BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was a constant presence on our TV screens, as the star of countless press briefings in the ramp-up to the war in Afghanistan. The Pentagon press corps appreciated his wry humor, his haiku-like obfuscations. He was considered a hot property by the public. He even had an online fan club. His image was burnished further as he led us by the hand through the invasion of Iraq, but the allegations of Iraqi prisoner abuse seemed to have changed all that for Rummy.
BOB GARFIELD:On Wednesday, in a stunning about face for an administration known for closing ranks, President Bush allowed his scolding of Donald Rumsfeld to be leaked to the press. The followed a deluge of calls from the media and the public for Rumsfeld to resign, from the Economist magazine, to the New York Times, to an outburst at a hearing on Friday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
DONALD RUMSFELD: I have a few additional words.
MAN: [SHOUTING] What about the other abuses in Iraq? What about [...?...]...
BOB GARFIELD: The heckler's calls were heard in the Arab world, as the hearing was broadcast live on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. As Rumsfeld faced a rising tide of anger at home, President Bush expressed his own outrage on Arab TV over the prisoner abuse, without actually taking responsibility for it.
GEORGE W. BUSH: It's also important for the people of Iraq to know that in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made.
BOB GARFIELD: Knight Ridder reporter Hannah Allam is in Baghdad, and she watched last Wednesday as the president went on Arab TV. Hannah, welcome back to the show.
HANNAH ALLAM: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: This week President Bush went on Al Arabiya and the U.S.-funded Al Hurra in an attempt at damage control over the pictures that have emerged from the Abu Ghraib Prison. First, what was the effect of those images among the Iraqi public, and then how did the president's interview play on the networks there?
HANNAH ALLAM: The photos were played pretty much ad nauseam on all Arabic language stations, and people were shocked, disgusted. They said things like "Is this democracy?" "Is this the fulfillment of promises from the Coalition?" It's the talk of coffee shops and definitely inside homes. The -- especially the homes of the families of detainees who for months now have been contacting attorneys and human rights groups about just this kind of alleged abuse. Certainly these allegations were familiar to them under the old regime, but I don't think they expected them from a coalition who was coming into Iraq as their liberator. I was watching newscasts Thursday, and the second wave of apparent prisoner abuse photos played very big on newscasts. You can see them every hour, along with the president's condemnation of the abuse at Abu Ghraib.
BOB GARFIELD: Is anyone saying "Well, good for you, Mr. President. That's exactly what we wanted to hear."
HANNAH ALLAM:No. I think the general feeling is that this condemnation, which really stopped short of an apology, was too little, too late. I don't know that there's anything that anyone from the U.S. administration could do right now to lessen the outrage Iraqis are expressing to me and other journalists.
BOB GARFIELD:What have you been seeing on Al Hurra or Al Iraqiya, the two U.S.-funded stations there? Has the United States had any success in getting out its own message?
HANNAH ALLAM: I really haven't watched Al Hurra or Iraqiya very much, simply because as a journalist I, I don't find it very useful. Most of the broadcasts are taken up with gardening shows, home improvement programs, and other light fare for the viewers. There are onl--something like, you know, 40 minutes of news allowed each day, and most Iraqis that I've interviewed have told me they turn to the pan-Arab stations, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, in particular, for news of what's really going on in Iraq.
BOB GARFIELD:While there are no Nielsen ratings in Iraq, no people meters, but a USA Today, CNN Gallup poll in late March, early April found that 74 percent of people in Iraq are watching Al Iraqiya and that the next-most watched channel was Al Arabiya with 28 percent and Al Jazeera with 27 percent. Do those numbers sound even remotely correct to you?
HANNAH ALLAM: Certainly people who can't afford satellite television who can receive Iraqiya will watch it, simply because it's on. I would definitely say that most people I've interviewed prefer what they consider the more independent pan-Arab stations.
BOB GARFIELD:There's clearly a lot of frustration on the part of the State Department and the Pentagon that these tools of free expression that, from their perspective, they brought to Iraq are being used in the PR war and in many ways the actual insurgency against U.S. troops -- this nightmare of intended PR consequences, after all, is a primary gift of democracy, no?
HANNAH ALLAM: That's right. And many Iraqis have said at least we can choose now what we want to watch. We can watch Al Hurra if we want; we can watch Arabiya; we can watch CNN. They're still thrilled over the fact that they can go out and buy a satellite, and Iraqis are definitely appreciative of this new technology that was banned under Saddam Hussein. At the same time they're not appreciative of the images they're seeing.
BOB GARFIELD: Hannah, thank you.
HANNAH ALLAM: Thanks very much. Take care.
BOB GARFIELD: Hannah Allam is the Baghdad bureau chief for the Knight Ridder newspapers.