be able to “fix” the funding shortfall.
But if Hughes and the BBG drag their feet on firing Register, Al Hurra could be stuck with fiscal year 2008 funding substantially below what was expected.
Good news for the BBG is that they have a board meeting in Prague starting next Tuesday. At that meeting, board members could finally do what they’ve resisted doing ever since my first Wall Street Journal column on March 12 and fire Register.
Simple logic dictates that in order to show Congress it has taken the hint, the BBG will use its board meeting to fire Register.
Then again, if the board members were logical, they would have fired Register long ago.

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