Executive producer Fran Mires aims to show the Middle East the true face of America through a balanced approach to TV journalism.
By Jennifer J. Salopek
Events happen daily that affect our country’s relations with the Middle East. In early fall, much public discussion was waged over the planned construction of a mosque near Ground Zero and a fringe-church minister’s threats to burn the Koran in protest. But what do Middle Easterners here—and there—think? Do they believe all Americans are like Terry Jones? Do they fear us? Can they know us?
In a nondescript office park in Springfield, a part of the war on terror is being waged—a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the Middle East. That office park houses the Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN), a nonprofit corporation that is funded by the U.S. government. MBN is governed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an eight-member bipartisan group chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The BBG oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Liberty as well as MBN. The network is an umbrella for Radio Sawa and three Arabic-language TV channels, Alhurra, Alhurra-Iraq and Alhurra-Europe.
Alhurra was founded in 2004 to provide objective, accurate and relevant news and information to the people of the Middle East about the region, the world and the United States. It broadcasts to viewers in 21 countries including Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Libya, Mauritania, Qatar, Sudan and others; there are no commercials. Primarily news and information programming, Alhurra broadened its offerings with the March 2009 launch of “Al Youm,” a news magazine show. Arabic for “today,” “Al Youm” is the creation of executive producer and Northern Virginia resident Fran Mires, 52. She envisioned it as the Middle Eastern version of the United States’ “Today” or “Good Morning America.”
Upon its debut, the program made quite a splash. It is unique in several key ways: The program is broadcast live via satellite from five studios simultaneously—in Cairo, Beirut, Dubai, Jerusalem and Washington—for three hours a day, five days a week. Not simply a technological feat, the format permits “Al Youm” to take a truly pan-regional perspective. This was important to Mires as she was creating the program.
That task was monumental. Recruited to MBN by former associate and mentor Joaquin Blaya, who was a member of the BBG, Mires embraced the challenge to invent television programming like the Middle East had never seen—and to do it in record time. Observing her excitement at the news that “Al Youm” now has 20,000 Facebook fans, one would see how personal the job is to Mires—but not how difficult it is.
“When MBN approached me about creating a news magazine show, it was a seemingly impossible task,” Mires says. “The goals were too big, there wasn’t enough time, the infrastructure didn’t exist. We wanted to do it well right out of the gate; we knew we’d be copied. We needed a great team.”
MBN employs 450 people worldwide; 130 work on “Al Youm.” To get the new show off the ground, Mires recruited the best of the best. She traveled the world in 2008, logging hundreds of thousands of air miles as she tried to sell talented television professionals on the opportunity that “Al Youm” represents the chance to bring pure journalism—unbiased, frank perspective and analysis—to millions of people whose options previously had been quite few.
It was that opportunity that appealed to Driss Sekkat, 25, one of the show’s three senior producers who is originally from Casablanca, Morocco. When approached by Mires, Sekkat was working with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
“I was really attracted by the human interest angle proposed for ‘Al Youm.’ It would be less hard news than CNN,” he says. “What really struck me about Fran was that, even in the very early stages when we met, she was very honest and upfront about her hopes for the show.”
Mires raided the BBC in London for Editor-in-Chief Elamin Elfaki, 39, a native of Sudan. “I wanted to be a part of the experience of creating a challenging, different program that shows the real America,” he says.
Mires prefers a collaborative management style. She begins the broadcast day with a 7 a.m. staff meeting, followed by second staff meeting at 10 a.m.
Although petite, she dominates the room among her mostly male staff with her confidence and enthusiasm, waving her black-framed reading glasses for emphasis. “Al Youm” airs during prime time in the Middle East, about 7-10 p.m., which is midday on the East Coast, and does not air on Muslim Sabbath days. Therefore, the Springfield team works 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday through Thursday.
“I have never seen a show that is so technically challenging,” says Sekkat. “It was a puzzle to put together, and it is very hard to make it happen.” He and the other two senior producers manage teams that rotate responsibility for each day’s broadcast. Each team has one day on-air and two days off-air, another Mires innovation: “My experience has shown that it takes two to three days to get your arms around a topic and make magic. It’s not just about filling a schedule,” she says.
Mires’ colleagues emphasize her collaborative management style. She and Elfaki work especially close, frequently calling out or stepping between their adjacent offices to discuss stories and angles. Those angles—exactly how a story will be told—get to the heart of what “Al Youm” is all about.
