Wikileaks Cable: American TV Shows 'Agents of Influence' in Saudi Arabia

American pop culture counters extremism better than propaganda, cable reveals.

Dec. 8, 2010— -- American television shows broadcast across the Middle East are proving to be effective "agents of influence" in the ongoing battle over hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims pondering jihad against the United States, a confidential government cable published by Wikileaks reveals.

ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "World News with Diane Sawyer," as well as CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" and NBC's sitcom "Friends," all carry more sway with viewers than a U.S. taxpayer-funded Middle East broadcast network, an unnamed Saudi source told U.S. embassy officials last year.

"It's still all about the War of Ideas here, and the American programming on [privately-owned] MBC and Rotana is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that 'Al Hurra' and other U.S. propaganda never could," the source said.

"Saudis are now very interested in the outside world, and everybody wants to study in the U.S. if they can. They are fascinated by U.S. culture in a way they never were before."

The Saudi government, which exerts tight control over media in the country, has permitted the satellite broadcasts of American programming uncensored with Arabic subtitles over the privately-owned Middle East Broadcasting group (MBC) as a "means of countering the extremists."

View the full text of the State Department cable "Ideological and Ownership Trends in the Saudi Media" here.

"If the Saudis are saying that the popular culture helps young people like America, that it helps people like Americans, that it is a more powerful tool in public diplomacy than any of the stuff coming out of government – it's absolutely true," James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, told ABC News.

"Can we establish a one-to-one tie between that and the fact that somebody doesn't get recruited into extremism? I'm not sure if we can," he said. But "they look up to us as purveyors of a culture they want to associate with."

U.S. officials also wrote in the cable to Washington that some American movies, broadcast over Rotana's "Fox Movies" channel, were particularly influential with Saudi audiences.

They credited two, unnamed "mawkish U.S. dramas featuring respectful, supportive American husbands dealing with spouses suffering from addiction problems" with displaying "models of supportive behavior in relationships."

The film "Michael Clayton," starring George Clooney, was noted as resonating among Saudis for its "exemplary illustration of heroic honesty in the face of corruption." And the Robin Williams/Al Pacino film "Insomnia" was singled out for its presentation of "respect for the law over self-interest."

Cable Fodder for Al Hurra Critics

The testimony by Saudi officials adds to mounting evidence that Al Hurra, the 24-hour Arab language news channel created by the federal government in 2004, has largely been a failure.

"We spent money on a network to compete with our very best products, and that is our commercial television programs," said Zogby.

Taxpayers have invested more than $650 million on the project to date.

Al Hurra is "expensive, and with the exception of Iraq, little watched elsewhere in this vital region," reads a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on U.S. International Broadcasting prepared by Indiana Republican Richard Lugar in June.

The report notes that the network's annual budget of $90 million surpasses combined budgets of other, more influential, American propaganda broadcasting into Asia, Cuba and Iran.

"Given the crowded media environment of the Middle East, either greater resources must be devoted to marketing and promotion or additional programming changes must be enacted in pursuit of increasing the channel's market share," it reads. "Should these efforts fail to improve the overall viewership levels, policy makers will have to decide if continuing Alhurra's operations is worth the costs."

The network has also come under fire in recent years for accidentally broadcasting terrorist messages, including an hour-long tirade on the importance of anti-Jewish violence in 2006.

The station's gaffes have also included deferential coverage of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference, and a factually flawed piece on a splinter group of Orthodox Jews who oppose the state of Israel.

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