Tomlinson Defends Alhurra TV

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Ken Tomlinson, who resigned from the CPB Board last week in the wake of a CPB Inspector General's report on his relationship with the board, was on Capitol Hill Thursday in his capacity as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of governors, explaining the IG investigation launched into Alhurra Television and a complementary radio operation that are the voices of American in  the Middle East.

BBG oversees all nonmilitary government broadcasting abroad, including Voice of America and the U.S.'s new Middle East broadcasting initiatives.

Some of the issues raised included Alhurra single-source contracting, its outsourcing to Associated Press Television News, and, according to Rohrbacher, whether "its policy of discouraging reporters from rushing to cover breaking news leaves the likes of AL-Jazeera to be the primary source of time-sensitive information."

Tomlinson suggested that BBG had been concentrating on getting the operation up "from scratch," and that now it had asked the State Department Inspector General to "examine all the contracts in question and all procurement procedures."

"Neither taxpayers interests nor good government practices should be left out of Alhurra's success story," he said. "We rushed to get on the air," he said, "now we will have to manage and maintain the program in the most cost-efficient and transparent way possible. covering the news in a time of war is hardly an exact science."

Tomlinson was praised by Committee Chairman Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif.) as a person with "high levels of integrity, honesty and professionalism." Rohrbacher also referenced his troubles at CPB."His belief in balanced and honest programming has brought him into conflict with some people in this town who see public broadcasting as their own domain and not the domain of the American taxpayers who want more of a balanced approach to some of these broadcasting efforts."

Rohrbacher said the intention of the hearing was to look at some things that could be done better, not to weaken the operation. POinting out that he is a former journalist, he said that "sometimes, confronting shortcomings can actually strengthen things in the long run." 

Tomlinson agreed, but also defended his operation, saying that Alhurra had been on the air a year and a half and had never had to retract a story, "a record shared by very few journalistic enterprises in the world."

Tomlinson said he would accept State Department scrutiny of audience reach, given some questions about whether the government was getting a return on its investment in terms of audience. But he pointed out that Nielsen had done an audience study. "You can't get any sounder," said Tomlinson.

As to outsourcing to APTV, Moufac Harb, news director of Alhurra Television Network, said that "there is no television channel" that can operate without having a contract with a local partner like APTN. As to it being a single-source contract, Harb suggested that APTN was the only source of the specific service it needed.

"APTN has a unique service, MES, or Middle East Service, whereby they have an established presence in every single Arab Capital. That allowed us to do programming from day one in every Arab Capital. I don't think there is any other service in the Middle East, or around the world, that provides that."

"We have full control of APTN content on Alhurra," said Harb. As to not rushing to breaking news, he says that they use APTN in places where they cannot invest in the technical facilities due to security and budget issues.

Of a criticism that the channel was heavily staffed by Lebanese journalists, Harb pointed out that initially they had only six months to recruit Arab-speaking journalists, and had to do it immediately after 9/11, when it was tough to get such journalists clearances and relocated, if necessary. A Lebanon TV channel was shut down by the Syrian occupation, he said, so they cherry-picked those people initially, but Harb said that since, then the operation has broadened its base.

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