“Our obligation is to cover stories, not to tell people that everything is hunky dory in the United States,” says Mires. “Our commitment is to provide a valuable product for the viewer.” She sees her mission as critical: “Negative channels like Al Jazeera feed the minds of innocent, uninformed people. My responsibility in three hours is to try to bring balance and perspective to the average viewer in the Middle East. You might just have murder and mayhem without it.”
Alhurra receives $113 million per year from the U.S. government. To launch “Al Youm,” the network not only recruited the best on-air and production talent, it built custom sets in its five bureaus and has recently invested in virtual-studio technology for the D.C. location. Mires says her budget is generous—but the average taxpayer might wonder whether this is a worthwhile use of his or her hard-earned money. Fair enough, says Brian Conniff, 60, president of MBN since 2006 and a former president of the BBG.
“Coverage was insular, and citizens knew little about their neighboring countries. We felt that the Arab media, most of which is controlled by governments or partisan groups, was not accurately reflecting news events, policy and life in the United States. We wanted to get an accurate American voice out,” he says.
Does government funding come with strings attached? Absolutely not, says Mires. “We’re used to dealing with those perception issues. People automatically assume that ‘government-funded’ equals ‘propaganda.’ Part of my role is to educate people about that, even my own staff. It’s been a huge education for me to learn how to manage those perceptions and questions.”
Mires, who began her career in Florida as a radio news director and moved up through the ranks at Fox, Telemundo and NBC, was the clear choice for the job. Her life and career reflect the American melting pot: Mires is of Greek-American heritage; her husband is half Haitian, half New Zealander. They have three children and housed their two Haitian nieces for months after the earthquake last spring. The family lives in Fairfax County, where the two younger children attend public schools; Mires volunteers weekly in her daughter’s Friday art class. “We think it’s very beautiful here, and love the great access to tourism and culture. The kids love it,” she says.
Family life is a balancing act, too. Mires’ husband, J.B. Diederich, 47, is a freelance producer and photojournalist who travels the world for his work; they share child-rearing and household tasks equally.
“I’m married to a dynamo,” he says. “Our children have learned to put up with our crazy life, and we have both become expert at helping with homework through Skype.”
Mires doesn’t speak Spanish but conceptualized and launched the first and most successful Spanish-language news magazine in America (“Ocurrio Asi,” which ran on Telemundo for 11 years). She also oversaw the launch of the Trinidadian government’s independent television station and has won four Emmy awards. Supervising a daily, three-hour broadcast in a language she does not speak is no problem for Mires, who fell for television at the age of 16.
“I went to visit a studio in San Francisco with a friend,” she vividly recalls. “By the countdown, I was hooked. The nerves, the lights, the views, the global nature of television—it’s gut-wrenching but also a big turn-on.”
Mires pushes the envelope with “Al Youm.” Hers was the first program to send a female reporter to broadcast live from the Hajj. After President Obama’s first speech to the Muslim world, “Al Youm” provided nonstop coverage, including reaction from the United States, the Middle East and Asia. The show did an exposé on the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, aired a three-part series on illegal organ trading in Egypt and covered the plight of Sudanese refugees living in Lebanon. In between such hard-hitting segments, which make up about 40 percent of content, the show includes stories on sports, culture, health and entertainment.
Inconsistent? Not at all, says Conniff. “Research showed news fatigue in the Middle East. We wanted to engage our viewers rather than [talk]at them. We cover a lot of topics and invite a lot of guests that other Middle East networks won’t, and seek credibility by showing both sides of every story.”
Now nearly two-years old, “Al Youm” runs smoothly. Market research shows that parent channel Alhurra has nearly 27 million viewers, still a small piece of the potential audience of 500 million but certainly enough viewers for rejoicing at MBN.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say: Since Alhurra began airing, France, England, Germany and China also have launched Arabic-language news channels. “The others are watching us,” says Conniff, “but the competition has improved the level of journalism across the board.”
At noon Eastern time on a Wednesday, Mires stands in the control room, watching as her competent staff counts down to the broadcast. She can understand almost nothing of what they say. Sekkat, today’s producer, talks via earpiece in Arabic to the onscreen talent, preparing them for their upcoming segments; the show is timed down to the second. The anchors in Beirut, Jerusalem, Cairo and Washington, as well as stand-up reporters at remote locations, are visible on multiple screens as the theme song plays and the anchor in Dubai opens the show.
Mires nods in satisfaction and steps out of the booth. She’ll be returning to her office where stacks and stacks of newspapers from around the world await; she combs through them daily while brainstorming story ideas for upcoming shows.
“It’s very enriching to be able to push the envelope while doing my job,” she says. “This show is the culmination of 22 years of experience.”