BROOKE GLADSTONE: This month the Pentagon awarded a Florida-based communications equipment company, Harris Corp., 96 million dollars to run the much-criticized Iraqi Media Network. Harris Corp.'s partners on this enterprise will be two Arab media outlets -- Al Fouarez, a Kuwaiti company, and Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International, or LBCI. The LBCI is charged with bringing Iraqis' radio and TV stations up to speed, overseeing programming and training journalists. Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon joins me on the line now from Beirut. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL YOUNG: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So did it surprise you to learn that a Lebanese company, and particularly this company, would be America's choice to revamp Iraqi broadcast media?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well it didn't surprise me that a Lebanese company, especially LBCI, would be selected, because it has a great deal of experience in television, both in Lebanon and the region. What was maybe a bit more surprising was the fact that a Lebanese company would participate in what is effectively an Iraqi reconstruction project, and given the fact that Syria, which is basically the main power broker in Lebanon, is not really in tune, if you will, [LAUGHTER] with the, with Iraqi reconstruction, the fact that a Lebanese company should have been involved was a bit surprising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it's unusual in the region for a media company to run against the political wind?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, I, I think that we shouldn't over-state the fact that yes, of course the political systems in the region are usually fairly restrictive, but the Middle East media market is a very interesting exception to this. In other words, what you have is a situation where essentially market forces have kicked in -- to a certain extent opened up the media market. I mean Al Jazeera, for example, everyone knows about Al Jazeera, but Al Jazeera is not alone. I mean you have stations like Al Arabiya. You have even Abu Dhabi Television. The LBCI. These are all stations which in some way have challenged the, the frozen media of the past, and part of the reason for that is that you have competition. It's a competitive media market, and frankly the, the Arab publics are not interested in seeing "official" stations which basically tell them nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Given your experience in the region and the long time you've watched the evolution of media there, do you think that LBCI was a good choice by the Americans to start revamping Iraqi broadcast media?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, I think that certainly in terms of professionalism, it was a good choice. It's a station that has experience both in entertainment and news. This is something that you don't see with some of its competitors, for example, Al Jazeera is known more as a news channel. When it comes to entertainment, well it's pretty dreadful. That's of course going to be very important. I think that the anchor persons are very professional on LBCI, and my understanding is that professionalism is what the station will be essentially trying to train the Iraqis in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Who owns the Lebanese Broadcast Company? Who determines what's on it? Aren't most of the media in Lebanon owned or at least backed by politicians?
MICHAEL YOUNG: Yes, that's right. I mean LBCI - I don't have before me the breakdown of shares, but certainly it is owned by some politicians. As to your wider question, yes, indeed, the Lebanese media is owned and backed by politicians. But what you have is a curious situation of a cert-- it's a balance of power. In other words, different influential politicians have stakes in different media, so that you always have a certain amount of competition between these - a certain amount of rivalry, which is actually very interesting from a media perspective. Because it, it means you get more information out. Now obviously Syria has a say in what many stations put on the air in terms of political programming. But there is a paradox here. To a certain extent it's almost a benign control. In other words you often find on Lebanese television people you would never expect to be invited on an Arabic television show, including neo-conservatives from the United States. So it's a mixed bag.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let's move this, then, to Iraq. It seems to me that LBCI has a hard row to hoe, because the Iraqi Media Network, the original American effort there to rebuild Saddam's media, was met with a great deal of disdain. I wonder whether they can get past the coalition's pre-disposition to good news and selective news and actually give the Iraqi people what they want.
MICHAEL YOUNG: I think that the bottom line is you want people to watch this media, and they do have a choice. That's what's interesting today, is you turn on your television set, you don't have to watch the official media in any country, and even in Iraq, despite the difficulties, people do have satellite linkups. So I do think that, you know, you cannot play this game the way you could thirty years ago. If they don't appeal to the Iraqi public, well then people will watch other television stations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.
MICHAEL YOUNG: Not at all. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon. [MUSIC]